The Great Secret of the Fool

That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.”

This was said by the American literary critic and writer Isaac Asimov who I think sums up the whole point of this post before I’ve even started writing it.

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Fools and clowns have always been stock characters in plays, starting right back with the ancient Greeks and Romans who are the fore-fathers of traditional theatre. Back then they were used exclusively as a way of relieving tension through comic effect and being a character that the audience could relate to.

But it is Shakespeare who is often cited to have updated the role of the fool.

He did use fools and clowns as characters who would provide comic relief during times of tragedy and tension.
For example: Puck in Midsummers Night’s Dream cuts through the heavy lovers’ relationships with his magical, comical nonsense:

I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly-foal;
And sometimes lurk I in a gossip’s bowl”

And the fools have often been thought the ones to have appealed most to an audience. Particularly in the past when many of the plays were based on kings or gods which weren’t very accessible for an Elizabethan crowd.

Height of fashion.

But as the fool Feste says in Twelfth Night: “Better to be a witty fool than a foolish wit” and with these stock characters, Shakespeare stuck by this aphorism.

Besides comedy, Shakespeare also made the fools convey the greater, deeper meanings of his plays. This might seem contradictory as a fool is often considered a light-hearted, simple character not a subtle, insightful communicator but this, particularly after his early work, was the case.

Touchstone sums up the play’s theme of love in short aphorisms for example in As You Like It:

“When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s
good wit seconded with the forward child understanding, it
strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.” 

An example like this one evidences how the fools became more than just comics in Shakespearean plays and they were given a deeper character with more meaning. Touchstone falls in love with the country girl Audrey and longs for someone to understand him, a sentiment that is relatable and perhaps surprising looking at fools from a traditional perspective.

It can also be said that Shakespeare used fools as a way of characterising other characters in his plays.
Yes, he used characters to characterise other characters.
Character-ception no less.

The fools and clowns were sometimes used to highlight the others’ true qualities in a play as they were often in the unique position of being of the lowest social standing and yet mixing with some of the highest classes.

The Fool in King Lear shows the relationship between master and subject. Lear is made out to be a tyrant who has neglected his family and kingdom and yet when out in a storm with The Fool he says:

“Prithee go in thyself, seek thine own ease”

This suggests that, although he is made out to be bad earlier in the play, in reality he is really a good, kind man as King Lear treats The Fool with a certain amount of respect. This inkling that Lear is really good after all is only presented to us because of the presence of The Fool in his unique position.

The Fool in King Lear, in my opinion, epitomises the concept of the Shakespearean fool as he is serious and comic; insightful and confusing but also relatable too.  He is a professional jester employed by Lear and his professionalism extends to how developed his character is.

After Shakespeare, fools were seen more and more as devices in theatre rather than just characters. The Bard gave new meaning to their comic roles and Shakespearean-like fools can still be seen today in entertainment.

This is a great article for comparing modern comics with Shakespearean ones and definitely worth a read if you’re interested:

“All men are fools and what makes them so is wanting beauty like what I have got”
Morecambe and Wise’s ‘version’ of Antony and Cleopatra


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