illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 upended, and whose shifts and alternations the world of sense, unless it explain them with Hal as detestable folly, cannot interpret. Bottom says of his dream, 'man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had': it is a good statement of the fool's activity. He is always attempting to pierce the world of fantasy, and yet his own behaviour has the everchanging quality of a dream.


For the fool to have the prominence he is given by Shakespeare, it is necessary for there to be two or more world-views in opposition to each other. One world-view will often be held by a minority. Those in the majority will tend to treat the minority as fools, especially if they are following a course of action internally consistent and at odds with the rest. But Shakespeare's deliberate presentation of opposed views is not merely a device for forwarding the action: it also reminds us that this attitude by the majority cannot be maintained. The folly of the fool, the wisdom of the wise . . . it may be, after all, one. The sophistication of the court, the rusticity of the country—who shall arbitrate? The fool then has the function of pointing us to the unity of all existence in community. The ambiguities in his position are not so important when a kindly nature is able to bring man's folly to heel; when, however, as in Edmund's opening speech, nature is seen to be malignant, the fatal weaknesses in the fool bring about his downfall. Nevertheless, even in his downfall he is making the valid point that real community is found not behind the closed doors of princes, but in exposure to all the wild weathers, in As You Like It no less than King Lear. He cannot be the agent of redemption: to become that he would have to take off his mask and suffer for the world instead of suffering from it and retreating into himself. Rouault has, indeed, used him as a symbol of redemption, and seems to equate him with the redeeming folly of the cross. But, according to theology, Christ suffered for the sake of community, and the fool, as presented in the literature of all ages, is unable, through his own weakness and sense of inadequacy, to suffer on anybody's account but his own. Yet, in his self-awareness, he serves to direct us to the Rosalinds and the Cordelias, the people who are to save society: people who may in their openness be destroyed by it, but will yet hand on to others the fragile secret of the making of community.


1 R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience, 1967, p. 72; and cf. in the discussion that follows, ibid., cc. 4, 5.

2op. cit., p. 95.

3 On the mature comedies, see Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy; and for studies of Touchstone and Jaques, see Goldsmith, Shakespeare's Wise Fools. Dr. Goldsmith's approach, like that of Welsford, The Fool, is largely historical and is not followed here.

4 J. F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature, 1961, p. 102.

5 An article by T. Greene, 'The Postures of Hamlet' in Shakespeare Quarterly II (1960) arrives at much the same conclusions about the meaning of Hamlet as this article.

6 See especially J. F. Danby, op. cit., pp. 102-114.

7 cf. Anne Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of Play, 1962.

Shyam M. Asnani (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "An Apology for Fools (—A Study in Shakespearean Fools)," in The Modern Review, Vol. CXXIX, No. 5, May, 1969, pp. 335-40.

[In the essay below, Asnani offers an overview of Shakespeare's fools, notably Touchstone, Feste, and Lear's Fool.]

The meaning of the word Fool has undergone a considerable change since the time of Shakespeare. The word as we understand today, means a person "marked by folly: lacking in judgment, fit consideration or intelligence, as lacking in intellect: Idiotic, feeble minded, simple1. etc. But the Fool of Shakespeare instead of being idiotic, simple and feeble minded, is marked by the sharpness of his wit, spontaneity in fun and sometimes satire in his tone.

During the Elizabethan period, the kings, the noblemen and other wealthy persons used to employ fools in order to entertain themselves, and their friends either on certain ceremonial occasions or in the common parlour. The fool, or the clown, or the jester (to be taken as synonymous terms presently,) used to wear the conventional 'motley'—particoloured dress and also a conical cap, and carry in his hands a staff with some jingling-bells attached to one end of it, which the fool used to shake before his listeners whenever he used to speak something foolish or funny in order to excite laughter in them. Such a fool or a jester was usually drawn from the ranks of the cultured, for he had to be polished, cultured, well-read and possessed of both moral courage and intellectual tact. He was most privileged in the sense that he was permitted to speak any amount of sense and nonsense before any august assembly and sparing none of the august persons for the jokes, which were sometimes humorous, sometimes witty, sometimes farcical and even vulgar. He had also the movements of his body, some kind of gesture, which also was intended to provoke laughter. Richard Tarleton, Will-Kempe, and Robert Armin were among the leading professional fools during the Tudor Age, which gave food for pastime to the royal court and noble audience.

Moulton in his interesting study of Shakespeare2. believes that this institution of fools seems to rest upon three medieval and ancient notions. The first is the barbarism of enjoying personal defects, illustrated in large number of Roman names derived from bodily infirmities Varus, the bandy-legged, Balbus the stammerer, and the like; this led our ancestors to find fun in the incoherence of natural idiocy, and finally made the imitation of it a profession. A second notion underlying the institution of a jester is the connection to the ancient mind between madness and inspiration; the same Greek word etheos stands for both and to this day the idiot of a Scotch village is believed in some way to see further than sane folk. A third idea to be kept in mind is the medieval conception of wit. With us wit is weighed by its intrinsic worth; the old idea, appearing repeatedly in Shakespeare's scenes, was that wit was a mental game, a sort of battledore and shuttlecock, in which the jokes themselves might be indifferent since the point of game, lay in keeping it up as smartly and as long as possible. The fool, whose title and motley dress suggested the absence of ordinary sense or propriety, combines in his office all three notions; from the last he was bound to keep up the fire of badinage, even though it were with witless nonsense; from the second he was expected at times to give utterance to deep truths; and in virtue of the first he had licence to make hard hits under protection of the 'folly' which all were supposed to enjoy:

He that a fool doth very wisely hit,
Doth very foolishly, although he smart,
Not to seem senseless of the bob . . .

It was the fashion of the time to call these comic characters all indifferently, clowns; but Gordon has technically classified them into two groups: "those who play with words, and those who are played with by them—those, who are sufficiently masters of the English language to make fun out of it; and those who are mastered by it as to give fun unconsciously"3. In the first class he has placed the professional fools headed by Touchstone, with Feste, and such court-bred attendants as Moth-that 'tender juvenal.' In the class, though touching on the second, come the men servants, the roguish valets, like Speed, and Launce, and Launcelot. The second class consists of rustics like Costard, artisans like Bottom and officials like Dogberry, Verges and Dull. The amusement they cause is at their own expense. They are complacent, vain, and adorably stupid. Sometimes they achieve pure nonsense, than which nothing is more difficult to explain. "There is nothing in Shakespeare more certainly the work of genius" says Gordon, although with a little exaggeration, "than the mettled nonsense, the complacent nonsense, the perfectly contented and ideal inanity which Shakespeare, in some of these characters has presented to us".4

The purpose of Shakespeare's introducing the fool into comedies as well as tragedies, historical plays as well as romances, is manifold. It is, of course, the general one of making the company or the audience laugh, of keeping the dialogue going on in the intervals of action, of providing the song and dance, whenever and wherever necessary (for example Dull in Love's Labour Lost, Touchstone in As You Like It, Feste in Twelfth Night and Autolycus in the Winter's Tale). Another contribution of the fool in Shakespeare's plays is to moralise or sermonise or philosophise over certain situations and incidents of the play or even upon the actions of certain characters; while at other times, his function is to explain certain things—either the behaviour of the hero or the heroine, or the trend of the action of the play which would otherwise remain unintelligible to the audience. Hence the Fool in Shakespeare is not necessarily a 'fool' in modern context, or an im becile or a half-witted fellow, but quite the reverse, he is one of the wisest or the most learned characters in the play. More than a jester or a humorist, he very often assumes the role of a philosopher, a Greek Chorus, an interpreter and a critic. It would be no exaggeration to say that it is through the lips of the fool that sometimes Shakespeare speaks and expresses his own opinion on certain matters, for he has made him more wise and profound than most of the so called wise men.

A study of the fool in Shakespeare's Comedies, Tragedies and Romances may lead to some interesting results. Let us take, first of all, Touchstone.

Touchstone, the prince among Shakespearean fools has neither the vulgarity of Autolycus, nor the indecent jests and coarse witticism of Brown. His wit, though a bit sophisticated is apt and entertaining without being vulgar; his humour is never boisterous and infections; it is always playful, hilarious and designedly foolish. The motive of his witticism is to unmark the follies and human absurdities. He has been called "a mixture of the ancient cynic philosopher with the modern buffoon." His solemn, bright, lovable and deceptive fooling anent the flight of time is a sort of parody of Jaques' sombre meditations.

John Palmer esteems him as a "loyal servant who without any illusions as to the sequel is ready at a word to 'go along over the wide world' with his mistress"5. And he knows which side the bread is to be buttered, for like a complete realist gifted with abundant common sense he aptly responds to the situation:

Ay, now am I in Arden, the more fool I.
When I was at home, I was in a better
Place, but travellers must he content.


His special lecture to Corin on the rival claims of town and country, court and rustic life casts sufficient light on his sharp and intelligent wit. He gives a very balanced view of life. He is at pains to show to Corin how full of fraud and humbug the court life is. But at the same time, he has no predisposition to idealise the forest life and presents it with a most convincing innocence.

Truly . . . in respect of itself, it is a good life, but in respect that it's a shepherd's life, it is naught. In respect it is solitary, I like it well, but in respect it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious . . . 7.

The incomparable Rosalind, whose tide of wit and flush of love set her above any need of correction by the comic spirit, is moved to commit: "Thou speakest wiser than thou art ware of" (II, iv, 52). Even a character like Jaques-steeped head over heels, in the desponding slough of melancholy and dejection, is enthralled and pays the greatest compliment to Touchstone's wit. (II, vii, 12-19). It is a testimony worth recollecting that Touchstone is able to communicate some sort of enthusiasm for living to a man like Jaques—a born pessimist. It, no doubt, amounts to the undying popularity of Touchstone, when Jaques more than once wants to be invested with the power of the fool:

1. O, that I were a fool . . .
I am ambitious for motley coat8.

2. . . . I must have liberty
Withal as large a character as the wind,
To blow on whom I please; for so fools have9.

But it is the senior Duke, a keen student of human nature, who understands Touchstone best and gives the aptest appreciation of the function of all fools in Shakespeare's plays, when he says of Touchstone that:

He uses his folly like a stalking horse; and
under presentation of that he shoots his wit.


We then find him as a critic of poetry which expresses the mad passion of a lover. When Rosalind is naturally thrilled to read the poems, scattered and hung on the boughs of the trees in the Forest of Arden by her lover-Orlando, Touchstone comes along and pours cold water on such effusions. He says it is clumsy, unmusical and cheap poetry; nothing better than a doggerel:

I'll rhyme you so, eight years together,
dinners, suppers, and sleeping hours excepted;
it is the right butter-woman's rank to the market.


And he is not a mere boaster; he can do what he says and indeed gives a sample of extempore rhymes in the mock-heroic style—

His very marriage, so grotesquely ill-assorted is the partner of his choice. It tends (in Hazlitt's words) to "throw a degree of ridicule on the state of wedlock itself" and consequently on the others over whom Hymen speak his blessing.

During the course of the play Touchstone has to draw fun on demand from such diverse topics as Courtiers' oaths, travellers' complaints, the course of Time the irregularities of Fortune, music, versification, and even his own intended wife—"a poor virgin, sir, an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own." In the final scene, to fill up a moment of waiting, Touchstone treats us to a superb piece of comic casuistry. He very shrewdly brings in his famous anatomy of the lie in its seven fold stages and shows himself a refined logician. The seven stages are the Retort Courteous, the Quip Modest, the Reply Churlish, the Reproof Valiant, the Countercheck Quarrelsome, the Lie with the Circumstance and the Lie Direct. The passage is important for the light it throws on his claim to be considered a courtier. The evidence he adduces is: "I have flattered a lady, I have been polite with my friends, and smooth with mine enemy; I have undone three tailors; I have had four quarrels and like to have fought one"12. But actually he did never fight it out, since he and his opponent discovered that the quarrel was upon the seventh cause. He then explains that the seventh stage "Lie Direct" can be avoided by the addition of the qualifying word 'If'. 'Your if' is the only peace-maker; much virtue in 'If' he declares.

It has been wittily said of Touchstone: "He is undoubtedly slightly cracked, but the very cracks in his brain are chinks which let in light"13. If we take into account the effectiveness of his fooling, the unvarying versatility with which it is suited to its subject, and the insight into character and life with his apposite arguments, we can only doubt the existence of these alleged 'cracks'.

Thoughout the Forest scenes, Touchstone furnishes ballast in the shape of shrewd and homely thrusts to counteract the rarefied atmosphere of romance, mystery and idealised love. In short what has been said of Feste in Twelfth Night, is equally true of Touchstone: "Is not this a rare fellow, my lord? he's as good as anything and yet a fool."14

Feste: Feste, one of the most interesting characters in Twelfth Night is a sort of the Master of Revels—the highest prudence and the lowest buffooner in the play. He is conscious of his superiority and knows that he dpes not carry motley in his brain when he very shrewdly observes: "Those wits that think they have thee do very oft prove fools; and I that am sure that I lack thee, may pass for a wise man."15 This fellow who is "too wise to play the fool" quickly wins Viola's applause when he sees the disease of both Malvolio and the Duke and prescribes remedies to them. This indeed is the top of wisdom to philosophise yet not to appear to do so, and in mirth to do the same with those that are serious and seem in earnest. On being asked by Viola if he is not Lady Olivia's fool, he at once retorts, "No, indeed, sir, the Lady Olivia has no folly; she will keep no fool, sir, till she is married; and Fools are as like husbands as pilchards are to herrings, husbands the bigger. . ."16.

Some of his remarks have passed for sayings and maxims, for instance; "Better a witty fool than a foolish wit," or. "God give wisdom to those that have it; those who have it not, let them use it."

Feste, the wise fool, who translates deep truths of human nature into the languge of laughter, to use A. C. Bradley's phrase "endears himself to us",17 because he is witty, satirical, apt enough at repartee, merry, jovial; in short "for all waters."

