William Shakespeare Essay - Shakespeare's Clowns and Fools

Shakespeare's Clowns and Fools


Shakespeare's Clowns and Fools

Appearing in most of Shakespeare's dramas, the clown or fool figure remains one of the most intriguing stage characters in the Shakespearean oeuvre and has frequently captured the interest of contemporary critics and modern audiences. Taking many forms, Shakespearean fools may be generally divided into two categories: the clown, a general term that was originally intended to designate a rustic or otherwise uneducated individual whose dramatic purpose was to evoke laughter with his ignorance; and the courtly fool or jester, in whom wit and pointed satire accompany low comedy.

The dramatic sources of Shakespeare's simple-minded clowns are at least as old as classical antiquity. In the plays themselves, such figures as Bottom of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Dogberry of Much Ado About Nothing are typically classified as clowns, their principal function being to arouse the mirth of audiences. The history of the courtly fool or jester in England is somewhat briefer, with these fools making early appearances in the courts of medieval aristocracy during the twelfth century. By the time of Queen Elizabeth's reign, courtly fools were a common feature of English society, and were seen as one of two types: natural or artificial. The former could include misshapen or mentally-deficient individuals, or those afflicted with dwarfism. Such fools were often considered pets—though generally dearly loved by their masters—and appear infrequently in Shakespeare's writing. The artificial fool, in contrast, was possessed of a verbal wit and talent for intellectual repartee. Into this category critics place Shakespeare's intellectual or "wise-fools," notably Touchstone of As You Like It, Feste of Twelfth Night, and King Lear's unnamed Fool.

Critical analysis of Shakespearean clowns and fools has largely explored the thematic function of these peculiar individuals. Many commentators have observed the satirical potential of the fool. Considered an outcast to a degree, the fool was frequently given reign to comment on society and the actions of his social betters; thus, some Shakespearean fools demonstrate a subversive potential. They may present a radically different worldview than those held by the majority of a play's characters, as critic Roger Ellis (1968) has observed. Likewise, such figures can be construed as disrupting the traditional order of society and the meaning of conventional language, as Roberta Mullini (1985) has argued. As for so-called clowns—including the simple "mechanicals" of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Trinculo of The Tempest, and Launcelot Gobbo of The Merchant of Venice—most are thought to parody the actions of other characters in the main plots of their respective plays and to provide low humor for the entertainment of groundlings. Several critics, however, have acknowledged the deeper, thematic functions of Shakespeare's clowns, some of whom are said to possess a degree of wisdom within their apparent ignorance.

Other topics of critical inquiry concerning fools are varied. Several scholars have studied the significance of certain Elizabethan actors who were thought to have initially enacted the roles Shakespeare wrote. Preeminent among these is the comedic actor Robert Armin, for whom several critics have suggested Shakespeare created the witty, even philosophical, fool roles of Feste, Touchstone, and Lear's Fool. Still other critics have focused on Shakespeare's less easily categorized clowns. Walter Kaiser (1963) has examined Falstaff's multifaceted function in the Henriad, which he has argued bears similarities to those of Shakespeare's other "wise fools." William Willeford (1969) has focused on the darker side of folly by exploring the title character of Hamlet as a unique form of the Shakespearean fool. Additionally, Catherine I. Cox (1992) has investigated Shakespeare's characteristic blending of comedy and tragedy through the use of clowns and other purveyors of laughter in his tragic plays.


Roger Ellis (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "The Fool in Shakespeare: A Study in Alienation," in The Critical Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3, Autumn, 1968, pp. 245-268.

[In the following essay, Ellis discusses Shakespeare's fools as figures who represent worldviews fundamentally different from those of the majority of society.]


Of all the characters in literature, hardly any has a longer life, runs truer to type, and is of more lasting significance, than the fool. As ancient as Pandarus, he is yet as modern as the tramps in Waiting for Godot. In him society's anxieties about itself find an outlet; yet the laughter which he arouses is at the same time a profound criticism of the forces which have made him what he is. The counterpart in his exaggerated non-involvement of the society of which he is a part, he is yet in his profound self-awareness and in his pity for those who suffer, its one hope of salvation.

Of course, most of the time we do not see him in this way. For us, he is a man slipping on the beliefs of society, one always at odds with the standards it maintains: a man, as it seems, imprisoned in a world of fantasy, and whose sole function is to excite the laughter that assures us of the solidity of our beliefs. So we laugh at Chaplin's agonized incomprehension of a world of umbrellas, hats and lamp-posts that never seem to give us any trouble; we roar at Buster Keaton's unawareness of the logic of existence, from which only benevolent nature rescues him. The fool is often presented to us in this way, as an object merely for scorn or amusement. Consider the fools in Restoration drama, for instance: fops wishing to affect the graces they do not possess, country bumpkins who want to ape the manners of civilized London—these serve only to assure us that society is, after all, in the right.

But this way of presenting the fool depends on the writer's having a fixed view about the nature of the world he is representing. At its simplest, as in the case of Restoration drama, it depends on his having taken on uncritically all the prejudices of his audience. The key to this presentation is that the fool is being studied from the outside. No attempt is made to see why he is a fool, or what it means to him to be a fool, and why he is the fool, rather than the characters who represent a different world-view. But literature which, like Restoration drama, is the embodiment only of the one world-view seems not to represent adequately the fullness of existence for which men long. It is of the essence that there will be many world-views, and literature which does not attempt to represent the totality of existence, but expounds the ethic only of a particular group, runs the risk of ceasing to be literature and becoming something else.

Shakespeare, at least, is not one to neglect the world in order to put forward a certain view. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, he has Duke Theseus say:

. . . I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact . . .

(Act V, Sc. i, 11. 2-8)

This speech is an airy dismissal of the whole fantastic action we have been witnessing—the fond illusions of love which drive people out of their minds. And, no doubt, it is fitting for a man in whom all opposites have harmonised to dismiss with such a wave of the hand all the imperfections of mankind. I am not sure, however, that Shakespeare adopts the same attitude. Perfection is no doubt an admirable thing, but not every man can hope to reach it, and Shakespeare will not risk the narrowness that would follow too rigorous and exclusive a definition of virtue.

But there is a more important point to be drawn from Theseus' speech. Theseus is making an after-dinner joke about the way all imperfections are related, as springing from an incomplete way of viewing the world and as expressed in actions that are consequently rather silly. But Shakespeare, I think, sees another connection between 'the lunatic, the lover and the poet'. In a world where opposites have not harmonised, the poet is like 'the lunatic [and] the lover' because, like them, he is different from the majority of people. He is a trail-blazer, committed to probing the totality of existence, and unwilling to reject any of the views, however bizarre, that are a part of it. If we may borrow Laing's phrase, he interiorizes human existence.1 Where Theseus can consider a whole race of men from the outside, secure in the knowledge of his own perfection, the writer will present all existence from the inside.

