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...
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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.
The only Shakespearean part which Armin directly alludes to as his in any of his works, as I have remarked earlier, is that of Constable Dogberry, and yet it is clear that this was a part fashioned originally not for Armin but for Kempe. In the Ql edition of the play, which appeared in 1600, the names of Kempe and Cowley still occur in IV.ii in place of Dogberry and Verges. The evidence for Armin's appearance in this part comes from his dedication of the Italian Taylor and his Boy (1609) to the Viscount Haddington and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Fitswater. Armin asks pardon of the Lady for
the boldnes of a Beggar, who hath been writ downe for an Asse in his time, & pleades under forma pauperis in it still, not-withstanding his constableship and Office....
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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 to their function. Though such special attention inevitably neglects many other important elements, I hope that the limited nature of the study will be seen as a partial way toward understanding the dramatic structure of the Romantic Comedies. The comedies under consideration are: A Midsummer-Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night.
The earliest of the five I have chosen is clearly a balanced and carefully structured play. Duke Theseus rules in Athens by law and reason and, when necessary, by conquest; Oberon, king of the night creatures, rules in the wood outside Athens by imagination and impulse and magic. Their paths never cross; their ways of life,...
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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 burlesqued by many comedians; if Turpin were to have done it as a gag, we might have seen Hamlet's consciousness, which Henry James called the widest in all of literature, reduced to the mindlessness of a frightened chicken and his traipsing about the stage sped up to become part of a frenzied chase.
The pathetic sublimity of Hamlet, like that of Romeo, invites the clown, the noble words and gestures that he apes suddenly seeming themselves clownish pretense. In openly or surreptitiously establishing his parity with the hero, the clown presents a vision of the clod that will survive all winters as the heroic consciousness rooted in the same soil will not. The clown assumes the heroic role in the service of folly; the parity...
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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.
Frye, Dean. "The Question of Shakespearean 'Parody.'" Essays in Criticism: A Quarterly Journal of Literary Criticism XV, No. 1 (January 1965): 22-26.
Disputes the critical position that the comic subplots and characters in Shakespeare's plays parody the main plot and its protagonists.
Goldsmith, Robert Hillis. Wise Fools in Shakespeare. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1955, 123 p.
Offers background on the tradition of fools in literature and studies Shakespeare's witty clowns—Touchstone, Lavache, Feste, and Lear's Fool.
Leinwand, Theodore B. "Conservative Fools in...
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