Lear's Fool: He is the traditional royal retainer whose licensed profession is to entertain the king in such ways as the king finds entertaining. But he goes beyond his privilege and thus transgressing his usual professional role, he becomes the commentator on his master's doings. "He points his remarks". says Charlton18 "on Lear's projects with a sting which pierces to the quick, and he knows how near the edge he is thrusting".

Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no need to care for her frowning; now thou art an O without a figure; I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou art nothing.19

So far as his presence for the most part in the play; his foresight and voice of disembodied wisdom, and his sharp chidings on the King are concerned, he is like the Chorus in the Greek Tragedies with one essential difference. Unlike the chorus in Greek Tragedies, his prophetic utterances are not mystically inspired. They afe "the cumulative product of mankind's human experiences."20

He speaks from the well of traditional wisdom of the ages—all the wisdom stored up in Lear which might have been the well-spring of his actions if he could have listened to it and valued it. The keynote of Lear's tragedy is, in fact, sounded in the words of the fool: "Though should'st not have been old until thou hadst been wise." (K. L. I,v,45). He scolds the king for giving away his land, and for resigning his crown: "Thou hadst little wit in thy half crown", he says, "when thou gavest thy golden one away." And further," I can tell why a snail has a house," he says, "to put his head in, not to give it away to his daughters and leave his horns without a case." It is again the sensible fool who very cryptically sums up the essence of the common tragedy of the plot and the sub plot;

The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long
That it had its head bit off by its young.


Autolycus: Moving in the midst of rustic merriment, the agile figure of Autolycus is, as if, an incarnation of rascal knavery and vagabondage. He has in him the wit of Touchstone, tunefulness of Feste and mental agility and a ready tongue of Falstaff. He is a rogue, not so much from malice as from his joyous and sportive nature. He takes delight in thievery for its own sake rather than for its gains. He is aware of his misdeeds, and laughs at them. His life is folly, to be sure, but then he wants to enjoy his own folly. A brilliant scapegrace, a knave of many faculties; of sparkling versatility of parts; with wit equal to thievery; quick, sharp and changeable—he belongs to the class of consciously comic characters, who make fun and enact folly for themselves.

To him, life is a festival of gay adventures in which his own unfailing resourcefulness brings him both money and enjoyment. Adventurous as he is, he makes no pretence to courage and virtue; much as he loves crime, he dreads its consequences. "Gallows and knock are too powerful on the highway; beatings and hangings are terror to me".22 At the same time, he finds "Honesty a fool, and Trust his sworn brother, a very simple gentleman."23 Simplicity and Honesty are thus an infamy to him. Consummate in arts of lying, fraud and imposture, this merry rogue, the incarnation of fun and rascality, practises them with such a droll and brazen audacity, with such a keen sense of enjoyment and fun, that we are inclined to be indulgent to him.

Trinculo in The Tempest is a mean type of Shakespearean fools, because he lacks decent humour or intelligent wit, because he indulges mostly in plays upon words or in vulgarity, which is nothing but bufoonery, and because, at the top of all, he is a dammed coward and a confirmed addict to drinking. Even Caliban, a monster hates Trinculo and outwits him. The only one remark which Trinculo makes and which is worth noting is "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows," otherwise, Trinculo is really one of the most degenerate forms of the Elizabethan fools.

There are other fools or clowns in Shakespeare's plays, but they are not as remarkable as the fools just studied, and yet some of them deserve mention. These are Launcelet Gobleo in The Merchant of Venice, Costard in Love's Labour Lost; the grave diggers in Hamlet; Bottom the weaver in the Mid Summer Night's Dream, clowns in Measure for Measure and All is Well That Ends Well; and jesters who appear in Othello and Timon of Athens.

These fools can also be classified according to the various types of humour which Shakespeare uses in his plays. We have seen that in most of the comedies Shakespeare uses either witty humour or farcical humour, grim humour or ironic humour, philosophic or romantic humour, bantering or refreshing humour. The variety of fools in Shakespeare plays indicates not only his own insight into the various types of persons, who are capable of expressing their humorous spirit in their own typical ways which can be clearly distinguished from one another. We can surely distinguish Falstaff from Touchstone, or Feste from the fool of King Lear.


1Webster's Third new International Dictionary Unabridged p. 884.

2 P. G. Moulton Shakespeare As a Dramatic Artist pp. 219-220. Chapter X.

3 G. Gordon: Shakespearean Comedy.

4 G. Gordon: Shakespearean Comedy.

5 John Palmer: Political and Comic Character of Shakespeare.

6As You Like It II, iv, 16-18.

7 Ibid III, ii, 11-18.

8As You Like It II, vii, 42-43.

9 Ibid II, vii, 47-49.

10 Ibid V, iv, 106-107.

11 Ibid III, ii, 86-88.

12As You Like It V. iv, 43-46.

13 Leopard Shakespeare pp. Iv iii.

14Twelfth Night—V, iv, 100-101.

15Twelfth Night—I, v, 28-31.

16 Ibid III, i, 28-31.

17 A. C. Bradley: A Homage to Shakespeare.

18 H. B. Charlton: Shakespearean Tragedy ch VII, pp-224.

19King Lear—I, iv, 210.

20 H. B. Charlton: Shakespearean Tragedy p. 225.

21King Lear—I, iv, 213-214.

22The Winter's Tale IV, iii, 27-28.

23 Ibid—IV, iv, 583-84.

Glenys McMullen (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Fool as Entertainer and Satirist, On Stage and in the World," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 50, No. 1, Spring, 1970, pp. 10-22.

[In the essay that follows, McMullen examines the fool's role as a satirical voice in Shakespeare's plays.]

As an entertainer, the fool has always been a prime target for laughter. But it is through the jester in man that the riddle of his nature is approached in the twentieth century; and possibly the fool may lead us to discover his true glory. Whether dancing in the komos of Attic comedy, leading the morris, jigging on the apron stage, conducting the singing at a children's pantomime, or just gazing vacantly into a television camera, the fool can always make his audience merry. They wait for his entrance so eagerly that sometimes they will burst out laughing before he has had time to do, say, or even look a joke. The laughter is often kindly, occasionally sympathetic, but usually tinged with derision; it goes with a delightful feeling of superiority which may well lie behind our love of the fool. Yet it is the experience of a complacent audience that suddenly its laughter turns back upon itself, forcing it to ponder for the moment just where the real fool is to be found.

The public have always liked to suppose some deeper significance to the fool, apart from his talent for making them laugh or look at themselves askance. He has been made to represent some of their basic assumptions about life. For instance, in the Middle Ages he symbolized the vanity of human pretension, whereas the lord he served represented divine perfection; it was a neat image of the antithesis within man's nature, as they conceived it, sublime and ridiculous together. The twentieth century, which refuses to see any tidy or unified order in life, has made the fool a symbol of meaninglessness, or else an enviable dropout from the pressures of a worried, over-involved and conformist society. Perhaps because of this, most modern fools have no voice; they make comments rather by what they are and through the crazy fun they have, turning the world's values on end. In fact, a cult of the crazy has swept the modern world off its feet, largely through the work of such artists as Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx, Jacques Tati, and Giulietta Massina, who make such magnificent global village idiots that they dominate the movies in which they have appeared. It would not be surprising if some theatrical tycoon were to re-name Twelfth Night "Feste the Jester", as Charles II called it "Malvolio" for another age.

Modern scholars are taking man's absurdity very seriously. Following the "proper study of mankind" they choose to place emphasis upon the second element of Pope's definition of human nature: "The glory, jest and riddle of the world." By examining the jester in man it is possible to understand the riddle of his nature, which in turn reveals his glory. That is what Arthur Koestler, for example, sets out to do in his study, The Act of Creation:1 the first section of his book is entitled "The Jester" and he begins by analyzing the intellectual, emotional, and physiological processes involved in the making of a joke. By the placing of a familiar object in a new light, where two incompatible frames of reference intersect, tension is set up in the audience and suddenly triggered off through laughter. This process, which he calls bisociation, is the basis of all creativity2 and he draws a fascinating paradigm to demonstrate how awareness of the absurd shades into scientific discovery on one hand and into artistic presentation on the other. To the student of Shakespeare's fools, this offers an interesting explanation of the way in which these chameleon figures slip so easily from nonsense and fantasy into acute satirical commentary or exquisite songs.

Taking a different field of study altogether, Johan Huizinga has also found that the fool is basic to human nature; as he sees it, the earliest significant function of man is play.3 From his anthropological studies of primitive festivity, he remarks how the spirit of play moves between the poles of wanton frivolity and religious ecstasy in such a way that it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart. The ridiculous and the sublime are closer together than we realize. As he develops his thesis, Huizinga demonstrates that play has many features in common with art: each creates a world of its own, an interlude in everyday life, where the participants are completely absorbed in obeying a fixed set of conventions; the experience is more satisfying than in real life, partly because the rules provide a rhythmic pattern of repetition and alternation which allows the players' tensions to gather and be released in a controlled and happy manner. As children lose themselves in games and the magic world of make-believe, so men lose themselves in equally artificial "worlds", in order to pursue noble professions in philosophy, religion, poetry, law, sport, or the making of civilization itself. It seems that the experience of artificial conventions from time to time is essential to human achievement and very far from being a frivolous waste of time. Finally, as he surveys human history, Huizinga calls the Renaissance the play period par excellence, which puts Shakespeare's fools right in their element; but he finds that the twentieth century fails too often to appreciate the true value of play and is even in danger of destroying it by imposing upon it such standards of daily life as commercial success and efficiency. Man may yet save the world if he can learn from the fool how to play.

A man who is doing his best to resurrect the fool, in his own way, is Joachim Foikis, the Vancouver Jester. When he attended a happening in his honour at York University in Toronto, the Globe and Mail published an article with many interesting comments on the fool's vocation in the modern world.4 The humblest of all professions, it includes features of many of the noblest: those of preacher, poet, entertainer, and counsellor. He has been guide, philosopher, and friend to the aristocracy of past ages and now he must try to reach the democracies. Mr. Foikis actually graduated in theology and intended to become a minister, "but decided one Billy Graham was enough—so I became a fool." With a nod and a wink, some of Shakespeare's fools could say the same: at any rate, they demonstrated enough knowledge of theology and homilectics to parody the preacher, which is no more than many true servants of the Church achieve in earnest. Lavatch, the coarsest of them all, is always quoting the scriptures and consciously assumes the role of devil's advocate in his conversations with his mistress.5 Touchstone cleverly burlesques the art of exhortation, as he hectors Corin on the damnation of his soul, ironically reversing the traditional values of the shepherd's vocation, either ecclesiastical-pastoral or rustical-pastoral, and ending by upholding the foppery of the court as the noblest of them all.6 But Feste is the fool who actually dresses up as a parson, his Sir Topas displaying all the failings traditional in ecclesiastical satire, like the French sottises, where priest and fool were identified with each other: bumbling clericalism, blanketed by a pompous parade of false learning, and barricaded in turn with showy rhetoric: "Bonos dies, Sir Toby: for as the old hermit of Prague, that never saw pen and ink, very wittily said to a niece of King Gorboduc, 'That that is, is': so I, being Master Parson, am Master Parson; for what is 'that' but that? and 'is' but is?'7 On the surface it is nonsense, but the mask of absurdity only just conceals a shrewd and caustic observation of human snobbery and egotism. Like all fools, Feste under cover of fun, brings down the mighty to his own level.

To show that he professes folly, a fool wears distinctive clothes which reveal his nature and serve his vocation in various ways. The parti-coloured suit with cap and bells was worn by medieval court jesters, and the long coat of flecked homespun, which Leslie Hotson argues was the "motley" of Shakespeare's fools, was worn by naturals or idiots.8 Mr. Foikis wears a version of the better-known parti-coloured suit when he goes on duty, three days a week, in Vancouver's Courthouse Square. He admits frankly that "It took a lot of guts to appear publicly like this"; but, after all, exposure to ridicule is the point of being a fool. As well as being a badge of his own humiliation, motley offers several opportunities for the fool to humiliate others; by offering them his cockscomb or bauble, he makes a graphic comment upon their folly. Besides humble associations, Hotson remarks a number of honourable ones for the motley wear, which once again suggests the fool's closeness to the nobler professions. The long coat could suggest the priest's cassock, the soldier's gaberdine, the woman's petticoat, or the clothes worn by small children. All these were signs of a privileged member of society, one who goes under a great lord's protection.

The most ancient parts of the fool's dress are his cap and bauble, which parody the king's crown and sceptre. The bauble belongs to the fool in the komos of Attic comedy and was much flourished in the morris of the later Middle Ages; as a phallic symbol, it inspires either superstitious awe or puritanical revulsion, being one of the ways in which the fool, so to speak, separates the men from the boys. The cock's comb, a tuft of hair on a shaven head or a crest surmounting the fool's cap, goes back like the animal figures in the comedies of Aristophanes, to primitive rites. From the beginning, three elements are associated in the fool's nature: fertility, satire, and making merry; the rest of this paper will be concerned with examining some of the ways in which Shakespeare's fools combine satire and merry-making, so that they occupy a special place in both comedy and tragedy.