In this important respect he is like the fool, for the fool understands his own existence from the inside, as most other characters do not. Set in a world where he is early made aware that he is different and somehow unacceptable to the majority, he is forced to examine himself and the bases of his behaviour. This self-examination is foreign to the others, who have never needed to assess their own existence in this way, and for whom the source of behaviour is found in beliefs outside them and half-felt assumptions shared with everyone else. Consequently, they react to a person who acts on assumptions other than theirs, rooted in the logic of his own being, by dismissing him contemptuously as a fool—treating him as an outsider, and denying him all personality. This is how Goneril treats the fool in King Lear; it is what happens time and again to the tramps and beggars who erupt into the world of modern drama and who are the fool's spiritual descendants—for instance, the tramp in David Rudkin's Afore Night Come. But the fool is aware, as those who judge him are not, that their reaction, far from demonstrating Tightness or wrongness, merely shows that they have never examined their own existence, and have no way of interpreting difference except by labelling it folly. They can hardly respond to another person when they have never taken themselves seriously.

Like the writer, then, the fool is aware of the complexities of social living in a way that most people are not. But there is a vital difference between him and the writer. The writer chooses to present sides of a problem; he creates this complexity, and is thus, however involved he may be in the viewpoints expressed, distant from the conflict, secure in the lordship of creation. The fool, on stage and in real life, lacks this security. He is in the thick of things. He is forced to a recognition of the double standard, his own and the world's, and to the knowledge that where he sees himself as a self, the rest of the world will mark his caperings solely as an excuse for laughter. This becomes his greatest agony. It reflects in his failure to act. As a man, he must act meaningfully in order to build community; as the outsider, he is deprived of the possibility of ever doing so, because he has no one with whom to share the vision which, expressed in action, has as its end the making of community. To remain where he is is to be cut off from community; but the price of his integration into that community is the abandonment of all that he knows, all that makes him a self. The dotty old woman in The Whisperers, for example, is integrated, willy-nilly, into society. But this means the exposing of her 'voices', the only thing she has, as a fantasy, as nothing at all. Like the character of the parable, she is worse off in the end than she was before. So, whichever way he turns, the fool is caught. This agony of indecision is the special mark of Beckett's characters. For them, 'the dreadful has already happened'; the world has passed them by, bound for destruction, and damnation is all about them. They cannot return to a world which they desperately need. And so they remain, waiting, standing at doors, unable to move out into the world. It is the same for Pinter's tramp in The Caretaker. Placed in a mad world, he cannot ever become a person without the papers that give him his identity. But they are at Sidcup, and we know he will never get them. The agony is the greater because the fool sees that the labels society has pinned upon him fit just as well upon society itself, and that it is all merely a matter of perspective. 'Handy-dandy', cries the mad Lear, 'which is the justice, which is the thief?' Where does real madness lie—in the 'voices', or in the sterile cleanliness of a friendless observation ward? In a world where real living is not understood save by a minority, the real agony for the fool is to see that the rest of the world is mad. As Vendice observes in The Revenger's Tragedy:

Surely we're all mad people, and they
Whom we think mad, are not; we mistake those;
'Tis we are mad in sense, they but in clothes.

(Act III, Sc. v, 11. 79-81)

In art the finest expression of this agonizing dilemma is surely the work of Rouault. The clowns and prostitutes whom he so often makes his subjects embody a consciousness of life at odds with the rest of society: a world blindly self-seeking and hypocritical, summed up in the cruel judges and the helmeted soldier of the Miserere etchings. Fixed forever on the point of the world's rejection, they betray no individuality whatever. Even when they band together in community, as in La Petite Famille, they never seem to smile, as if they are only too well aware of the temporary nature of their refuge and the abiding reality of their rejection.

The isolation of the Rouault clown or the Beckett tramp, and his consequent failure to act, is in real life an impossible situation. There is only one way to escape from it. That is for the fool to cover his tracks and to pretend that he does not care. He covers his tracks by laughing at himself, by mocking the self-knowledge which is the reason of his existence, and by inviting our laughter along with his own. He has no other course of action open to him, for to see society committed to standards opposed to his own, and to fell his own powerlessness to change things, or to ever make people see him as a person, is for him to be given over to the despair that drives people mad. He must therefore take on the mask of folly, deny his individuality, and parade his logicality as the illogicality the rest of us reckon it to be. That is, he pretends to be uncommitted. For this reason we welcome him among us, and tolerate the sharp satire which he uses to relieve his feelings because we know he can do nothing about us. But this is merely a temporary refuge for him. His agony is still with him, for he knows that at any moment we may reject him if he comes too close to the truth or if he bores us; and he knows that he has sold himself and accomplished nothing. He has bought himself time, and that is all.

Other people also behave in this way. The cynic, for example, is a person who reacts to the misery of the world by retreating from it. Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov is just such a person. There is no doubt how strongly he feels about the inhumanity of the so-called enlightenment. As an illustration of the way in which enlightened man has failed to treat his neighbour any better than his 'backward Russian brother' does, he tells the story of a young man brought up like a beast and neglected by society until he has committed murder and is condemned to death. Then people come to visit him; but not with expressions of sympathy. No, their purpose is to convince him that the sole responsibility for his actions lies with himself, and that the society which tolerated the abomination in the first place is clear of any guilt. Man's complete indifference to the outsider, except as an object to be cajoled into subscribing to his own ideals, and his readiness to sacrifice the outsider to them rather than seriously examine them, strikes Ivan as loathsome Pharisaism. But, as he recognises, 'That's characteristic'. There seems to be nothing he can do. And so he retreats into a pose of non-involvement, assuming the detachment of a scholar reporting on insignificant facts in an abstruse journal. His cynicism, then, is merely a front for a deep despair. This means that he is where he was, powerless, able only to jest with the sufferings of the world. His only relief is to show it, beneath a cloak which it cannot penetrate, what it is really like. He is baying at the moon.

What if the fool lacks self-awareness, like the hero of Ivan's story? He will not suffer the agonies I have described, for he will never see how his existence is thwarted and his aims frustrated by the rest of the world. Yet, even so, his existence will have a kind of sadness about it—the sadness of a thwarted child—for he will almost certainly react subconsciously to the hostility of the world by the assumption of one rôle or another. The recent performance of Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream by Mr. Jim Dale is a good case in point. Where I have been tempted to see in Bottom the eternal extrovert, as much at home in the world of the fairies as in the court of Theseus, the sensitive performance of Mr. Dale was a reminder that Bottom is at home everywhere merely because he is at home nowhere; that he is not so much actor as acted upon; and that extroversion is usually a mask for a deep insecurity. Marcel Marceau's great comic creation, Bip, is another example of this kind of fool. Raised for our laughter, he yet points to a malaise in society which prompts a man to retreat from authentic communication into a world of fantasy, and his humour, like Bottom's, is not without a deep sadness.

The fool then is a person committed to a world-view at odds with that of society and powerless to effect acceptance by others of it. In the face of this powerlessness, he will, deliberately or subconsciously, assume the mask of folly in order to protect himself from the world. However it goes with him, he cannot be involved overtly, for that is to lay himself open to the rejection of the world. Nor can he act: he can only be acted upon.

The 'natural fool of fortune' and the cynic are, I suggest, two expressions of the fool distinguished only by the greater degree of awareness possessed by the latter. There is a third kind of fool which it may be worth mentioning here, as representing a yet greater degree of self-awareness still, though we shall not be studying its occurrence in Shakespeare's plays. I mean, of course, the lunatic. As Laing points out,2 the lunatic is a man whom the sense of the impossible demands of the world, and of the equal impossibility of ever realising his own aims, has drawn into himself in a state of permanent inaction. For him, the world is as frighteningly topsy-turvey as it is for the fool:

Through tatter'd rags small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pygmy's straw doth pierce it.

(King Lear, Act IV, Sc. vi, 11. 166-9)

But now he lacks all ability to come to terms with it. He sees the world destroying his ideals, and he hunches up into himself in terror. There is only this difference between him and the fool: the fool has bought time. Time has stopped for the madman.


This account of the fool is surely unexceptionable. We can use it, for example, to account for the source of that ambivalent tone, something between comedy and tragedy but never siding with either, that is the mark of so much modern drama, and especially the plays of Beckett. It is not so easy, however, to apply it to the fools in Shakespeare's plays. This is because, if we are to share the fool's existence from the inside, we must have some expression of his troubled self-awareness; and we cannot expect this in any play where the fool is placed in a social context as accessory to the actions of other people, for this would inhibit his self-expression and, by confining him to the poses which he has to make in order to protect himself, prevent us from ever seeing him as he really is. If the fool is to be at all central, action has to be done away with, and a firm social context cannot be stated, but must be merely inferred, to be the source of this conflict within him. This is why society never appears in the Beckett world, and why in Tom Stoppard's recent play almost the whole action of Shakespeare's Hamlet is represented off stage. Only when the world of action, the world of other men, is somewhere else, can Rosencrantz and Guildernstern show us the real agonies of the fool. In the plays of Shakespeare, however, where the action of protagonists who exist in a firmly detailed social structure is of primary importance, no such opportunity is given to the fool to reveal himself, except in Hamlet. (It is fair to point out that Mr. Stoppard is only doing for Rosencrantz and Guildernstern what Shakespeare himself did for Hamlet). Consequently, we can only interpret the significance of the fool through the understanding other characters have of him. But they will be able to see only that 'this is not altogether fool'; that the fool

uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and under the
presentation of that he shoots his wit

(As You Like It, Act V, Sc. iv, 11. 103-4)

The secret agonies of the fool can thus only be brought to light by inference, or by a sensitive performance. But I do not see this as a bad thing, because I believe that, if we are not to rob literature of its power, we must allow it something of the range and implication we would allow to people in real life. We do not deal simply in words, but in a whole complex of nuances and half-guessed meanings.


Shakespeare's world is thronged with fools and madmen, and often a single play will treat of several levels of madness. The folly of Hamlet, the madness of Ophelia, the professional Yorick; the natural Touchstone, the melancholic Jaques; the mad Lear, the professional fool, the masquerading Bedlam; these, to choose a few only, present various aspects of the outsider's awareness of himself and a world at odds with him. With Shakespeare's fools we are at once in a world where moral certainties are being questioned: where the questioner proves fool by his question, and the fool proves a wise man by his answer: and where the insane alone seem to understand what the real world is like. In the early plays this uncertainty is used to express a comic rather than a tragic vision. Shakespeare came to the mature comedies with a deep conviction that man, for all his folly, was redeemable, and that sin was not so much destructive as laughable in its presumption. Consequently, the fool's part is not so important. He is permitted to reveal inconsistencies in human behaviour, especially the follies that men commit in love ('wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint their wit') but he does not directly challenge the bases of social living.

Folly is, however, symptomatic of something deeper than itself, and it is clear even in the mature comedies that the corrupt world, as represented by Shylock or the usurping Duke Frederic, can only be done away with in the magic forests or by the perpetration on it of some holy deceit. In the event, Shakespeare does not turn again to the magic forest, after the mature comedies, until he has probed more deeply the implications of the fool's behaviour, and seen that the good, far from being the victors, are really fatally vulnerable; that, in a world given up to selfishness, they are the real outsiders: and that it is not sin, but goodness, that is the great folly. This is the world of the problem plays and the tragedies, where the implications of the earlier comic vision: 'Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly' are made terrifyingly manifest. And it is here, especially in King Lear, that the fool comes into his own as the agonized expositor of a disordered conscience, the figure who sees truly what the world is like and feels his powerlessness to change it.

But we begin a long time before that—before even the world of the mature comedies. We begin with a small boy who is servant to a foolish knight, the braggadochio Armado:

Armado: I am all these three [three faces of love]

Moth: And three times as much more, and yet nothing at all.

Armado: Fetch hither the swain: he must carry a letter.

Moth: A message well sympathised: a horse to be an ambassador for an ass.

Armado: Ha ha! What sayest thou?

Moth: Marry, sir, you must send the ass upon the horse, for he is very slow-gaited.

(Love's Labours Lost, Act III, Sc. i, 11. 45-54)

Moth in Love's Labours Lost is not a true Shakespearean fool. But he has much in common with them. Like the fool in King Lear, he is yoked to a blind and partial authority, and is quite as likely to receive punishment as praise if he put a foot wrong. Like the fool, too, he knows very well what a fool his master is. But, as his servant, he can do nothing to make him aware of this, for he cannot confront him with his true self. He is therefore reduced to asides which Armado will not understand; and if he should happen to be caught out, he must instantly change the meaning so as to protect himself. Moth, then, is playing a part, pretending to be uninvolved, and taking upon himself, in order to protect himself, the guise of folly that he is ridiculing in his master. But this guise is no solution to the problem, for it merely encourages Armado and the others in their attitude towards him. When, for example, Holofernes is bested by Moth in quipping, he can still retort: 'thou disputest like an infant; go, whip thy gig'. It is a vicious circle. Moth reacts to people viewing him from the outside, as it were, as a 'pretty infant'; but the rôle that is forced upon him involves a perpetuation of this attitude, which means that his position is insecure, and that he can do nothing to expose the world to itself. This does not mean for a moment that he has the wider significance of Shakespeare's fools; it means merely that he is placed in the same position as they are, and like them must have recourse to trickery—especially verbal trickery—to conceal his tracks.