Because they occupy the lowest position in the social scale, and because they are self-judged, fools make excellent satirists. Their licence allows them to tell truth to the great, but since after all they are only fools, they usually manage to do this without offence. All Shakespeare's fools correspond to the Erasmian sage-fools in their satirical function: "what word coming out of a wise man's mouth were an hanging matter, the same yet spoken by a fool shall much delight even him that is touched therewith."9 The way in which the fool's satirical comments are received is the measure of their victim's characters. Feste's sharp tongue is called a bird-bolt by Olivia, as she defends her fool to Malvolio, who most certainly is not amused by the fool's taunts. Her gracious indulgence of the fool contrasts with Orsino's lordly ignoring of the fool's bolts; he does not even hear Feste's plain criticism, so lost in his dream is he. Viola is realistic and prevents the fool from "passing upon" her by paying him off; in any case, she has nothing to learn from him since she too is self-humiliated.10

Touchstone is constantly "flouting", as he says, and all the leading figures of society, both at court and in Arden, suffer him gladly. They show that they may grow by what they learn from him and they can give back as good as they get; Rosalind, Orlando, and Corin in particular enjoy parrying the thrusts of his sharp tongue, while Duke Senior and Jaques commend his skill, the Duke remaining egotistically unaware of any personal implications. At the other end of the social scale, Touchstone's satire scourges the fools Sir Oliver and William, but passes over Audrey's head; she gazes in admiration and marvels at his great powers of speech, with an innocent stupidity which makes the satirist throw down his arms.11

Lavatch in All's Well has a more "foul and calumnious" tongue than Feste and Touchstone combined, but once again the truly noble characters enjoy his satire and rebuke him if he grows tiresome. Only Parolles cannot take it: being all words, as his name implies, he is quite blown down by the clown's rude breath and has to cry quits.12

The tongue being his only weapon, the fool always runs off from actual violence, decrying it over his shoulder. When Sir Toby draws his sword to attack the supposed Cesario, Feste slips away to fetch Olivia. Touchstone makes clear his views on violence when he speaks to le Beau about his lurid account of the wrestling at court: "It is the first time that ever I heard breaking of ribs was sport for ladies." Lear's poor fool runs off from Goneril's wrath, taunting her over his shoulder with his version of a fool's satire, couched in pitifully inept doggerel.

While they tell the truth about individual and social evils, the fools' satire is often pleasing because it is expressed with so much wit, or with an amusing display of innocence. Snatches of song, doggerel from the morality plays, old ballads, strategic innuendo, parody, impersonation, and ironic asides are devices frequently employed by Shakespeare's fools. Only the ignoble need to fear him. As Enid Welsford points out, the truly aristocratic characters delight in him and survive his satire while shallow fops and conceited hollow men can do neither.13 Those who are too stupid to understand the fool's satire are forgiven and accepted at the end of the comedies. That is why Touchstone marries Audrey; of all the women in Arden he chooses her for the very reason that she is a foul and silly slut. Apart from the satisfaction of his bodily desires, all he can hope for from her is a perpetual whetstone for his wit; the first conversation between them sounds like many modern comic acts, where wit and stooge are married partners. Perhaps it is because a fool himself alternates between being a wit and the butt for others' ridicule that he has a basic sympathy for folly which makes him gentler than other satirists.

It was mainly from Roman comedy that Elizabethan fools inherited the standard objects for satirical comment: the arrogance of princes, the wantonness of women, ecclesiastical greed and hypocrisy, and any form of social affectation. As E. K. Chambers has pointed out, they followed the humanistic bias by setting up ethical rather than aesthetic standards.14 But while pleasure and profit go together when Shakespeare's fools are being satirical, it seems doubtful that they really aspired, as Jaques did, to cure the ills of all the world. They were not social workers at heart; on the contrary, they seemed to delight in the gulls, fops, dupes, cowards, lechers, and upstrats who surrounded them. The genial, holiday spirit of acceptance is theirs; at the worst, they shrug their shoulders cynically as they invite their audience, on stage and in the auditorium, to join in the merrymaking.

As an entertainer, the fool must strike a balance, or seesaw motion, between folly and wisdom. At one moment the fool amuses by his witless remarks and zany falling about; the next, he must provide apt replies to any question put to him by the casual onlooker; furthermore, he is expected to have special talents, for singing or juggling or tumbling. Shakespeare had two brilliant men to play his fools, one famous for his jigging and the other for his music. He gave them ample opportunity to display their particular skills but in addition he made both of them resemble the Athenian sophist. These men walked in the public squares to engage in contests of wit with any challenger, which is exactly what Touchstone does in Arden, Feste in Illyria, or Lavatch in Rossillion and the French court. And as they wander about waiting to be encountered, they resemble in turn Mr. Foikis in Vancouver Courthouse Square.

The capacity of fools to be both wit and stooge is clearly demonstrated at Touchstone's first appearance. Celia and Rosalind are debating in set terms upon the rivalry between Nature and Fortune when he meets them; at once they use him to continue their debate by exercising their wit at his expense. Wisely he refuses to rise to their baiting, even when Celia puns on his name, but in turn he sets up his own comic butt, in the form of the knight who swore away his honour. It appears that he has a satirical comment to make behind the mask of fooling, concerning the court of Duke Frederick; at one point he goes too far and draws a rebuke from Celia, who is honest enough to admit that she agrees with him: "By my troth, thou sayest true, for since the little wit that fools have was silenced, the little foolery that wise men have makes a great show."15 It is a beautifully balanced observation on the connexions between fools and wise men. Usually, wise men conceal their own folly by encouraging the fool to show off.

As a topsy-turvy scholar, the fool gained many successes as an entertainer. In an age where everyone was thoroughly schooled in logic, he would often be applauded for turning an argument inside out. Feste gives a clever performance in this kind to win back Olivia's favour when he appears first in the play. He begins with a mock syllogism, in which he reduces a moral quality to the absurd level of the concrete: "any thing that's mended is but patched: virtue that transgresses is but patched with sin, and sin that amends is but patched with virtue . . ." and he follows it with his famous catechism of the lady, by which, in a logical trap, he proves her a fool through her own answers. Such crazy logic, associated as it often is with obsessive images, brings the fools close to the madmen of the tragedies. Both express tangential thoughts in staccato phrases, flashing truth through the sudden juxtaposition of ideas. It is exciting for an audience, and produces a restless feeling, even an uneasy sense that the table of sanity is turning. Versatility remains the major characteristic of Shakespeare's fools as entertainers.

Feste is the least coarse of all the fools, having no trace of the bucolic or bawdy about his language; he personifies the values of an older, more elegant and courtly world, especially when he is with the Duke, Cesario, and his mistress Olivia. Yet he can suit himself to other company, when he happens to fall in with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew; he sings them a love song, by request, joins in a rollicking version of the latest catch and improvises lines to egg on Sir Toby in his confrontation with Malvolio. No intriguer, he takes no part in setting the trap for his old enemy, but once the steward is in prison, Feste joins in the fun of teasing him, taking subtle pleasure in suiting his styles of speech to the characters he impersonates, all the while making an ironic commentary on Malvolio's moral plight; the fool's doggerel from the morality play makes an excellent foil for Sir Topas's puritan rhetoric-of-the-devil.

The songs of Feste have a magical quality which belongs in the comedy of high romance and which the other fools do not emulate. As he says to Orsino, he takes pleasure in singing, but even when he is performing his most plangent songs we do well to look for irony. His final song is a strange one, being as Bradley says "at once cheerful and rueful, stoical and humorous",16 like Feste himself. Throughout life, the wind and rain beat upon him, but just the same he goes on striving to entertain. Singing in the rain is one of the most important duties of the fool, whether in romantic comedy, high tragedy, or theatre of the absurd.

Part of the fool's ability to entertain depended upon his intimate knowledge of the household and the mood of those he was called upon to amuse. It is viola who points this out, recognizing the delicate judgment he must show, in order to be all things to all men:

He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time;
And like the haggard, check at every feather
That comes before his eye. . . .

The fool's position in the household was a most peculiar one. In the plays in which they appear, all the fools are licensed by the fathers, and in each one it is pointed out that the father took much delight in the fool, which adds an antique sanction to his antic nature. Duke Frederick, we are told, used to laugh at the "roynish" Touchstone; and Curio says of Feste that he was "a fool the Lady Olivia's father took much delight in"; while the Countess explains Lavatch's position: "My Lord that's gone made himself much sport out of him; by his authority he remains here, which he thinks is a patent for his sauciness." In fact they are all like Will Sommers, the famous fool in whom Queen Elizabeth's father took much delight, and who was still celebrated towards the end of Elizabeth's reign by writers like Thomas Nashe and Samuel Rowley.

Royally protected and often beloved, the fool in a great household was something between a child and a favourite dog, indulged until he became wearisome and then bundled off, sometimes for a whipping. Like children, fools live to play; they show a flattering dependence upon adults, although they may be saucy towards them; and they are capable of making wise remarks ingenuously, which delights the adults and is often received by them as a message from the oracle. Adults enjoy participating in the games of children, or fools, in order to escape from their own world; this may be a total escape into fantasy or a partial escape through recreating it from the child's point of view. In this latter form, play involves satire in the mimicking of adult activities or the reversal of adult values, which can be a refreshing experience, provided that the adult is capable of being completely absorbed. Once the world of play has been fully entered, however, the adult world fades far away and the mysterious world of spontaneous make-believe fills the scene. Both children and fools love to create a land of their own, filled with people with strange-sounding names, around which they march in fantastic garb, singing, shouting and dancing, or strumming any musical instrument that lies handy. It is familiar territory to poets and such humorists as Thackeray, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and James Thurber. It is most familiar to Shakespeare's fools, who seem to dwell much of the time in a land apart. Whether we call it escapism, wish-fulfilment or the release of tensions and anxieties, such behavour is organically related to festivity and therefore of the essence of comedy; perhaps this is why the fool leads the way into the true enjoyment of both of these.

Like children and dogs, however much they are petted, the fool may fall into sudden disgrace. It has been noticed already how Celia rebukes Touchstone shortly after his first appearance on stage; both Feste and Lavatch make their first entrance in disgrace, the former for "truancy" and the latter for "complaints". All of them endure a scolding, as part of their introduction to the audience, and then bounce back with a cheeky, knavish charm, using their wits to win favour. It is as if Shakespeare desired to stress the fool's duty toward his mistress, which seems to have resembled his own toward the Queen, by making her discipline him and remind him of his duty to entertain her. Also, of course, it is a wonderful excuse to make the fool perform his best tricks. After all, it is the fool's work to make others play, and if he falls off in this vocation he must be brought back to it sharply.

Though they were employed by the fathers, Shakespeare's fools are more attached to the children of the family, whom they have known since infancy. Hamlet recalls the fun he used to have with Yorick, laughing at unsuitable jokes about women and death, kissing and riding on his back; in the graveyard scene he asks the fool's skull: "Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?" It evokes the powers of Yorick to entertain in a variety of ways, suggesting the acrobatic, witty, and musical talents that all the fools combine, and Hamlet proved an apt pupil when his turn came to "put an antic disposition on". In Lear's household, the fool attached himself naturally to Cordelia, so that he pined away when she went to France. There are a few hints in the comedies that the fools and the heroines are very close, through a familiarity reaching back to childhood. Feste's names for Olivia sound like the pet names one gives a little girl: "Madonna" or "good my mouse of virtue". And she treats him with a special intimacy; her reprimand to him for his teasing of Malvolio is a very gentle one: "Now you see, sir, how your fooling grows old and people dislike it." Touchstone's devotion to Celia is so great that she has complete confidence that he will accompany her to Arden, blithely saying: "He'll go along o'er the wide world with me." Loyalty to the romantic heroine is a special task of the fool in the comedies. He cannot defend her against violence but he can at least comfort her and attend her in her wanderings. His comments remind us of her virtue and suggest that she will overcome, in her resistance to the forces of tyranny and delusion.

To summarize what has been said so far about the fool's vocation: as satirist the fool forces society to make a critical re-appraisal of itself, but as entertainer he relieves the tension accompanying this uncomfortable experience through laughter. By his nature, he is an object of ridicule, yet he is a shrewd observer of human follies. A realist, with his eye always on the passage of time and the signs of mortality, he is a sympathetic companion to the romantic heroine, who redeems mortality. To some extent he is involved in the scene he observes from the satirist's standpoint; for instance, Lear's fool comments all the time on his master's errors of judgment, yet it is he who accompanies Lear through their consequences and on to the heath. He is the suffering side of Lear, out in the storm, complaining of the cold and the rain, while his master majestically commands them or ignores them altogether. Perhaps he may be compared to the Greek Chorus, in that he is a helpless, sympathetic observer of the protagonists, seeing their errors and watching the approach of fate but unable to help them; for all his inactivity, his fate is bound up with theirs.

All the romantic comedies react react ugly and sterile reality, the everyday world that people complain about, and the fool makes the perfect guide from the world of everyday to the magic circle, within which lies the land of romance. He too resists ugliness and sterility, yet he remains realistic; Touchstone is the only one who takes a watch with him to Arden, while Feste reminds the young that "Youth's a stuff will not endure". Both breathe reminders of winter into the sunny world of lovers, without actually freezing their rapture. Touchstone belongs in Arden, because only he can prove its gold against his stony roughness. It is in his conversations with Corin that the pastoral landscape becomes real to us, with all his talk of rams and bellwethers and butterwomen going to market. Besides making the golden world real and providing an earthy romantic element, Touchstone contributes a philosophy of his own to the play. It is a tolerant one, appreciating that human nature will always be "mortal in folly", even in love, and that human institutions, however solemnly celebrated, are but temporary affairs; one must be ready to compromise rather than adopt a rigid attitude. Just before Hymen appears, at the climax of Act V, he is saying to Duke Senior: "Your If is the only peacemaker. Much virtue in If. . . ." And it is Hymen who points out that he and Audrey belong with each other, "As the winter to foul weather". Indeed he is the rude breath of winter, the not altogether unkind wind, celebrated in Amiens' song early in the play.

In Twelfth Night the romantic escape is from a barren world of vapid voluptuousness and morbid self-deceiving sentiment to a saturnalia. Feste comments shrewdly on the sentimentality and does not hesitate to join in the revelry, adding his voice to those of the rollicking knights. He does his best to cheer his mourning mistress and to pander to the melancholy of Orsino, realizing they need to be brought back to life. As C. L. Barber remarks, "His part does not darken the bright colours of the play; but it gives them a dark outline, suggesting that the whole bright revel emerges from shadow".17 If the romantic world is to be more than merely escapist it has to cure the diseases of the real world, educating those who enter it for their inevitable return, and this is Feste's function. At the end of the play he supervises the audience's return to reality as well, striking his own philosophical note and ending with his desire to please.