Likewise, the 'natural fools' of Shakespearean comedy—Launce and Speed, Lancelot Gobbo, Dogberry and Verges, Justice Shallow—do not have the wider implications of the fool. They are fools raised for laughter, not for any significance they may have as commentators on the action. They stumble across words, and break their shins on the conventions of the world, but without that sense of the world's hostility towards them that marks out the fool. They are so completely lacking in self-awareness that they do not even hear the laughter of the other characters. Yet we can see in them links at a number of points with the true Shakespearean fool. Consider, for instance, Launce and his dog in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. This dog is a perpetual cross to him. He has been obliged to suffer time and again for its misbehaviour in the hope that it will mend its ways. But, of course, it does not. Launce's folly is that, just as Moth expects Armado to be more than Armado, he expects his dog to be more than a dog. On his departure for Milan, he tells us, 'this cruel-hearted cur shed (not) one tear: he is a stone, a very pebble-stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog'. What does he expect? Relationship of the kind he looks for is clearly not to be found with a dog. Shakespeare is here presenting the fool from the outside, since Launce's position is absurd and foolish. But he does have other characteristics in common with the fools of the later plays. Like them, he has a vision simple almost to the point of fixation. He is like a child in the way he can become so absorbed in turning the grief of parting into a game that he hardly has any room for grief. Lancelot Gobbo similarly plays games both with himself and his father in The Merchant of Venice, and he reacts to the threats of Shylock in the same way as, earlier, Moth had done to Armado. But this is because, like Launce, he is a child.

The naturals are also children in their incomprehension of the complexities of language. They do not use the right words; or if they have the right words, they lack the ability to string them together into meaningful sentences. Poor Peter Quince's stuttering version of the prologue to the mechanicals' entertainment earns this rejoinder:

Indeed, he hath played on his prologue like a
child on a recorder: a sound, but not in government.
His speech was like a tangled chain, nothing
impaired, but all disordered.

(Act V, Sc. i, 11. 122-5)

and it is not untypical of the reaction which the mechanicals provoke among the gentry. The court of Theseus, Leonato, the court of the Duke of Navarre—the sophisticated world brushes them contemptuously aside and views them only as subjects for laughter, as blocks, as children. The fool similarly uses language to confuse his hearers, deliberately masking the apparent connections in order to achieve startling results:

A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit:
how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!

(Twelfth Night, Act III, Sc. i, 11. 11-13)

Unlike the fools, however, these naturals are without agony, because they are without self-awareness. Their childlike absorption in their own world-view is total. This is why Costard's impersonation of Pompey at the end of Love's Labours Lost is a success, whereas Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel, characters whose social sense is more developed, are terribly put out by the mockery of the court. Because he is not aware of the court's attitude, Costard can respond to their ironical 'Great thanks, great Pompey', with the modest

'Tis not so much: but I hope I was perfect:
I made a little fault in the 'great'

(Act V, Sc. ii, 11. 553-5)

Characters somewhat like them, but with considerably more self-awareness, are Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Gratiano reacts to Antonio's heavy cheer in the opening scene with the words:

Let me play the Fool:
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come . . .
Why should a man, whose blood is warm within
Sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster?

(Act I, Sc. i, 11. 79-80, 83-4)

—which earn him Bassanio's tart: 'Gradano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice'. But if, as Antonio has said, the world is a stage where people must play a part (and this is an important image for our understanding of the fool) why should Gratiano not play the part of the fool? Like the naturals, he seems to the others to be talking a great deal of nonsense. For him, however, it is merely a pose, and he knows it. Mercutio similarly talks a great deal, and is rebuked by Romeo for wasting their time: 'Peace, peace, Mercutio peace! Thou talkst of nothing'. The nothing is Mercutio's Queen Mab speech, and it is a great deal of nothing, as Mercutio himself recognises:

True, I talk of dreams
Which are the children of an idle brain
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy

(Act I, Sc. v, 11. 96-8)

Mercutio's attitude to dreams and to fantasy is much the same as Theseus': like Theseus, he takes his stand on the world of reality, the same world where men kill each other for the sake of honour. Yet he is unable to resist chasing an idea to its conclusion, however preposterous, or tilting at inconsistency in himself or his friends. When Romeo has jumped over the wall, Mercutio calls him:

Nay, I'll conjure too:
Romeo! Humours! madman! Passion! Lover! . . .

(Act II, Sc. i, 11. 6-7)

This is all great fun: lovers lay themselves open to this sort of treatment because 'all nature in love is mortal in folly'. But the fool is here a little late with his witticisms. Romeo is no longer conjuring 'Helen's beauty [out of] a brow of Egypt', but calling on the woman whom he loves to distraction. Like Mercutio, the fool has considerable verbal fluency, a device that stretches, as we have seen, all the way back to the early comedies: more important, like Mercutio, he comes too late to do anything. He is always that instant behind the main action. Gratiano and Mercutio adopt the pose of fool here for reasons we cannot fathom. It may be that in a world where misfortune is the common lot of man, and where the Shylocks and the Capulets are always out for revenge, it is simpler to whistle trouble away than to face it. The pose is, however, merely a pose. Gratiano shows his commitment when in the trial scene he reproaches Shylock for his monstrous inhumanity; likewise, Mercutio shows his loyalty by dying for family ties. Comedian to the end, he attempts to externalise his situation by resuming the mask of folly; but the bitterness wrung from him in 'A plague o' both your houses' shows how even the fool's playing must sometimes give way to the realities which it is attempting to put aside. Secure though he may be for the moment, the time will come when he must face the realities symbolised, later, by the skull of Yorick.


And so, by this roundabout way, we come to the fools of the mature comedies—Bottom, Touchstone, Jaques, Feste.3 The characters we have so far considered are not used by Shakespeare strictly as fools. The logic for their existence is little more than quirks of personality. They are expressions of the outsider introduced mainly for the sake of variety, and even if, like Mercutio, they jest about the world they find themselves in, they never compromise it by their wit, or express the sense of divided loyalties. Shakespeare's fools are of course descended from them. Both the natural folly of the mechanicals and the inspired wit of the courtiers have gone into their making. We might think of Bottom and Touchstone as descended from one side of the family, and Jaques and Feste from the other. But there are significant differences; they are all greater than their begetters. They crystallise for us the existence of different worlds, and reflect in the 'shivered mirror'4 of their language the opposites which in themselves make for destruction and which only benevolent nature harmonises. Bottom and Touchstone may be very like the mechanicals in their misuse of language, and Feste and Jaques like the courtiers in the way they deliberately distort it; but they are rather more aware of their position vis-à-vis the world. It is an awareness that sits uneasily upon them.

This is especially true, I believe, of Bottom. As I suggested earlier, he is, for all his extroversion, a character extremely sensitive to criticism, easily hurt, and with a child's need for the approval of the others and fear of being left out in the cold. This is plain from his dealings with Peter Quince, a character who has more sense of what is required by the world and who, like Holofernes, is terribly ill at ease when he has to recite the prologue before the clever lords and ladies of the Athenian court. Peter Quince sees Bottom only as a nuisance, someone who will never keep quiet and leave the managing of the play to its producer, and who has no respect for rank or the fitness of the occasion. He resorts to all kinds of pressure—flat contradictions, flattery, and so on—to persuade Bottom to stay in line. In acting like this he does not see Bottom as the self he is, and treats him only as the mask he presents. Bottom is uneasily aware of all this. When the others flee from him in terror in the forest, he is convinced that they are playing a cruel game on him:

I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of
me: to fright me, if they could. But I will not
stir from this place, do what they can: I will
walk up and down, and I will sing, that they shall
hear I am not afraid.

(Act III, Sc. i, 11. 115-18)

In a world where his own childlike games are misinterpreted as tiresome stupidity, the games other people play are full of menace, as it is with the game Goldberg devises for Stanley in Pinter's Birthday Party. Bottom knows that in this situation it is best to put on a brave face, to jest away his fear. But he is not at home, all the same, and his position is very much that of the fool—acted upon, unsure how to act himself. It is worth noticing in this connection how largely he takes his cue from the attitudes of other people. When the fairy queen addresses him, he seems to be terrified of her and desperately jests his way through the encounter for fear of being transformed into a beast. Not until the fairies greet him does he regain his assurance: from then on, all becomes grist to his mill. But this acceptance of him as a person, which allows him to indulge in his whimsy without rebuke, happens only in a magic world of fairies, in 'the fierce vexation of a dream'. Everywhere else, he seems to be faced with the dilemma of the fool: how to act and be himself.

It may seem strange that a character who has so little to do in the play should bear the weight of such a detailed study. Yet it is clear that what Theseus does for the play symbolically, as it were, Bottom does for it by his participation in the various levels of the action. Where Theseus' non-involvement, as expressed, for example, in the opening speech of Act 5, is the symbolic expression of the unity to which all life aspires, Bottom's non-involvement represents dramatically the only feasible course of action a man can follow in a world where people are given over to the weakness and folly which Theseus condemns. Only once is he given the kind of speeches that point up the fool's function in the other plays:

Methinks, mistress, you should have little
reason for that: and yet, to say the truth,
reason and love keep little company together

nowadays: the more the pity, that some honest
neighbours will not make them friends.

(Act III, Sc. i, 11. 135-8)

and this comment is worth setting alongside Theseus' utterance about the lunatic and the lover, in its expression of the same awareness of the divided self which we find Theseus rejecting from his godlike position. Yet the mere fact of his presence in the play shows us the outsider at odds with his society, unsure how to come to terms with it, and assuming, for his own protection, the mask of the fool. He is the other polarity in a play which has as its ideal the godlike Theseus.

Touchstone is a more obvious instance of the Shakespearean fool. He possesses an awareness of the reality of existence not shared by the other characters. He sees life, for example, as a process of physical change:

And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour we rot and rot

(Act II, Sc. vii, 11. 26-7)

He sees love and marriage as a mere expression of instinct; likewise, he sees how the elaborate patterns of social custom are designed to prevent the natural from ever occurring. Above all, he sees the real wisdom to lie in those who know themselves for fools: 'the fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool'. He knows, moreover, that this awareness of his is ill-matched with the other characters in the play, and not merely the sluttish Audrey, who is unable to understand one of his classical allusions, and to whom he says

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.

(Act III, Sc. ii, 11. 10-13)

He knows that the others, similarly, will fail to see the understanding behind his wit, and will not see the 'great reckoning' in his 'little room'. Nor is it wise for him to be too eager in putting his views to a world on whose sufferance he depends, and which has brought him into the forest simply 'as a comfort to our travel'. When, for instance, he satirises a foolish knight whom Rosalind's father loved, Rosalind replies:

Enough! Speak no more of him; you'll be
whipped for taxation one of these days

his reply:

The more pity, that fools may not speak
wisely what wise men do foolishly.

(Act I, Sc. ii, 11. 79-82)

We are some way from the tone of King Lear here, but it is not so great a jump from this to the words of Lear: 'Take heed, Sirra, the whip!' and the Fool's rejoinder:

Truth's a dog must to kennel; he must be
whipped out, when Lady the brach may
stand by the fire and stink.

(Act I, Sc. iv, 11. 117-20)

In the same way, when Rosalind attacks him for his attempt to reduce the love exemplified in Orlando's romantic verse to the level of his own awareness, he is silenced, and can only reply: 'You have spoken; but whether wisely or no, let the forest judge'. Like Bottom, he is poised uneasily between his awareness of what the world requires and where his own self-awareness would lead. It is for this reason that he takes the mask of fool upon him, and is quick to disclaim any wit if they should sense it in him:

. . . I shall ne'er be ware of mine own wit till
I break my shins against it.

(Act II, Sc. iv, 11. 56-7)

A man, as it seems, equally at home in court and country, he is really at home nowhere. Isolation seems to be an escape for him from the world of men, at least as Jaques reports him: 'who laid him down and bask'd him in the sun'. Here, at least, he can be himself. Yet this is no escape from his need for community, and in order to be in community with his betters he is obliged to cover his tracks, to play the fool.

Yet, in himself, he does not represent the ideal of the play. His part in the action is minimal. He participates in the wedding rites at the end of the play for completeness' sake only. The reason for this lies in his perpetuating in himself the attitudes others have to him. At the same time as being one of nature's naturals, he has a hankering to be a courtier. This shows up most clearly in the way he treats the country-folk, not with the true respect given to them by men of sense, but with the scornful condescension others have used on him. 'Holla, you clown!' he cries; or, like some gay sophisticate, 'It is meat and drink to me to see a clown'. Even in his dealings with the rustics, he does not have things all his own way. Corin, in his simplicity, is a match for him, and forces him to demonstrate that the illogicality which he parades before the court is the illogicality of a divided self; a self that likes the country but thinks the court better because it is more civilized—and yet fails to realise that the arguments he is advancing are only proving how like they are. If the play has a point, it is surely this: that a man's true self requires neither court nor country. But Touchstone gives only lip-service to the ideal. In his heart of hearts, he would rather be a courtier. That is why he barely belongs to the world of Hymen's rites at the end of the play. It is the others who, purified by the consistency of their inner vision, are incorporated into the marriage feast. Touchstone's consistency is, finally, only a mask. Yet, even as he is, he is acceptable, and accepted, in the magic forests. If he but knew it, it is only here that he can hope to become himself. But it is the lovers who become themselves, and leave him behind. He can never be one with the world because he has not learned to be one with himself.