All's Well That Ends Well, on the other hand, is not an escapist romance; it explores the ugly and barren world itself. The court of Rossillion, as Mark van Doren says,18 is full of "darkness, old age, disease, sadness and death", while the old king of France suffers with a fistula and his troops fighting in Italy are decimated as much by syphilis as by battle injuries. In a play which explores the fallen nature of man, the fool must become a parody of Jeremiah, decrying the sins of the world as a form of entertainment. To the countess's accusation that he is "a foul-mouth'd and caluminous knave", Lavatch replies "A prophet I, madam, and I speak the truth the next way".

When we turn to tragedy, the ambivalence of the fool is nowhere more poignant than in King Lear, where his twittering truisms are disregarded until it is too late. Lear is mad when he comes to appreciate his fool's wisdom. But the paradox about folly and wisdom comes close in this play to Christian teaching about humility and blessedness, as Saint Paul told the Corinthians: "Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. . . ." When we consider Shakespeare's fools in this light, it is clear that they possess many of the Christian-Stoic virtues, such as loyalty, truth-telling, humility, love and fortitude under persecution, which makes them worthy of the tragic state. It has often been said that Lear's fool is very like Cordelia; both tell truth to the king, suffer humiliation and exile for doing so, follow him into the wilderness, the one as his companion and the other to effect his cure. In all these actions, they not only follow Saint Paul but resemble Christ.

But folly pervades the entire play. All the virtuous characters in turn play the fool in King Lear, in that they are mocked at by the worldly and assume the burden of ridicule and humiliation. Kent is laughed at in the stocks, Edgar is mocked as Poor Tom, and Albany is scorned by his wife, who underestimates his power of understanding what is going on, when she tells Edmund, "My fool usurps my body". The apotheosis of the fool occurs at Dover, where Gloucester attempts suicide, lovingly fooled by Edgar, and Lear himself becomes "the natural fool of Fortune" on "this great stage of fools", as he talks to Gloucester.19 The fool and the blind man meet with Death in tragedy.

It is possible to find some of the noblest professions contributing part of their nature to the humble vocation of fool: doctor, teacher, poet, preacher, guru, philosopher, martyr, counsellor, and friend. How horrified Stephen Gosson would be to hear how twentieth-century people dignify those whom he labelled "the caterpillars of the commonwealth"20 to the status of his own vocation of evangelist. But this is what the fool must be to the modern world: in his own unassuming way, he must combine the best of all vocations, their curative, recreative, and regenerative principles. The central point of his nature is the meeting-place for truth, nonsense, humour, fantasy, play, poetry, and religion. No wonder that in the medieval folk plays he triumphed over Death.

Mr. Foikis is well aware of all this, of course. In the Globe and Mail article already referred to he says that he became a fool after what he calls "a mystic experience" in which it was revealed to him that his role in life was to walk the stage of the world as the fool of joy, reviving in others the ability to laugh in the face of death. But rather than with Mr. Foikis, we should end with a comparison that Bradley made between the fool and Shakespeare himself,

. . . who, looking down from an immeasurable height on the mind of the public and the noble had yet to be their servant and jester, and to depend upon their favour, not wholly uncorrupted by this dependence, but yet superior to it, and also determined, like Feste, to lay by the sixpences it brought him, until at last he could say the words, "Our revels now are ended", and could break—was it a magician's staff or a Fool's bauble?21


1 Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation (London: Hutchinson, 1964).

2 Compare Wordsworth, "the perception of similitude in dissimilitude . . . is the great spring of the activity of our minds. . . ." (Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads).

3 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955).

4Globe and Mail, Saturday, March 2, 1968, p. 22. "The motley career of an official town fool", by Paul King.

5All's Well That Ends Well, I, iii, and IV, v.

6As You Like It, III, ii.

7Twelfth Night, IV, ii, 13-17.

8 Leslie Hotson, Shakespeare's Motley (London: Rupert Hart-Davies, 1952).

9 Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, translated by Sir Thomas Chaloner, 1549.

10Twelfth Night, I, v, 94; II, iv, 73-78; III, i, 42.

11As You Like It, V, iv, 63, 106-107.

12All's Well, II, iv, 36-38; V, ii, 19-27.

13 Enid Welsford, The Fool, his Social and Literary History (London: Faber and Faber, 1935), p. 254.

14 E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. I, p. 238.

15As You Like It, I, ii, 43-54, 85-87.

16 A. C. Bradley, A Miscellany (London: Macmillan, 1929).

17 C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1963), p. 259.

18 Quoted by G. K. Hunter in the Introduction to the New Arden Edition, xxxvi n.

19King Lear, IV, vi. See the article by Carolyn S. French, "Shakespeare's Folly: King Lear", in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. X, 1959, 523-529.

20 Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, 1579.

21 Bradley, op. cit., p. 217.

Roberta Mullini (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Playing the Fool: The Pragmatic Status of Shakespeare's Clowns," in New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, February, 1985, pp. 98-104.

[In the following essay, Mullini investigates Shakespeare's use of fools to disrupt hierarchical order and the conventions of language.]

The title of this paper suggests most of the dramatic and metadramatic features of the fool character. In the fictitious world the fool plays on various levels: the fool-actor reproduces on the stage his acting role, carrying into the dramatic world his heritage of social satire. At the same time he mirrors the historical figure of the court-fool from which he draws his line of behaviour: a player, a specialized one, heir to the ancient mimus and the medieval histrio, whose person is strictly linked to the world of dramatic illusion, plays himself in an illusory scene, creating a breach in the illusion itself. That scene being taken from the court, the actor-fool need not look very far either for a character to imitate—the court-fool—or for clues from both narrative and dramatic sources and historical accounts as to how he should be performed. There is, moreover, a religious and philosophical background which traces its origin back to the biblical topoi and to Erasmus' Praise of Folly.

The Shakespearian fool stands at a crossroads where all these elements come together, a point where the dramatic traditions of the Tudor Vice and the folkdrama fool are renewed and where European culture shows at its best the mixture of medieval and humanist concepts of folly. 'This fellow is wise enough to play the fool', says Viola after Feste's exit in Twelfth Night (III, i). She is also saying that Robert Armin is a good enough actor to impersonate a court-fool, having all the faculties necessary to reproduce the nimble and saucy jester—and in making this metadramatic comment, she is also underlining Feste's qua-character ability to unmask the wise men's folly.1

The Typology of Historical Fools

Juri Lotman's typology of culture draws a line between symbolic and syntagmatic models of society—the former, medieval society, being characterized by a strong sense of hierarchy according to which individuals are worthy only so far and so long as they occupy a position in the hierarchical scale; the latter, modern society, marked by greater consideration for the biological person whose social existence is no longer linked to hierarchical status.2 Starting from this division, which of course has no pretension to being chronologically precise, we can try to define the position and the stature of the court-fool.

The fool arrives at the court when the king wants to be amused, or wants to divert the 'evil eye' from his sacred person—fools being chosen from the wretches of society already struck by some infirmity. The fool is thus called from the outer world into the inner world, from the land of darkness into the light, from a chaotic reality into the order. A person is asked to play a role: that of the king's jester. Those who come from the mobile world outside, from the popular culture of the anti-model, are asked to live in an immobile world, that of the model and of the static hierarchy.3

However, once inside the high space of the court, the fool's chaotic significance is subjected to the influence of the power of symbolic society: his freedom is a sign of the power which calls him to life; his liberty finds expression through and is limited by the licence given by authority. If this licence is withdrawn, the court-fool is no longer himself and has to go back to the world from which he came. He neither belongs to the symbolic model, nor has any place in the hierarchy: he is accepted by this same hierarchy because the king wants a sort of speaking and tumbling toy, and a comic double of his royal person. The bauble and the coxcomb are comic copies of the sceptre and the crown.

So the court-fool is at the same time at the top and the bottom of the social scale, yet cannot be considered part of it: when his licence is revoked, the fool is sent back to the world of prostitutes and petty crime, back to the roads and the market-place. It is not difficult to see Pompey in Measure for Measure and Autolycus in The Winter's Tale as such displaced fools.

It is almost impossible, then, to separate fools natural from fools artificial. Robert Armin himself writes that Will Sommers was 'the Kings naturall lester',4 but the episodes he narrates of Sommer's life reveal him as an artificial fool rather than a natural one. In practice many people put on the mask of folly in order to earn their living at court, thus creating a first level of simulation. And it is at this point that other cultural crosscurrents meet in the figure of the court-fool, the tradition of carnival buffoons and of marketplace players being grafted onto the insane children of nature (or onto those who feigned a degree of lunacy).

The clerical condemnation of histriones and the exclusion of the insane from the Christian community combined to give definition to a figure who lived outside society, far from any norm, blamed and feared both because of his behaviour and possible connection with supernatural (and infranatural) powers. All this is summed up in the typical costume of court-fools—the 'disorder' of the motley colours; the bauble as the sceptre of a nowhere bordering on an everywhere, and as a reminder of a disordered sexuality (the sin of lechery); the pig's bladder as the icon of a foolish mind, and simultaneously of the sin of gluttony; the coxcomb or the cap with ass's ears as the parodic crown of the king of the feast, and, together, as a link to two animals recorded in the Gospel as being near Christ at the time respectively of his death and birth.5

The humanistic view of the fool—that of Erasmus' Praise of Folly rather than Brant's Narrenschiff— evaluates the figure as the mouthpiece of truth. Fools, says Erasmus,

can provide the very thing a Prince is looking for, jokes, laughter, merriment and fun. And, let me tell you, fools have a gift which is not to be despised. They 're the only ones who speak frankly and tell the truth, and what is more, passionately the truth. . . . The fact is kings do dislike the truth, but the outcome of this is extraordinary for any fools. They can speak truth and even open insults and be heard with positive pleasure: indeed, the words which would cost a wise man his life are surprisingly enjoyable when uttered by a clown.6

But it must be emphasized that hierarchical society permits the fool's truth precisely because it is told by someone who this same 'wise' society considers to be a fool. The truth of the fool's discourse cannot be utilized to change the situation: it belongs to the time-off period of games and the sender of the message is licensed only so long as his satirical comments do not intrude into the sphere of action.7 The fool's power of judgment is there like a toy to be enjoyed, but the fool's self-awareness cannot be transferred to the society which gives him the licence. Fools laugh and make men laugh, but their strength is limited by their being considered as playthings rather than as living individuals.

Games have their own rules which do not affect the level of reality. When the game is over, the players resume their daily activities: the fool, however, who constantly signifies play, is not allowed a proper time for serious activity. He is allowed no activity at all outside the game, unless he steps out of it. But in this event the fool turns into a man, and is therefore useless to the court games. While playing the game, the fool enjoys his particular licence to address anybody, anywhere. His word is tolerated as a warped comment on reality. And it is exactly within the boundaries of his own licence—nearly always on the border-line of being whipped—that the fool has to make a profit from his discourse.

Shakespeare's Fools

Writing about the development of stage characters in French soties and moralités, Michel Foucault says that

The denunciation of madness [la folie] becomes the general form of criticism. In farces and soties, the character of the Madman, the Fool, or the Simpleton assumes more and more importance. . . . He stands centre stage as the guardian of truth. . . . If folly leads each man into a blindness where he is lost, the madman, on the contrary, reminds each man of his truth; in a comedy where each man deceives the other and dupes himself, the madman is comedy to the second degree: the deception of deception; he utters, in his simpleton's language which makes no show of reason, the words of reason that release, in the comic, the comedy.8

Shakespeare's fools epitomize this tradition of European drama and prolong it. But the playwright is also (and mainly) drawing upon a dramatic convention already rich in Tudor and early Elizabethan theatre, that of the Vice. Nevertheless he invents his fools, because what is left in them of earlier medieval types is linked to the humanist and Renaissance views of folly, so that the convention is renewed by Shakespeare, who severs the two main aspects of the Vice (as sovereign of words and rhetoric on one side and as the archintriguer of the plot on the other), dismissing his villainy and retaining only his role as jester. Shakespeare's fools are denied the ability to further the action, and do not take part in the events that advance the plot.

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, All's Well that Ends Well, and King Lear there are characters whose status is similar to that of the historical court-fool. Fools act as messengers—often failing in their tasks without, however, seriously damaging the proairetic chain of events.

Speed, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is sent away by Proteus because he has not been able to report Julia's answer to his master's letter:

Go, go, be gone, to save your ship from wrack,
Which cannot perish having thee aboard,
Being destin 'd to a drier death on shore.
I must go send some better messenger:
I fear my Julia would not deign my lines
Receiving them from such a worthless post.


In As You Like It, after their decision to flee from the court, Celia and Rosalind observe that Touchstone, the 'clownish fool', would 'be a comfort to our travel' (I, iii, 127). The fool's playful function in the dramatic world is stressed (he is not considered to be useful) through the importance of his presence in relieving the burden of the play ('our journey') with his comic and witty character.

Feste is declared unreliable when reading Malvolio's letter in Twelfth Night (V, i, 292-6), and Olivia orders Fabian to perform the task. The fool is thought of as disrupting the channels of communication, unable to transfer information from the written page to the lady.

In All's Well, Lavatch actually does serve as a messenger between the Countess and Helena; but his answers to Helena, who inquires about the lady's health, are so rhetorically complicated that pure information is muddled with riddles and mock-logic (II, iv). The behaviour of such fools shows that Shakespeare does not want to use his jesters simply as servants: they carry out orders if they like and how they like, disregarding the issues. And it is no wonder that Lear's Fool does not work as a messenger: he is never sent on errands, his primary task being that of helping the king out of his madness, or driving him towards self-awareness.

Touchstone gets married to Audrey, but his marriage is barely 'for two months victuall'd', as Jaques acknowledges at the end of the play (As You Like It, V, iv, 191). And Touchstone himself (III, iii, 81-5) declares in an aside that 'not being well married' would be better for him. His nuptials appear as a game, with rules which last only till the game itself is over, and his marriage acquires a clear metadramatic hint, in so far as it reflects the short life of the whole game—the play—and of all the fictitious marriages with which the comedy ends.