Jaques is in something of the same position. In a world where we seem to fear no tyranny but that of the bad weather, the voice of Jaques is early heard insisting that if court and country are not the same, it is not because man is less corrupt in the one than in the other. Indeed, for Jaques there is no difference:

Thus most invectively he pierceth through
The body of the country, city, court,
Yea, and of this our life: swearing that we
Are mere usurpers, tyrants, and what's worse,
To fright the animals and kill them up . . .

(Act II, Sc. i, 11. 58-62)

This cynicism may be more than a pose, and may reflect a defensive reaction against a world which is all too prone to idealise its situation. When Jaques thinks himself alone, for instance, he is full of sententious moralising about the way of the world: perhaps he does really believe in what he is saying. Moreover, the others view him unsympathetically: not even his isolation is free from malicious report, just as later, Touchstone's situation is gleefully reported back to the others. Yet much of what he says is clearly a pose: he can 'suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs'. He is, then, a character whose awareness of life is at odds with that of the society he mixes with, and who has therefore found retreat in a pose of cynicism which he hardly ever drops. But he has vested interests in this pose. He enjoys the existence which it provides, and the rôle of the baffling intellectual which his violent wit makes him appear. We see this very clearly in his speech to the Duke: 'I am ambitious for a motley coat'. In it he talks of using his rôle of licensed fool in order to cleanse 'the foul body of the infected world'; it matters most to him, however, that the fool is free to speak his mind and that he has 'a charter large as the wind'. That is, Jaques is not interested in the freedom which comes when inner and outer man are harmonised and the whole world is purified—a process which we see the fool aware of and trying to effect in himself. Jaques is interested only in the freedom from restraint which would enable him to snipe at anyone without suffering the consequences of it. This shows us two things about him. It shows us, first, that he has no understanding of the fool, save as a pose like his own. He has not seen anything of the inner agonies of the fool. Second, if his pose is more than a pose, he has no awareness of what it signifies, for he has no awareness of himself based on anything stronger than Hedonism. Ultimately, he is committed only to his own rôle-playing, which he uses as end rather than as means. The pose of cleansing the foul sins of the world is thus the biggest pose of all. Yet the others tolerate him, except when he comes the self-righteous Pharisee, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night; then they round on him and remind him that he is no better than they are. So Jaques leaves the marriage feast, where he could have no place, and bequeaths to the others the community which he has implicitly denied.

It is interesting that both fools in this play express the conscience of a divided world, not by being the victims of its tensions, but by expressing those tensions in their own characters. Shakespeare usually represents his fools as the conscience of a divided world because his drama is, in the end, symbolic, and its characters assume greater significance than they have in themselves. But in As You Like It the world is clearly a harmony. People who love are made self-consistent, and come to stand for the redemption of a whole society. In such a world, the fool's commentary, presented for the sake of fuller understanding of the real world in which this vision must be lived out, must perforce be a reflection of his own incompleteness as a person. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, on the other hand, where community and redemption are not certain, Bottom has more place as the expositor of a consistency at odds with the world's.

Feste is in a different class again. Altogether more urbane than Jaques, he covers his tracks so completely that we never see what he stands for, but only the folly and affectation which he ridicules in all around him. He shapes his behaviour completely to the situation. He 'wears no motley in [his] brain' but what he does wear there we never find. His function is simply to expose, to laugh, to snipe. Malvolio's comment about him, while it tells us more about Malvolio, is thus important for us: 'I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren fool'. Because he never lets us see what he is really like, he remains, throughout the play, a barren fool. He has no significant part to play in forwarding the action. The heroes and heroines work out their destiny without his help. Like all the fools, he is left behind. The world whose signs he professed to read so clearly perhaps had more to it, after all, than the folly he observed:

Those wits, that think they have thee, do very oft
prove fools; and I, that am sure I lack thee, may
pass for a wise man.

(Act I, Sc. v, 11. 32-4)

A concrete example of the way in which the world shows itself at odds with his interpretation of it is his confusing the newly-arrived Sebastian with his twin sister Viola. But then, how could it be otherwise? The fool deals in probables; he cannot be expected to know about miracles. He thinks he knows everything: but about the possibilities of redemption in the material order, like all the fools, he is uninstructed.


In the characters whom we have so far studied certain common features emerge—an awareness at odds with the rest of the world, failure to act, the assumption of a mask. How if the fool should choose to act, or should drop the mask? The result will be either his integration into a society to which he had no wish to belong, or his destruction by that society. For the fool to be other than overtly uncommitted is to bring about his own destruction. We see this in the relationship of Hal to Falstaff. It becomes the key to our understanding of the character of Hamlet, and perhaps also the fool in Lear.

When we talk of Falstaff as a fool, we must remember that from the beginning he has committed himself to a state of misrule, and by putting himself outside the category of fool, has lost the immunity which he might otherwise expect. Nevertheless, his relationship to Hal is based on the apparent uncommitment of the fool, which conceals a deep affection that would not have otherwise been accepted, and which leaves the Prince free to express his ambiguous feelings towards him as he chooses. But Hal knows all along, as Falstaff does not, that the King's son is made for better things:

By this hand, thou thinkest me as far in the devil's
book as thou and Falstaff. . . let the end try the man.

(I Henry IV, Act II, Sc. ii, 11. 43-5)

When he becomes King, Falstaff decides to step outside the rôles they have both been playing until now. It is true that he sees his relationship with the Prince still in material terms, but this matters to him really only as a return of affection which he sees as his due. He will be now, he thinks, treated as butt no longer. His repudiation by the King is inevitable. The rules of a game like that played by Falstaff do not have wider currency than the game; in the real world there is an entirely different set of rules. Only a fool would expect it to be otherwise. To identify the childish vision of society with that society's vision of itself is to invite disaster. And so Henry IV ends with Falstaff made humiliatingly aware of his folly, and, flung back into the world of the fool, making a game of his expectations to con himself out of his grief, like Launce in The Two Gentlemen:

Do not you grieve at this: I shall be sent for in
private to him: look you, he must seem
thus to the world. Fear not your advancement: I
will be the man yet that shall make you great.

(Act V, Sc. v, 11. 76-80)

The world of the comedies is a benevolent one, so that the fool can exist and, to some extent, be himself. But the world of Henry IV is a world where policy reigns, and where men are altogether more calculating. The fool's only hope in such a world is to play his part and never step out of it. This is the world of Hamlet and above all of King Lear. The fool is in a bad way; he must make himself ridiculous, or he is lost. And even then, as Hamlet sees from the skull of Yorick, lost:

Where be your gibes now? your songs? your flashes
of merriment that were wont to set the table on a
roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning?

(Act V, Sc. i, 11. 183-86)

Here the fool comes to the point where even self-mockery fails. The reality which his jests concealed is expressed now in the changeless, impartial grinning of a skull. This is a potent symbol for the play. In the same way that the skull in The Revenger's Tragedy serves as the central symbol of the play, so the skull here points to the world's end, whether the world of men or the fool. Hamlet is, above all, about a man who to be secure has to resort to the shifts of folly, and so puts himself in the agonizing position of the fool—a self-awareness that is powerless to act. When he does act, and throw aside the mask of fool, it is his destruction.

Many words have been written about the character of Hamlet, and I cannot pretend that this interpretation will satisfy everybody.5 I take as the key to his character the opening speeches to the Queen and King. I read these as the open, bitter outbursts of a man heavy with grief:

Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not 'seems'.
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black . . .
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions which a man might play.
But I have that within which passeth woe . . .

(Act I, Sc. ii, 11. 76-8, 83-5)

In a world of changing customs and loyalties where 'the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables', Hamlet is certain only of his love for his father and his grief at his death. In terms of this certainty, he sees how the mourning of the others was merely a pose, an affectation: even his mother did not mourn for her husband longer than 'a beast that wants discourse of reason'. But he also sees how his behaviour, springing from his inmost self, must look like a pose 'a man might play' to those who cannot see beyond the forms to the things they signify, and in whom self-interest is the dominant force. He may be right or wrong in thinking this. Probably, Shakespeare means us to see Hamlet as more right than not, because the whole play is mediated to us through his tortured self-consciousness. But that is not in point. Right or wrong, he sees himself in the right: sees the rest given over to a folly that he cannot cure, at best degrading, at worst criminal: sees that other people do not see him as a person, but only as a mask. This sense of his own isolation brings him to the despair that drives people mad, or makes them kill themselves:

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world . . .

(Act I, Sc. ii, 11. 129-134)

This awareness of the way the court regards him as a man playing a part also suggests to him, when he has vowed vengeance for his father's murder, the pose he is to adopt. As the world sees him, so he will be. He will play the fool and 'put an antic disposition on'. He is not mad, as Ophelia is mad, though his sudden putting on of the mask makes everyone else think that he is. But for him, as for her, to play the fool is to arrest himself in a state of inaction. He can only lie in wait and plot, revealing himself through a mask which even the obtuse Polonius senses to be concealing something deeper: 'though this be madness, yet there is method in it'. His situation is clearly intolerable. He cannot allay suspicion, and the mask of fool leaves him with only the bitterness of a knowledge that is powerless to effect its end. If he is to bring anything about, he must remove the mask.

In the event, he does lower the mask, when he attempts to confront his mother with herself in her chamber. By an unhappy chance, the appearance of the ghost, which only Hamlet sees, convinces her of his madness, so that all he has said to her is merely a further proof of his disordered mind. He disturbs her and perhaps even leads her to a greater awareness of him than she had before, but he does not bring about her repentance. Her treatment of him in the play may be read, as I think Hamlet reads it, as an attempt to salve her conscience in the face of his death's-head awareness; to treat the son more kindly for the father's sake. So she never sees him as a person and cannot do anything to help him.

His confrontation with her, then, is a failure, and his failure to kill the King, and accidental killing of Polonius, mean that he has lost the upper hand, and must now take his chance with the mask of folly firmly in place (IV. 3). His only safety, now that he has exposed himself, is flight. This, as he recognises bitterly, only worsens his situation:

Witness this army [of Fortinbras] of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince . . .
How stand I then
That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd . . .
And let all sleep? while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That . . . go to their graves like beds

(Act IV, Sc. iv, 11. 47-8, 56-7, 59-60, 62)

Therefore, he casts aside the mask of folly, and learns the logic of vengeance, the only language the world can understand. There can be no more hesitating; only the fool has time to make the idea of vengeance square with the commandments of God. Hamlet reluctantly takes to the ways of the world. By putting himself on the side of the devils he proclaims that the world leads irresistibly to the grave. And so, for him, it does.

The Lear world is very like the world of Hamlet. In it, self-interest is seen to be the driving force. But where the other characters in Hamlet mostly stand for a simple opposite to virtue in a worldview that does not admit of great complexity, and are consequently flat characters, given prominence only as the searing light of Hamlet's awareness falls upon them, the villains in King Lear are presented much more fully. They have reason for their actions in the self-interested behaviour of their elders, and in their fear of being outside the pale. Goneril and Regan see themselves as deprived both of the power to express themselves and the love which alone makes self-expression possible. They are made to feel outside the pale by their wayward, domineering father. Consequently, when Lear commits the unparalleled folly of removing both the symbol of power and the one prop to his age, they are free to take out all their frustrations on him. Lear's failure is a simple one. He has passed his life in what the others see as a world of make-believe, with the power to make this world pass for the real. Consequently, Cordelia's stepping outside the make-believe in the opening scene leads inevitably to the same reaction as Hal showed to Falstaff. But it also leads to Lear's stepping, himself, outside the game into the real world, where old age, no longer protected by the mask of royalty:

(shaking) all cares and business from our age,
. . . while we
Unburdened crawl toward death

(Act I, Sc. i, 11. 39-41)

can be seen for what it is: 'Idle old man', and 'O sir, you are old . . . You should be ruled and led / By some discretion'. By removing all defences Lear puts himself out on to the heath, beyond the pale. In doing this he learns to see beyond the game to what it ought to have signified, and to what in fact it does signify. To remove the mask is perforce to come to the fool's awareness of the inner man. But for Cordelia, Lear would remain transfixed by this painful awareness of a rottenness, alike within and without, incurable.

Parallel to Lear's removal of the mask, other characters are putting theirs on, notably the fool.6 The fool has a stronger motive for his motley than any of Shakespeare's other fools, for he is devoted to Cordelia and desolated by her banishment, as Lear himself recognises. That is, he is flung back into the hazardous world of the outsider, from which only the love of Cordelia could have protected him. Lear's action has shown the fool all too clearly the ways of the world. He sees Lear much more clearly than Lear sees himself: how blind and self-seeking Lear was in his love, and how violently he reacted to anything that might disturb it, even the threat of Cordelia's openness. This behaviour is of a piece with the rest of the world, and it shows the fool the madness of Lear's expectations of humanity among a people as blind and self-seeking as he is:

Shalt see thy other daughter will use thee kindly; for though she's as like this as a crab's like an apple, yet I can tell what I can tell . . . she will taste as like this as a crab does to a crab.

(Act I, Sc. v, 11. 14-16)

His function is thus to remind Lear insistently of what he has lost by his own stupidity. But because Lear is erratic in his behaviour, affectionate and angry by turns, the fool cannot reveal this awareness fully to him. His only refuge is the perpetual movement from one proposition to another that we saw adumbrated in Moth's relationship with Armado—the distraction that soothes but cannot cure, because it cannot confront the king with himself. But it is not clear that the fool ever hopes for Lear's redemption. The way of the world is a vortex, and there is no escaping from it. Joined together in negation, the fool would reduce Lear to the same awareness of desolation that he has; but not, it seems, in order that he might lead him through it to an acceptance of his situation. Consequently, he cannot, any more than his master, be redeemed, for he rejects the openness that would exchange loss with loss and so build community—in the way, for example, that Behan's characters in The Quare Fellow build community by accepting each other's failure. He hugs his loss of Cordelia to himself as the source of his tormenting of the King which is his only relief. He seems almost to be in love with his own pain.