Feste plays the chief part in Malvolio's exorcism—or rather, two parts, his own and the exorcist's. But this episode does not affect the Viola-Orsino-Olivia plot, and, most important, the action operates as a play-within-the-play, a game whose victim is Malvolio. Feste says 'I was one, sir, in this interlude' (Twelfth Night, V, i, 371), thus confessing both his participation in and the nature of the plot against Malvolio: it was only an old game, a fiction, an interlude—its relationship to the Tudor drama all the more evident in that Feste, at the end of the exorcism, sings a song recalling his recent ancestor, 'the Old Vice' (IV, ii, 127).

There they are, the fools—ubiquitous, able to speak both as characters and as voices outside the plays through their metadramatic glosses, spokesmen of the commonsense of the audience and, at the same time, of the Utopian aspirations of the playwright. As the court-fool is a stranger in the court—an external element to which the court gives a limited licence but, paradoxically, a powerful voice—so the stage court-fool lives inside the main action ready to step out of its borders, as little involved as possible. The fool goes 'to bed at noon' when the fictional kingdom breaks down and the old hierarchy is destroyed.

But during the performance fools always work on the two dynamic levels of illusion and reality, between the stage and the audience. On the former level their word operates as a kind of litmus paper of the characters' folly, on the latter it shows and proclaims this folly in dialectical balance with the fool's wit. The fool's word, and not his action, interacts with the other characters, who judge him according to the cultural codes of Elizabethan society—or, as Duke Senior puts it, 'He uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit' (As You Like It, V, iv, 105-6).

The Corruption of Words

The fool's words can be qualified as a macro-speech act of challenge. By the various means of his pseudologic, the fool sets up a competition between his so-called foolish word and the 'wise' discourse of the others. The usual distinction between sweet and bitter becomes invalid, because the fool's discourse is always the eloquent weapon of the fool's challenge, through either 'sweet' behaviour or 'bitter' conversation.

Shakespeare endows his fools with extraordinary powers of speech. Following Elizabethan poetics, all his characters show specific rhetorical competence, but the fool's acute sense of the semantics and rhetoric of language enables him to play with the subtleties of the common code in order to subvert—for a magic moment—the hierarchical order of the speakers. It is in the pragmatics of the fool's discourse that Shakespeare moulds this character, whose life is the word and whose interaction effects the corruption of the others' words.

From this point of view, a character like Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice shows a double nature, the rustic clown's and the fool's. Before serving Bassanio, he is the man of Shylock's household. His speech displays flaws such as comic malopropisms (for example in II, ii, 119-27) and he is conceived by Shylock as the prototype of most sins. He enters the stage in II, i, acting out the one-man moral show of the conflict between his conscience and the devil, like the old Vice. But once he has put on the 'livery / More guarded than his fellows" (II, ii, 147-8), he turns into a witty fool, skilful in undermining the solidity and the semantic denotation of the universe of discourse. Let's look, for an example, at the puns he constructs on Lorenzo's order, 'bid them prepare for dinner' (a):

LAUN. That is done, sir, they have all stomachs!

LOR. Goodly Lord, what a wit-snapper are you! then bid them prepare dinner!

LAUN. That is done too sir, only 'cover' is the word. (b)

LOR. Will you cover then sir?

LAUN. Not so sir neither. I know my duty.

LOR. Yet more quarrelling with occasion! Wilt thou show the whole wealth of thy wit in an instant? I pray thee understand a plain man in his plain meaning: go to thy fellows, bid them cover the table, serve in the meat, and we will come in to dinner.

LAUN. For the table sir, it shall be serv'd in,—for the meat sir, it shall be cover 'd,—for your coming in to dinner sir, why let it be as humours and conceits shall govern. (III, v, 44-58)

In his response to Lorenzo's directive (a), Launcelot shifts the meaning from what would be usual in a servant/master context to an inter pares interpretation: the relationship between the two men has already become 'democratic', so to say, instead of the one-up/one-down balance existing on the ontological level.10 The fool's answer to the other's reformulated order (b) is quite correct, but it adds also a metalinguistic comment on Lorenzo's semantic inappropriateness.

At this point the discoursive hierarchy is subverted: the fool can teach the wise man how to use language, and, furthermore, the former compels the latter to reword the directive, now split into the three original constituents which are at the basis of the present idiomatic usage. Besides this, Lorenzo cannot but pray Launcelot to 'understand a plain man in his plain meaning': the one-up character descends to the one-down position, so that he begs comprehension and puts questions. The order, then, is carried out only after this metalinguistic performance.

The discoursive hierarchy is turned upside down in a more striking example from Twelfth Night when Feste, using the medieval device of catechism (instruction and education through what we now call adjacency pairs or question-and-answer exchange) brings the lady Olivia to acknowledge herself as the fool of the house (I, v). After playing with his own discourse and highlighting his rhetorical and semantic competence (he uses syllogistic structures, antanaclasis, and activates more than one isotopy in 40-7), Feste repeats his challenging riddle which confuses 'the lady' and 'the fool' into a single character. Then he proclaims that he is not a fool, but only wears the fool's cap: in so doing he implicitly suggests that those who do not wear the coxcomb are the actual fools.

Eventually Olivia succumbs to the catechistic process, which is nothing but a mock syllogism whose praemissae are distributed between the speakers and whose conclusio 'Take away the fool' (69) coincides with the propositio 'Take away the lady' (37). Olivia is not only degraded from her one-up position to the one-down, but is also repeatedly given the title of fool, the one we are 'born with', as Lear's Fool maintains (I, iv, 147). With his rhetorical performance, Feste changes the referent of his lady's words: he succeeds in proving his lady the real fool, even if his victory is limited—as is Launcelot's—to this realm of words, so that Olivia says, a few lines later, 'There is no slander in an allowed fool' (84).

Lear's Fool is often threatened with the whip because he dares to remind the king of his folly. The Fool here, however, need not use any particular device to call Lear by the name of 'fool'. All the jester's interaction in Act I aims at pointing out Lear's foolish behaviour, while a recovery of judgement still seems possible. The king does not contest his Fool's word—although the jester is threatened—because he now understands the 'logic' and truth of his word.

The Fool is a fool, Lear is 'nothing': the king is the first to lose his place in society and therefore his ontological value, whereas he was at the hierarchical top of symbolic society. The Fool will follow him, as a true fool, but, not belonging to this order, he is free to leave this world to its decay. He loses his job in the court because medieval society is crumbling: when the king reaches the stage of definitive madness and no longer needs the Fool's mirror, the Fool can retire. And Shakespeare, in his later plays, does not use stage court-fools.

Lear's Fool can be considered as the epitome of all Shakespearian fools: he is no messenger, uses monologues and asides addressing the audience directly, speaks almost exclusively to his master, is given no possibility of intervention in the plot, but has powers of satirical and Utopian prophecy. The active power of his speech, however, here more than in other plays, proves extremely limited: words cannot govern tragic issues and the Erasmian fool is not sufficient to stop the events from destroying the hero.

Thus Shakespeare seems to acknowledge that this figure from the Middle Ages who uses a fanciful wisdom cannot act against the epistemological crisis of his age: late and post-Elizabethan times require new energies to resist the disruption of the old order. And tragic madness seems to be the only cognitive answer.

The Fool's word is endowed with special prophetic values which link the play's society to the Elizabethan audience, to our own world, and backwards to myth: 'This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time' (III, ii, 95-6). The Fool speaks in the here and now of the scenic present and so talks to Jacobean society, but he shifts this present back to a legendary past, prior even to Merlin. All the long tradition of the fool appears to be epitomized in this prophecy: the character comes from far off in the past and projects forward into an indefinite future, ready to turn up whenever the fool society needs witty chastisement.


All Shakespearian fools, then, are largely artificial, and as such they 'with their wits lay waite / To make themselues fools, likeing their disguyes, / To feed their owne mindes, and the gazers eyes', according to Robert Armin's definition.11 They are actors on the stage of life, and doubly players in the fictional world: the awareness they possess of their condition, of their playing the fool, contrasts with the other characters' blindness, which does not allow them to accept the truth of the fool's discourse.

The fool's licence, often obscene, always pungent in throwing attention onto the dynamics between seeming and being, appears then as a conscious invention of Shakespeare's in order to stress the Utopian values of his fictional societies. The satirical power of the ancient folk-fool and of the more recent market-place player is transferred by Shakespeare into the figure of the fool in his fictitious courts, where a lucid word substitutes for the tumbling and jesting of the historical personages.

Shakespearian fools, dramatic signs of the power which allows the licence of the court-fool, operate to dismantle the conventional signs of language: they anatomize the others' langue—dividing words, splitting proverbs, commenting metalinguistically on the structure of language, often disguising their parole as a riddle. And their word is rhetorically rich, semantically ambiguous, ontologically disruptive of the order of the fictional world. Shakespeare's fools are, as Feste himself says, actually not his 'fools', but his 'corrupters of words'.


1 I have dealt more extensively with these aspects of the fool in Corruttore di parole: il fool nel teatro di Shakespeare (Bologna: CLUEB, 1983).

2 Cf. J. Lotman, 'Problema znaka i znakovoj sistemy i tipologija russkoj kul'tury XI-XIX vekov', in Stat'i po tipologii kul'tury, I (Tartu, 1970).

3 Cf. M. Corti, 'Modelli e antimodelli nella cultura medievale', Strumenti critici, 35 (1978).

4 Cf. R. Armin, Foole upon Foole, in The Collected Works, with introductions by J. P. Feather (New York; London: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1972), E2-1.

5 For a more detailed study of both court-and stagefools, cf. E. Welsford, The Fool: His Social and Literary History (London: Faber, 1935); and W. Willeford, The Fool and His Sceptre: a Study in Clowns and Jesters and their Audience (London: Arnold, 1977). Among the many articles on the subject, see particularly G. L. Evans, 'Shakespeare's Fools: the Nature and the Substance of Drama', in D. Palmer and M. Bradbury, eds., Shakespearian Comedy (London: Arnold, 1972), for its specific stress on the actor/character and stage/audience relationships.

6 Erasmus, Praise of Folly, trans. Betty Radice, Chapter XXXVI (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971).

7 Here I make use of the concepts of 'time-on' and 'time-off activities as introduced by E. Goffman, in Interaction Ritual (Chicago: Aldine Press, 1967).

8Madness and Civilization: a History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (London: Tavistock Publications, 1977), abridged translation, pp. 30-31.

9 This quotation and the following are taken from the Arden Editions of Shakespeare's plays.

10 P. Watzlawick, J. H. Beavin, and D. D. Jackson, in Pragmatics of Human Communication (New York: Norton, 1967), underline the relationship between the speaker's social and/or contextual status and his actual discourse.

11 Armin, op. cit., B2-2.

Meredith Anne Skura (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Clowns and Fools," in Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream, edited by Peggy O'Brien, Washington Square Press, 1993, pp. 19-24.

[Below, Skura surveys Shakespeare's use of clowns in his plays, and their popularity with both Elizabethan and modern audiences.]

For a long while Shakespeare's clowns were an embarrassment to everybody, and they were censored from productions. Lear's fool, for example, was left out of every one of the many eighteenth-century performances of King Lear. Producers in the nineteenth century kept Macbeth's porter in the play, but they cut his lines to "Knock, knock, knock." Twentieth-century productions have at times imposed their own censorship on Shakespeare, invoking aesthetic if not moral justifications. The clowns in Romeo and Juliet and Othello are occasionally removed from modern productions, for example. On the whole, however, in our era clowns have been rescued. We find more than random "comic relief in the clown scenes, and we now see them as part of each play's larger thematic and imagistic design. Macbeth's porter doesn't merely "relieve" us (by slipping comically on a banana peel, for example); he helps create the grotesquely hellish atmosphere created by Macbeth's crime. The rest of this essay explores the clown's function both in Renaissance drama at large and in Shakespeare.

In turning to the fool and the clown we are true to the spirit of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. "Everything is full of Fools," said Erasmus—or, as Robin Goodfellow put it in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" Along with the new sense of individual possibility and the expansion of human horizons in the Renaissance came the continual reminder of the lower side of experience, and the fascination with fools, clowns, and rogues who represent the pure animal existence beneath all our civilized aspirations. They embody the pure life force, as Susanne Langer said appreciatively: "tumbling and stumbling through one disaster and another, the clown shows a brainy opportunism in the face of an essentially dreadful universe."

The clown wasn't invented by dramatists. The fool had always had his role in communal rituals and festivals, the seasonal celebrations that calibrated the agricultural year. And all year round there were real fools or jesters who were permanent representatives of human folly at court and in the great houses; and there were fools in literature, too. Given that comedy in general was part of theater almost from its beginnings, it is no wonder that fools and clowns found their way into plays as well. Even the mystery plays that acted out stories of the Bible for illiterate crowds had their shrewish wives and comic shepherds. The morality plays often starred a comic Vice or Fool who served as master of ceremonies as Everyman made his way between the forces of Good and Evil. Not only was he important to the plot, but he commented on it and interpreted it for the audience, and he occasionally stopped the play to collect ticket money. In the traveling groups who went from town to town putting on outdoor performances, the company clown often had the job of gathering the crowd as well as collecting the money.