Both, then, are joined together, by a love and a pain which they will not or cannot share. Yet the bond between them deepens as, one by one, the doors are shut against them, and Lear is reduced to the desolation that the fool had foreseen and perhaps hoped for. It is Lear, however, who makes the advances. In the face of his master's great grief the fool 'labours to outjest / his heart-struck injuries'. But he has not the capacity to respond to Lear as a person. Lear, on the other hand, has. In the fool, on the heath, Lear has the first sight of the human person (Tom o' Bedlam is to be the second) which can alone bring salvation to his fettered self-interest:

My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy, art cold?
I am cold myself . . .
Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That's sorry yet for thee.

(Act III, Sc. ii, 11. 67-9, 72-3)

Like the characters in The Quare Fellow, Lear is opening his arms in the overwhelming sense of his own desolation to someone whom he dimly recognises as partner. It is Lear's inherent nobility that brought him to this point. The fool could never have done it, for his refusal to confront Lear openly with himself, or to share his own pain with him, were an insuperable barrier to his being an effective agent in Lear's redemption. In this simple gesture on the heath Lear has outstripped his teacher. The fool is still unable to share his loss, and unable to respond to another's pain, to which his own pain is not in any way commensurate. That is why he disappears. Like Hamlet's actions, the fool's words have all along proclaimed that the way of the world is damnation. He cannot be present when Lear learns at length that this is not the case.

This portrait of the fool is the most compelling and finely drawn of all the fools in Shakespeare. A character who combines piercing insight with the narrowness of despair and who is arrested in the futility of disbelief, he is the perfect embodiment of the ambiguous relationship of the outsider to a world at odds with him. His jesting conceals an agony that is, for all its intensity, shallow. In the end, he fails, because he has not learned to free himself from the toils of his own playing, or to see that the other person matters most in the making of community. The path the fool takes has come a great way from the world of the comedies. It has led him all the way to the blasted heath. There we leave him, forever outside the closed doors of a society which will admit him, if at all, only as far as the kennels.


It remains to consider some of the imagery that Shakespeare uses to point up the fool's situation. The key image seems to me that of the player. It can hardly be accidental that in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet the play-within-the-play has. such an important part. Indeed, we find in Antonio's speech and Gratiano's replay an indication of what the image meant for Shakespeare:

Antonio: I hold the world but as . . . A stage where every man must play a part And mine a sad one.

Gratiano: Let me play the fool . . .

(Act I, Sc. 1, 11. 77-9)

Jaques' speech about the seven ages of man takes up the theme again. Human life is a pageant in which characters act out their destinies and disappear into the wings. The idea was a commonplace at the time: Raleigh uses it, for example, in the poem 'What is our Life?' But Shakespeare develops the idea of playing a part to the point where the actor becomes obscured in the character he is representing. That is why the image fits the fool so perfectly. He is playing a part, and we can never be sure what is really him and what the lines the situation has forced upon him. Strangely, the image is only once used with direct reference to the fool, in Hamlet. Hamlet sees that the players, with no other 'cue for passion' but the need to please their audience, are able to act out vengeance and disaster. Someone in his position, on the other hand, with far more motive for passion, remains unable to act, but

[peaks] like John-a' dreams, unpregnant of
[his] cause
And can do nothing.

(Act II, Sc. ii, 11. 571-2)

The illusion of action and emotion displayed by the actors is all that the fool in real life has. The image of the stage, then, points up the irony of the fool's position. The device of the theatrical entertainment is also used as a means of confronting various levels of society, especially nature's naturals and the courtly, and of commenting on the attitudes one level has to another. In the entertainment that concludes Love's Labours Lost, Costard amuses the court not simply because of the part he is playing but because of its unconsciously superior attitude which sees all behaviour different from its own merely as a curious part well played.7

Another important image is the dream. One play is built upon the idea; it is referred to in Mercutio's Queen Mab speech; Hamlet uses it in the speech quoted above; it is how Hal describes his changed feelings to Falstaff:

I have long dream'd of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell'd, so old, and so profane;
But, being awak'd, I do despise my dream.

(Act V, Sc. v, 11. 49-51)

The world of the fool is very like a dream, in which the normal is distorted or u

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Fools In The Histories And Historical Fools

Charles S. Felver (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Armin's Foolish Parts with Shakespeare's Company 1599-1607," in Robert Armin, Shakespeare's Fool: A Biographical Essay, Kent State University, 1961, pp. 39-68.

[In the following essay, Felver describes the fool roles in the plays of Shakespeare's middle period (1599-1607) that were likely performed by the versatile comedic actor Robert Armin.]

This fellow is wise enough to play the fool,
And to do that well craves a kind of wit.

Twelfth Night

The only Shakespearean part which Armin directly alludes to as his in...

(The entire section is 24225 words.)

Fools In The Comedies

John A. Hart (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Foolery Shines Everywhere: The Fool's Function in the Romantic Comedies," in "Starre of Poets": Discussions of Shakespeare, Carnegie Institute of Technology, 1966, pp. 31-48.

[In the essay that follows, Hart probes Shakespeare's presentation of fools in his romantic comedies from A Midsummer Night's Dream to Twelfth Night.]

The Romantic Comedies are carefully structured work, for all their appearance of casual gaiety. I would like to demonstrate the case for this by examining the way in which Shakespeare develops his clowns in five plays, giving emphasis not so much to the characters themselves as...

(The entire section is 12826 words.)

Fools In The Tragedies

William Willeford (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Tragic Dimension of Folly: Hamlet" in The Pool and His Scepter: A Study in Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience, Northwestern University Press, 1969, pp. 192-200.

[Below, Willeford views the character of Hamlet as a tragic fool.]

According to an anecdote, the cross-eyed Ben Turpin fell into his métier as a slapstick comedian in the silent films from the tragic heights of Hamlet, as he tried on the stage to play the role straight. Whether or not the story is true, the image of Turpin as Hamlet is horrible, funny, and somehow legitimate. Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy has been...

(The entire section is 10307 words.)

Further Reading

Battenhouse, Roy. "Falstaff as Parodist and Perhaps Holy Fool." PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 90, No. 1 (January 1975): 32-52.

Regards Falstaff of the Henriad as a devout Christian in the guise of a fool.

Brown, John Russell. "Laughter in the Last Plays." In Later Shakespeare, Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, No. 8, pp. 103-25. London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1966.

Includes a discussion of the clown performances in Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, Pericles, and The Tempest.


(The entire section is 586 words.)