By the time Shakespeare started writing plays, clowns were in most of the plays—even when there were none in the sources for those plays and when none seemed to belong. Preston's King Cambyses, for example, was advertised as "a lamentable tragedy," but it was nonetheless "mixed full of pleasant mirth"—just like Bottom's production of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream. For the crowds, the clown was the most popular part of the performance. He was the only character identified by role in stage directions, which remained the same from play to play—and from author to author and company to company. Thus Shakespeare's original scripts apparently read "Enter clown"—not "Enter Touchstone"—even though modern editors sometimes substitute the character's name. Audiences knew what to expect from "Clown," just as we know what to expect when we see a Charlie Chaplin film. The clown was usually ugly, wore country clothes with loose pants (called slops), and carried simple instruments like a drum. The clown's role was scattered through the play, but he also had his own skit or jig after the play was over. The jigs were vaudeville routines, the traditional song-and-dance act that was reliably simple, repetitive, funny, and obscence. Even the people who couldn't or wouldn't pay to see the main play waited until the "gatherers" or ticket-takers left their posts at the theater doors, and then sneaked in to see the clowns' jigs. These jigs collected such large and unruly crowds that they were finally outlawed while Shakespeare was still writing.

Some authors actually welcomed the clown's contribution and provided him with stage directions or lines that were in effect temporary licenses to do what he wanted. One stage direction in The History of the Trial of Chivalry (1605), for example, reads "Enter Forrester, speak anything, and exit"; and Heywood in Edward the Fourth writes that the clown Jocki is to be "led to whipping over the stage, speaking words, but of no importance." But many other authors resisted the clowns. They scorned the "jigging fool," as Brutus called him when he thrust himself head and shoulders into the general's tent during the war in Julius Caesar; they looked down on the "jigging veins of rhyming mother wits," as Marlowe called the writing he associated with clowns, and they scorned the audience who called for the clown. They made fun of characters like Polonius, who needed a jig or a tale of bawdry to keep him awake during a performance. Even if the author refused to include any clowning in the main body of his play, often the clown-actor added it himself. The clown was irrepressible—much like the class clown at school, who fills the same needs. Hamlet's warning to the clown among the players who come to Elsinore is typical of many an anticlown playwright's position:

And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That's villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.


From Hamlet's lines we can see that clowns often did speak more than was set down for them, and that not only did they speak, they also engaged in attention-getting stage business, like faking a laugh (actors still do this to steal a scene). We can also learn that clowns as characters were considered extra or un-"necessary," and that as actors they seemed "ambitious" to the playwright who was competing for the audience's attention. In the "bad" First Quarto (1603) text of Hamlet, Hamlet speaks more than is set down for him in the Folio (1623). Was this a clown's addition? Wherever it originated, this Quarto speech gives Hamlet himself a chance to mimic the popular clown act—probably not very difficult for someone who already has an attitude or, as Hamlet called it, "an antic disposition":

And then you have some again that keeps one suit of jests, as a man is known by one suit of apparel, and gentlemen quotes his jests down in their tables, before they come to the play, as thus:

"Cannot you stay till I eat my porridge?"
and: "You owe me a quarter's wages!"
and: "Your beer is sour!"
and blabbering with his lips:
and thus:

—keeping in his cinque-pace of jests, when, God knows, the warm clown cannot make a jest unless by chance, as the blind man catcheth a hare.


We can't reconstruct these skits, which Hamlet thinks weren't very funny anyway, but you get the picture.

Understandably, then, the first theater "stars" in England were the clown actors (or "clowns"), Richard Wilson and Robert Tarlton. Tarlton in particular won the hearts of Londoners. Few Elizabethans were as popular, or simply as well known, as Tarlton. On stage all he had to do was show his face or peep out from behind the curtains and people laughed. But his reputation spread far beyond the walls of the amphitheater. His name was adopted for taverns and for a fighting gamecock. Unlike even Shakespeare's name, Tarlton's name entered the vocabulary—"Tarltonizing" or fooling it; his ghost was resurrected to defend the stage in a pamphlet four years after his death, and collections of his "jests" were still appearing twenty years after he died. When he died, myths grew about a line of successors almost as sacred as the royal line itself. Will Kempe, who followed Tarlton, was known as his "Vice-gerent General," and there are stories of Tarlton adopting Robert Armin, the famous actor of Shakespeare's fools, who followed Kempe. Tarlton's successors were gifted artists in their own right—entertainers, ballad-makers—and were really more like collaborators than scripted actors. Kempe was a dancer, whose marathon nine-days' dance from London to Norwich drew a tremendous crowd and an outpouring of support, if the texts we have are any indication. In plays, Kempe must have improvised his own lines or elaborated on the playwright's text. Kempe was famous for his scenes in A Knack to Know a Knave, advertised on the first page as including "Kempe's applauded merriments of the men of Gotham." But the clown's role in that play—at least the part of it that has been recorded in the text—is neither particularly large nor very amusing. It must have depended on Kempe's "extemporal wit." Of course, if for some the clowns were the most popular part of the play, for others in the audience they were also the most mistrusted. The Puritan attack on drama often focused on precisely the sort of outrage the clown was accustomed to perpetrate: "bawdry, wanton shews and uncomely gestures."

Who was this clown, and what did he do that was so terrible—or so wonderful? He simply represented the lowest level of existence in his world. Socially he was an outcast, literally a "rustic" or countryman; "clown" is etymologically related to the words for "clod" or "lump," as in "clod of clay" or "lump of earth." He could also turn up in the form of coal miner, miller, constable, shoemaker, carpenter, or any other form of "rude mechanical," as Shakespeare called Bottom and his friends in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Hamlet's speech suggests that the typical clown was a servant, like Macbeth's porter or Capulet's servants. Mentally the clown lived on a lower level, too. While Hamlet might have had his head in the clouds, the "warm clown" had his feet on the ground and was interested in material realities—the bottom line, as we might say. (He was known as a "material fool.") We can also see in Hamlet's speech that the clown's routines included things like porridge and beer: eating and drinking and appetite. Hamlet's clown was above all a physical and passionate creature, and he depended on the kind of humor that Hamlet indicates: blabbering lips and some action even less describable, which Hamlet refers to as "thus." His emotional volatility generated many of his routines. Even as the other players were learning not to out-Herod Herod, the clown howled, yelled, and, in a well-known skit, wept copiously. He made scurvy faces, and he used props (sticks, shoes, animals—Launce comes on with a dog, Launcelot Gobbo's father with a dish of doves, and Cleopatra's servant with a basket of snakes).

Hamlet goes on to describe the clown by using imagery of incompetence—"a blind man catching a hare"—which captures the slapstick nature of many of the clown's familiar routines. Much of the clown's humor consisted of the practical jokes and aggression now relegated to cartoon animals. Also, as Hamlet's lines suggest, the clown, ignorant as he was, was not necessarily stupid; in fact, he was usually something of a trickster or sly fox who was always out for number one ("I pray you, remember the porter" [Macbeth 2.3.21]) and not afraid to push others around. The most famous of the three anecdotes about Tarlton's routines tells how, having been boxed on the ear, Tarlton passed the blow on to poor John Cobbler—and called him a "clown" for taking it. A second tells how he was beaten by his fellow actor, and a third how he played the youngest of three sons and insulted his dying father. No wonder that the playwright Fletcher complained, "Just because a player can abuse his fellow," he thinks he's "a first class clown." The rest of the clown's humor depended on scatology and sex, probably in that order. The clown dropped his "slops," farted, pissed, and threw up freely. Macbeth's porter tells us about "urine," "lechery," and having just thrown up; and one clown in Greene's James IV provides a graphic description of his diarrhea attack. While the Puritan critic Gosson complained that the players were "uncircumcized philistines," Tarlton told the audience about his troubles with his prepuce.

Finally, as the actual resident clowns in Hamlet's own Elsinore show us, the clown is at home with death as well as dirt. If not always a literal gravedigger, he could collect shoes from dead soldiers, joke about corpses, or pretend to be one himself, always seeming able to rebound into life. His durability is almost mythic. Falstaff, who has much of the clown in him and may have been played by a clown—by Will Kempe—famously revived after being "killed" on the battlefield, all the more remarkably for his great bulk. When Bottom plays the lover in Pyramus and Thisbe and kills himself, there is some speculation among the audience that he may "yet recover and prove an ass," that is, he will return to life and be his old self again—which of course he does. In Merchant of Venice the clown Launcelot Gobbo stages his own death and rebirth for his father, blind old Gobbo. Those much-ignored clowns in Romeo and Juliet are musicians who fiddle while Rome burns, as it were, making music while the tragic world falls apart around them—just as the gravediggers in Hamlet make jokes out of death.

Distinctive as all these traits made the clown, however, his attraction—and his uniqueness—came at least as much from his relation to the audience as from the country character he played. He was like a vaudeville act or like one of today's stand-up comedians. In particular his role was to mediate between the play and the audience, whether to gather the crowds and collect money as clowns had done for road shows, or to provide between-act diversions which appealed more directly than the play did to the crowd already gathered. Often he commented on or parodied the action, just the way a spectator might; or he made reference to himself as actor. The character Bubble, played by the clown-actor Greene, makes a point of telling us he is going to see Greene in a play. In this intimate relation to the audience the clown was just as abusive to them as he was to his fellow actors. One spectator recalls that when Tarlton came on stage to hear "no end of hissing" instead of being greeted with the "civil attention" he expected, he broke into "this sarcasticall taunt":

I liv'd not in the Golden Age,
When Jason wonne the fleece,
But now I am on Gotam's stage,
Where fooles do hisse like geese.

If the people threw apples at Tarlton, he rhymed insults back at them. When someone in the gallery pointed at him, Tarlton pretended to take it as an insult, gave the man the horns, and got so much the best of him in the ensuing exchange that "the poore fellow, plucking his hat over his eyes," left the theater. Shakespeare's clowns are not so direct, but both Bottom and the porter are left onstage alone for important speeches, and then their remarks are directed to the audience. When Quince runs away after Bottom is "translated," Bottom reassures us that he's not afraid; he assumes we're on his side even if his friends have deserted him:

I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me, to fright me. . . . But I will not stir from this place. . . . I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid.


And after the knocking in Macbeth, it is the audience whose sympathy the sleepy porter asks for when he enters alone, muttering,

Here's a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell gate, he should have old turning the key.


He might even wink at us as he exaggerates, to let us in on the joke of saying to his unwelcome but important visitors, in effect, "To hell with you!"

Many observers have emphasized the clown's role as index of social tension outside the theater and even as an ingredient in it. Dario Fo, the Italian director who has made use of the modern clown's comedy for savage political satire, observes that "Clowns always speak of the same thing, they speak of hunger: hunger for food, hunger for sex, but also hunger for dignity, hunger for identity, hunger for power. In fact they introduce questions about who commands, who protests." Scholars of the Renaissance clown do not agree about whether the clown helped work out the social conflicts of the period or helped exacerbate them, but his prominence is important. In any case, Bottom and the rude mechanicals in the palace at "Athens" reflect a version of class structure in Elizabethan England.

Whether for or against the lower classes, Shakespeare seems to have taken to clowns like a duck to water. Some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare was heavily influenced by the clown-actors available to him. Early in his career the company clown was Will Kempe, a dancer and slapstick comedian, so Shakespeare created roles to make use of Kempe's special talents: Bottom, Peter, Dogberry. Then Kempe left and Armin came. Since Armin was a very different kind of actor, Shakespeare created a very different kind of clown: the "wise fool" like Lear's fool and Feste. This may well be true; Shakespeare is just the sort who would make use of the materials at hand. But I think it's also true that Shakespeare would have found his way to the clowns no matter what. His clowns' scenes, as Samuel Johnson said, "seem to be instinct." And even in the very earliest plays (before Kempe's contributions), where we can see signs of awkwardness in many scenes, the clowns (like Jack Cade in 2 Henry VI or Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona) are often the best part of their play. Then in the middle comedies we find the likes of Bottom, Launcelot Gobbo, and Dogberry (many of whom are much funnier than you'd think just from reading the play). These are the epitome of the Shakespearean clown—physical, fleshly, everything we mean by the bottom. And although they may be ignorant and gauche, they are also savvy, even wise. They know things that the aristocrats have to learn. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, although he is silly, Bottom is not merely "a shallow, thick-witted fool." On the contrary, Bottom is deep. He knows that "wisdom and love keep little company" these days. He has something of that other forest actor, Rosalynd:

O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But it cannot be sounded; my affection hath an unknown bottom, like the bay of Portugal.

(As You Like It, 4.1.205-8)1

The clowns know, like Hamlet, that man is neither so noble in reason nor so "infinite in faculty" as he may think. They know that even the loveliest fairy queen has a hairy bottom. And that, in fact, it's not only our lower nature but our very aspirations that make us fools. After all, who is more foolish, Bottom in Titania's arms, or Titania who dotes on him? Shakespeare may have been a clown himself, even before he came to London. We have only one anecdote about Shakespeare's childhood, and—to the degree that one can trust such data at all—it may bear witness to certain tendencies in young William which, with enough hindsight, suggest what was to come later. John Aubrey, one of Shakespeare's earliest biographers, reports that Shakespeare could kill a calf in the high old style. This gave later biographers an interesting clue, and, after much speculation about whether or not Shakespeare had been apprenticed to a butcher, most now agree that "killing a cal f probably refers to playing a role in a comic street play that was still extant in the early twentieth century. The modern version involves several boys to play the butcher and the calf and to catch the calf s blood in a basin. The older version may have been a solo ventriloquist act. Otherwise we do not know much about the show except that it was considered fit entertainment for a five-year-old child—which might explain Hamlet's scornful reference to killing "so capital a cal f when he wants to insult that second-time child, Polonius. Thus Shakespeare, who is said to have played the parts of old men during his acting career, may well have begun—like Mercutio and Hamlet—by playing the fool.


1The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974).

Fools In The Histories And Historical Fools

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 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.


A note in the "Chamber Accounts" records that in 1612-3 Much Ado was still being played by the King's Men,1 which suggests, along with Armin's reference, that the play enjoyed continuous popularity. Although there is no evidence to show whether Armin played this role as one of his first with the Chamberlain's Men, it could have been his first role and we do know from this reference that later in his career he achieved a considerable success in it.

Shakespeare's audience, then, found in the company a new comedian, who was capable of handling older roles in the Kempe tradition like Dogberry and Launcelot Gobbo, but who had at the same time demonstrated in his own play and in his own observations that he had some new ideas for clowns. If such a versatile clown were available, one cannot help but wonder why the Company should wait a full year before signing Armin, as T. W. Baldwin suggests they did, in the hope that Kempe would come back. A man who could play Dogberry, could easily toss off the comic bits in Julius Caesar, which Platter saw in September of 1599, apparently shortly after the opening of the new theater season. And in the meantime, Armin's fellow player, Shakespeare, who could be observing his abilities in older roles and perhaps saw him as the versatile Tutch, was probably writing As You Like It as a vehicle in part for the special talents of the new clown.

Now such a sequence of events is clearly not demonstrable. But it does nevertheless seem remarkable, as I have pointed out elsewhere (SQ, VII, 1956), that Shakespeare should name his first fullfledged Fool, Touchstone, shortly after Armin had appeared in his own play as Tutch, a name formed from a shortened form of the word Touchstone. The aptness of the name to Armin's vocations, both old and new, is equally remarkable. A close analysis of Touchstone should reveal some other evidences of Armin's influence on the character. But first a word about the date of this play, and others that are of interest in this study.

It did not seem to me that it was a concern of this study to rehearse the hundreds of discussions of the dating of Shakespeare's plays in order to arrive at what are, in many cases, only conjectural conclusions. So I have, instead, accepted the conjectural dating of the plays by James G. McManaway, which he arrives at by analyzing respectable recent scholarship on the subject.2 The general consensus is that As You Like It dates from 1599-1600, at the earliest sometime after June of 1599.

Although the editors of As You Like It customarily assign Touchstone the clown's part which begins I.ii.44, it should be remembered that the name Touchstone is not mentioned until II.iv.21. Exactly why Touchstone's name is mentioned so late is not clear, though it is possible that the play had been written in part before Armin joined the company and was then changed a bit to accommodate the new clown. What is clear, however, is that this clown is not an unknown minor official like Dogberry, wasting the time of his betters, but a known and affectionately regarded servant who provokes wit in others so that they may hear his own witty ripostes. On his first appearance Touchstone stands quietly but no doubt expressively for some eleven lines of dialogue before rising to the challenge of Celia's assertion that Nature

hath sent this
Naturall for our whetstone for alwaies the dullnesse

of the foole, is the whetsone of the wits. How now
Witte, whether wander you?


Celia's facetious mixing of the terms "Naturali" and "Witte" suggests that she is trying to stir him into jesting rather than describing him accurately, for Touchstone soon convinces her and the audience that his wit is not an accident, as with Armin's natural fools, but the product of an active intelligence. At first, however, he speaks straightforwardly, persuading one for a moment that he has a clownish incomprehension of difficult words:

Clo. Mistresse, you must come away to your father.

Cel. Were you made the messenger?

Clo. No by mine honour, but I was bid to come for you.


But his wit soon shows itself upon further provocation, for when Rosalind questions his trivial use of an oath on his honor, he proves that his use is no more trivial than that of a knight's; and he proceeds to show his ability to follow a quibble to its ultimate end, which is, for a witty fool, a jest. Asked to prove that neither he nor the knight were forsworn, he asks the ladies to stand forth, stroke their beards, and swear by them that he is a knave:

Cel. By our beards (if we had them) thou art.

Clo. By my knaverie (if I had it) then I were; but if you sweare by that that is not, you are not forsworn.


Touchstone has succeeded, by the end of this colloquy, not only in making fun of the great roaring oaths of his betters, but also in making fools of the ladies. Indeed, his general keenness about the political climate, for example, becomes clear when he replies to Celia's query as to the identity of the foolish knight that he is one whom her father loved. Celia thereupon warns him away from further criticism:

My Fathers love is enough to honor him enough; speake no more of him, you'l be whipt for taxation one of these daies.


That his privilege is not merely an occasional license exercised upon encouragement by a member of the family, but a general privilege to jest with his betters is shown when Touchstone joins the ladies in teasing Le Beau about the "sport" in wrestling. His sensitivity to the world about him comes out in his questioning, for he does not accept the view that any kind of wrestling is sport. He first wishes to test the qualities of things before he makes decisions about them. Therefore when Le Beau replies that the sport the ladies have missed is the brutal wrestling that he has already described, Touchstone answers for the ladies and himself:

Thus men may grow wiser every day. It is the first time that I ever heard breaking of ribbes was sport for Ladies.


A rustic clown like Dogberry reacts to his betters by becoming even more the pompous ass than he was with his inferiors, or a Bottom reacts by being ignorantly at ease to the amusement of his betters, but Touchstone, unlike the rustics, is never out of countenance. He is haughty and elegant with William and Audrey, a superior in discussions with Corin, a privileged servant-equal with Rosaline and Celia, and the respectful professional fool with Jacques, who fails to recognize as he laughs at the fool that Touchstone has been laughing at him. Now some of this social ease is clearly discernible among Armin's fools, notably Jemy Camber and Will Summers, both fools of royalty, and some of the cheekiness of Touchstone is found in the character of Tutch; but the full development of this cheeky social ease as a dramatic quality of the fool must be accredited to Shakespeare.

A love of material comfort is another notable aspect of the fool. Self-denial comes hard to Touchstone and he is always a reluctant stoic, one who feels that when he was at home he "was in a better place" (II.iv. 18), and knows that an empty pocketbook is only a prelude to poor fare. Later Lear's Fool will suggest with some seriousness that court holy water in a dry house is better than wandering about bareheaded in a storm. Armin's fools, too, show their love of good food and good drink, as some of the verses quoted earlier attest, and many other stories bear out: whether Jack Miller was climbing into a red-hot oven after pies, only to be badly burned, or Jack Oates was standing in the moat dipping his master's quince pie in the muddy water to cool before eating, Armin's fools were constantly concerned about belly comfort.

Less evident among Armin's fools is a tendency to be lecherous, although Jemy Camber got his last illness as a result of an attempt to seduce a young Scotch woman. The fools portrayed by Shakespeare, in contrast, are very much interested in sexual activity. Touchstone is burning to join the "country copulatives," as he so unromantically names them, by marrying Audrey; Feste speaks of his lady and is apparently in some difficulties about earlier dishonesty at the beginning of Twelfth Night; both Lavache and Pompey are burdened by temptations of the flesh. None of them believes that romantic love is anything other than a useful ethical disguise for the baser desire of every young man and woman to "do't if they come to't," or "to cart with Rosaline" (III.ii.107).

One thing about the fool seems fairly clear in As You Like It: Shakespeare as writer and Armin as player were accustoming their audience to a new kind of clownish garb. The rustic clown dressed in russet, a countrified style popularized by Tarlton and Kempe, was so familiar a sight that his costume alone was enough to remind an audience to smile in preparation for the laughter soon to follow. But if the Globe sharers were interested in effacing the name of Kempe from their customers' memories, as some of the evidence discussed elsewhere certainly implies,4 the new clown must appear in different habiliments. In his "quip" on his own playing of the fool, Armin had remarked that he wore "antic" dress, suggesting a general fantasy of custume rather than a particular stock costume. In his discussion of fools in the three works investigated earlier, the range of costumes suggests antic variety rather than stock similarity, and only Jack Oates is referred to as a wearer of motley, yellow or green, with the additional note that a colored coat on him was seldom seen.

Now it is quite possible that in his first appearances in the play as the Duke's servant, Touchstone wore a household livery, the usual long coat, often of blue, with the Duke's arms embroidered on his breast or perhaps worn as a badge (cullison) on his arm. At any rate, nothing is said to indicate that his garb is unique until Jacques meets him in the forest and reports his encounter to the Duke. In preparation for their flight, Rosaline and Celia assume disguises as upper-class country youths, and it seems likely that when the three are first seen on their way to the forest, Armin as Touchstone would be dressed for the first time in a long motley coat like those worn by Jack Oates, yellow or else green. Certainly Jacques seems surprised to find a fool in motley, for in twenty-three lines of delighted report on Touchstone he calls him a motley fool thrice and concludes that "Motley's the onely weare" (II.vii.36). Shakespeare seems to be telling the audience that motley is as proper a garb for laughter as russet.

But Touchstone's motley coat is not the only thing that Jacques notes about this new kind of clown. He is impressed with the Fool's ability to rail in "good terms, / In good set termes, and yet a motley foole" (II.vii.18-19). Like Tutch in the Two Maids, the fool is literate and witty not by chance but by design, and Jacques laughs "That Fooles should be so deepe contemplative" (II.vii.33). Indeed in his rapturous description of Touchstone, Jacques devotes more words to developing the special qualities of his wear and fooling than any gentleman in all of Shakespeare, or in any other play of the period that I have encountered. For the first time, too, a gentleman is found feeling envious of the fool's freedom rather than superior to his predecessor-clown's coarse manners and ignorant speech. Jacques wishes to be invested in motley so that he too may have the privilege "To blow on whom I please" (II.vii.52), and he descries in the role possibilities for moral improvement; for given leave to speak his mind he "will through and through / Cleanse the foule bodie of th'infected world" (II.vii.62-3).

Although Jacques clearly recognizes the literate wit of the fool, he also recognizes that he is not altogether a wise man; for he speaks of Touchstone's brain as being dry as "remainder bisket" (II.vii.39), and of his venting his observations "In mangled forms" (II.vii.42). But the observations of a character, himself limited by his particular kind of blindness, cannot be depended upon as an accurate description of another character of a peculiarly complex sort. Celia and Rosaline called Touchstone "Nature's natural" not altogether seriously, perhaps chiefly out of an awareness of the decorum that the fool expected and that he was accustomed wittily to operate under. Nor does Jacques seem to recognize that Touchstone is letting fly witty shafts against him either in his first encounter, when he rejects his naming him fool by quipping, "Call me not foole, till heaven hath sent me fortune" (II.vii.21), or in a later encounter, when Touchstone delicately euphemizes the vulgar Jacques (jakes-privy) to "Master What ye call't" (III.iii.68), a much more courtly term. Perhaps Duke Senior is the most trustworthy observer of the quality of Touchstone's fooling, for having heard Jacques' description and seen Touchstone himself, he remarks that Touchstone "is very swift, and sententious" (V.iv.67), and that "He uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit" (V.iv. 107-108).

Someone familiar with Armin's Quips readily sees a certain congruence between Jacques' description of his first meeting with the fool who "drew a diali from his poake,/And looking on it, with lack lustre eye" (II.vii.22-23), complains that heaven has not sent him fortune, and Armin's verses on "Whats a clocke":

One askes me whats a clocke, thinking indeede,
That I am lacke of clock-hous, and can tell:
He is a Iacke to think so, or to feede
His humor, as the clapper doth the bell.
I have a Hand, but not a Dioll, I,
Right it poyntes not, and tongues may lie


Armin's concluding quip states the point that Touchstone implies in discussing heaven-sent fortune and in recognizing and feeding Jacques' melancholy by moralizing on the time:

How vaine it is then, to aske whats a clocke?
Of one who for an answere, lendes a mocke.


A play-goer must remind himself, then, in deciding the extent to which Touchstone's wit is artificial or natural that dramatic characters have their own blindnesses, and that the informed playgoer is the final judge of a character rather than another character pronouncing a judgment within the play. To the play-goer, Touchstone is clearly an artificial fool, making everyone he meets a victim of his wit.

Armin's songs in his own play have already been discussed, and his talent is clearly taken advantage of by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night; but what should be made of the singing in As You Like It? At only one point in the play is Touchstone involved in a scene with songs, the brief V.iii, where are also found for the first and last time, except perhaps as a part of the mise en scène elsewhere, two Pages. When Touchstone urges them to sing, "By my troth well met: come, sit, sit, and a song" (V.iii.9), the second Page replies, "We are for you, sit i'th middle" (V.iii. 10); and his invitation to Touchstone to sit in the middle, suggests, according to Roffe,5 that the song was arranged as a trio in which Armin took a part. If Baldwin's contention that most of the sharers key apprentices may be trusted, perhaps one of these pages was a boy trained by Armin.

As Touchstone, Armin sings only a little, if at all, in As You Like It. There is, however, a sweet singer in the play, Amiens, and it is worthy of note that he arrives with the company at about the same time as Armin and is not given opportunity to sing as a separate character in the next few plays. Amiens has a speaking part on stage only when Touchstone is off stage, and Armin could have doubled in the part as easily as he did in his old dual part as Tutch and Blue John. Amiens has but sixteen lines of dialogue besides his two lovely songs: "Under the Greenwood Tree," and "Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind." Only in V.iv is he listed as appearing simultaneously with the fool, and he has nothing to say. Only once is the fool in a scene preceding Amiens' entrance, and Armin could have made a quick change during the thirty-five lines of dialogue that occur after his last words as the fool and his appearance as Amiens in hunting costume. It is not impossible therefore, that Armin might have doubled these two roles—a kind of tour de force celebrating his appearance in the first role tailored specifically to his talents. This is only a conjecture, however, any other possible explanations, such as the hiring of an outsider or the arrival of a skilled singer who may have gone unnoted by theatrical historians, are equally plausible.

When Touchstone is finally introduced to Duke Senior in the last scene of the play, enough has been seen of his protean abilities as jesting servant, loyal follower, witty commentator on love, superior gentleman to the countryfolk, and pastoral satirist to leave few doubts of his claim to be a courtier:

I have trod a measure, I have flattered a Lady, I have bin politicke with my friend, smooth with mine enemie, I have undone three Tailors, I have had foure quarrels, and like to have fought one.


He understands courts and courtly ways only too well, as he illustrates with his quibbling on his reasons for marriage and with his disquisition on the degrees of the lie.

For the first time in any play by Shakespeare, or for that matter in any other play up until that time, a fool is found who is "artificial" in every respect. He searches out the qualities of things, whether it be the sport of Le Beau, the character of Jacques, his own discomfort in the "comforts" of Arden, or the "right Butter-woman's rank" of Orlando's jogging verse. The country, he reminds his mistresses is not as comfortable as the court; wooing is perhaps romantic in part but has a very practical end in view for the country copulatives. His words are pithy, reflecting his wide knowledge of proverbial lore, and he glances at different meanings of words and situations at every turn. He can never be fully understood if taken literally. Moreover, Touchstone is so conscious of the ambiguities of words and situations that he cannot resist verbal effects even when they are lost on the listener, as they are on Audrey, William, and occasionally Jacques.

Until the appearance of Touchstone, the clowns who survive in extant plays that had been performed by the Chamberlain's Men were either rustics attired in the stock garb of a Tarlton, like Costard, or servants in a gentleman's household who had perhaps a certain amount of privilege to jest, like Launcelot Gobbo, and whose privilege is indicated in their wearing of coats more guarded or fanciful than those of their fellows. The latter breed are servants first and jesters incidentally. Tutch of the Two Maids seems not to have had even this occasional privilege, however, for he was allowed to exercise his natural gifts for intrigue and facetious wit only when appropriate in his primary function as a kind of steward.

But in describing this new genus "Fool" of the great species "Clown" to the audience of As You Like It, Shakespeare takes more than ordinary pains to explain to his audience what is happening. He introduces the Fool as "Nature's naturall," relating him to a species already familiar to Elizabethans in proverbial lore and in villages, taverns and great households, and at the same time demonstrates that he is a clown with whom (not on whom) the witty Rosalind and Celia sharpen their wits. He gives him 320 lines of dialogue to speak,6 making Touchstone's part rank third in the play. Shake-speare moreover uses one-third of the lines of the important character, the malcontent Jacques, to develop the role of the fool in considerable detail. In order to emphasize the uniqueness of this new character further, Shakespeare clothes him in motley—another new departure in drama so far as I have been able to discover. Indeed a glance at Bartlett's Concordance reveals that the word "motley" occurs only eleven times in Shakespeare, once connected to another word "motley-Minded," and of these eleven references, eight are made by Jacques. Elsewhere the word is used once in connection with Feste, once with Lear's Fool, and once indicating the absence of a Fool in the prologue to Henry VIII.7

Some critics have suggested that in As You Like It Shakespeare and Armin were attempting to establish, in their emphasis on motley, a new stock costume for the Fool, to replace the old russet costume that had served for years as the badge of the country Clown.8 But this suggestion underestimates badly the real ad-vance in the art of clowning accomplished by Armin and Shakespeare. If we remember that the critics of Shakespeare in the "Parnassus" plays as well as critics of dramatic spectacle in general like Sidney had said that a clown irrelevantly thrust into the midst of a play mars all, and remember too that Shakespeare himself, through Hamlet, is critical of clownish impromptus, it seems unlikely that an artist growing with each play as Shakespeare was would simply substitute anew stock part for an old. Nor would Armin, whose discriminating appreciation for the peculiar contributions of each fool he described is evident on every page of Foole Upon Foole, be very likely to concur in anything that might create a stock character. He had painstakingly described the special turns, tricks, and individualized dress of each of his fools, and as a virtuoso clown himself, able to do many things well, would want to be as different as possible in moving from one role to another. Certainly he would not want to remind his audience of Touchstone when playing Feste or Lear's Fool. One of the great contributions of Elizabethan drama, as contrasted with the continental Commedia dell'Arte tradition in which players improvised on a stock role, was that the Elizabethan drama was often a drama of characters simulating real life. Indeed in Shakespeare the characters tend to come to life too fully at times, and to interfere with more stylized and artificial comic devices in comedies like Measure for Measure and All's Well.

The "privilege" of Touchstone, which is his passport to social mobility and his license to satirize with only the whip as punishment, had long been among the stock appendages of the actual Elizabethan fool. Moreover, Shakespeare had shown his familiarity with the fool's privilege years before in Love's Labour's Lost, in the course of Berowne's sneering reference to Boyet's mockery of himself and his fellow wooers: "Go, you are alowd. / Die when you will, a smocke shall be your shrowd" (V.ii.478-9). But nowhere in the earlier plays is the concept of the fool's privilege so fully developed as it is in Jacques' description of the advantages of being a Fool, and the medicinal effects of fooling:

I must have liberty
Withall, as large a charter as the winde,
To blow on whom I please, for so fool es have:
And they that are most gauled with my folly,
They most must laugh


I will through and through
Cleanse the foule bodie of th'infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medecine.


This privilege remains a property of Shakespeare's fools hereafter, varying only to the extent that the fool is more or less professional or in a reputable position. So Lavache is more a jesting servant accorded privilege occasionally than a fully accoutered and privileged fool, and Pompey, because of his disreputable role as bawd-fool, can be facetious with some of his betters, but is careful to choose his targets wisely.

The fool's possession of this privilege, or in the case of the idiot-fool his assertion of a privileged position owing to his irresponsible innocence, is implied throughout Armin's studies of fools, and cannot be credited to either Armin or Shakespeare as in any sense a discovery except insofar as they recognized the dramatic potentialities of the privilege. The fool's purgative satirical properties as amender of "th'infected world" are perhaps more emphasized in Shakespeare and in Armin's Quips—moralized metamorphoses of changes—than elsewhere in Elizabethan literature. But again the emblematic nature of the Fool as a guide to wisdom for oneself is asserted in Ecclesiastes, Book of Proverbs, and much subsequent literature.

But despite the Elizabethans' familiarity with privileged fools, Shakespeare frequently finds it necessary to remind his contemporaries as well as the more solemn asses in his plays of the fool's privileged position when the fool seems to violate social decorum more than usual. When Malvolio attempts to restrain Feste's tongue before the Lady Olivia, for example, she reminds her steward that "There is no slander in an allow'd fool, though he do nothing but rail" (I.v.101-102). When Patroclus protests against Thersites' slanders and threatens to strike him, Achilles similarly interferes saying, "He is a privileg'd man" (II.iii.61). The humorless Goneril complains to Lear about his "all-licens'd Fool" (I.iv.220). Without his license or privilege the fool is naught, an "O" without a figure like the powerless Lear.

Shakespeare's Other Plays to 1606

In investigating the next eight plays that follow As You Like It I shall concentrate my attention on those five roles which are akin to the fool and might well have been played by Robert Armin: Twelfth Night, 1599-1600; Hamlet, 1600-1601; The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1600-1601 (private performance); Troilus and Cressida, 1601-1602 (private performance); All's Well That Ends Well, 1603-1604; Measure for Measure, 1604-1605; Othello, 1604-1605; King Lear, 1605-1606. But by concentrating on the fool roles, I do not mean to imply that Armin did not play, or was not capable of playing the First Gravedigger in Hamlet, for example, a part more in the Kempe line, which he could have mastered as easily as the part of Dogberry. I feel, however, that Hotson's speculation that he played Polonius (p. 104) interferes with what seems to be a development of such a line for another player—perhaps Heminges—in plays by Shakespeare and other dramatists for the Company. Baldwin suggests that Armin played Evans in Merry Wives (pp. 228-9 insertions), not implausible as a speculation since Armin had imitated Welsh dialect in his part of Welsh knight in The Two Maids. But I do not wish here to multiply difficulties by going beyond a consideration of the clearer professional role of Armin as fool, and therefore I will discuss only those parts which seem most clearly and unambiguously in his vein.

After Touchstone, Armin's next part was Feste, and Feste is clearly the most artificial and wisest of all the Fools, and, at the same time, he is perhaps more than any other figure in the play the master of the Twelfth Night revels. Certainly never again would the Fool have so many sweet airs to sing, and Armin's sweet music here, and perhaps in As You Like It, may have been a considerable help to the Chamberlain's Men in their competition with the musical little "eyasses" of Blackfriars, and Paul's Boys, who were attracting so much attention in upper-class playgoing circles. The fool's part is third in the play, ranking after the parts of Toby and Viola, and Shakespeare was never again to write so many lines (347) for a Fool or clown.

The part of dull clod in Twelfth Night is assigned to the obtuse Sir Andrew, and no one in the play has any delusions that he is anything other than a moderately rich gull to feed Toby's purse and palate and to be a butt for Maria's sharp wit. But the shrewd Maria has no reservations about Feste's wit, as she shows when the Fool enters the play for the first time, jesting familiarly with her:

Ma. Nay, either tell me where thou hast bin, or I will not open my lippes so wide as a brissle may enter, in way of thy excuse: my Lady will hang thee for thy absence.

Clo. Let her hang mee: hee that is well hang'de in this world, needs to feare no colours.9


Feste seems to be making an obvious and vulgar pun on another sense of being "well hang'de" here. That more was involved in Feste's offence than being absent without leave is hinted at in the Lady Olivia's sharp words later: "Go too, y'are a dry foole: Ile no more of you: besides you grow dis-honest" (I.v.39-40). Similarly Tutch of Armin's own play was reprimanded by his master Sir William for acting dishonestly, becoming a go-between for Tabitha and Filbon. At the same time he was dismissed and warned not to come near the house at risk of being charged as a "fellone" (Dlv), which reminds Tutch of the penalty for felons, being well hanged:

Gang is the word, and hang is the worst, wee are even, I owe you no service, and you owe me no wages, short tale to make, the sommers daie is long, the winter nights be short, and brickill beds dos hide our heds. As spiteli fields report.


It is pleasant to be reminded by the fool and the servant that though the penalties for various crimes in Elizabethan times were severe, as often as not their very severity caused them not to be brought to action. Both men accept their fates—Feste's possible, Tutch's actual—in a lighthearted manner.

It seems fairly clear that Feste's garb is different from Touchstone's wear in Arden. As a household retainer he would no doubt wear his mistress's arms, and Maria's jest on his "two points," "That if one breake, the other will hold: or if both breake, your gaskins fall" (I.v.23-5), suggests that he is wearing wide slops, great breeches of some sort rather than tightfitting hose,10 under his servant's coat. Hotson based his ar-gument11 that Feste carries a marotte or fool's double on Feste's invocation to wit and citation of Quinapalus, but it seems clear that as a professional singer Feste would carry the tabor noted by Viola ("Save thee Friend and thy Musick: dost thou live by thy Tabor?" [III.i.3-4]), which he would use as a rhythmical accompaniment to his voice, and he might even have concealed about his person the ubiquitous pipe for general music-making. When Feste appears at the opening of Act IV, importuning Sebastian, whom he mistakes for Viola-Cesario, to return to his mistress, Sebastian refers to him as a "foolish fellow" (IV.i.5) and as a "foolish greeke" (IV.i.19), which suggests that his garb is not so distinctive as his apparent role—Sebastian thinks he is a pander. In the final act when Feste and Fabian are asked by the Duke if they belong to the Lady Olivia, it becomes fairly certain that he is identifying them by the badges on their livery rather than any distinctive garb worn by Feste, and he does not identify Feste separately from Fabian until the Fool begins to jest: "I sir, we are some of her trappings" (V.i.ll).

The most direct indication found in the play for assuming that Feste does wear a distinctive garb comes just after he has been warned by Maria of Lady Olivia's displeasure, and he begins to jest with Olivia in order to save his job. He greets her familiarly, perhaps as a subtle reminder of his privilege, "God blesse thee Lady" (I.v.36-7), and she responds, coldly, with an order to take the fool away, which Feste quickly turns about by suggesting that she is the fool:

Misprision in the highest degree. Lady, Cuculi us non facit monachum: that's as much as to say, as I weare not motley in my braine: good Madona, give mee leave to prove you a foole.


If Feste wears motley, this is the only hint that he does, and it comes in a metaphor. Certainly no one else in the play identifies him as a fool by his motley wear. Perhaps his garb is somewhat fantastical, and he uses motley in that sense of the word, or perhaps he uses the words to refer to his position as privileged jester rather than to his motley garb. Indeed if one becomes too literal in interpreting the passage about the cowl not making the monk, one might even conclude that Feste wore a hood, a garment which seems not to have been worn by any real fool in this period.

Later in the play, when Orsino seeks the singer who formerly pleased him so well, Curio refers to Feste as the jester. The only other fool referred to as a jester by Shakespeare is Yorick, and the possibility must be considered that as a jester, Feste occupies a somewhat different status or is possibly recognized as a more talented and versatile performer than the fool. Benedick is called jester by Beatrice, and Prince Hal called Falstaff jester in rejecting him from service when king. That Feste clearly regards himself as superior to the ordinary fool becomes fairly evident in his uncharacteristic silence and rage when Malvolio compares him with another fool:

I marvell your Ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascall: I saw him put down the other day, with an ordinary foole, that has no more braine then a stone. Looke you now, he's out of his gard already: unies you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gag'd.


But Olivia defends Feste by reminding Malvolio of his privilege ("There is no slander in an allow'd foole, though he do nothing but rayle" [I.v.89-91]), and by implication accepts the fool into her service once more. Moreover, it is this insult from Malvolio that persuades Feste to become Sir Topas in the plot to bring about the steward's downfall and make him the butt of the Twelfth Night celebrants.

When Feste is seen some time later joining Sir Andrew and Toby in their drinking bout, his wit is much more easy and informal than in this first encounter. Andrew pays the fool's singing and appearance high praise, while suggesting in a compliment to his "legge" that either his limbs are well proportioned and therefore visible or that he bows elegantly: "I had rather than forty shillings I had such a legge, and so sweet a breath to sing, as the foole has" (II.iii.22-24). Upon his entrance in the scene, we are reminded through a stage direction that though the species is changed, Feste belongs to the same genus as Costard and Launcelot Gobbo: "Enter Clowne" (II.iii.17). The climax of the celebration that the fool joins is reached when Malvolio enters to protest its noisiness, and Toby and the fool send him packing:

To. Art any more then a Steward? Dost thou thinke because thou art vertuous, there shall be no more Cakes and Ale?

Clo. Yes by S. Anne, and Ginger shall bee hotte y'th mouth too.


It is helpful to find a passage from the introduction to Armin's Quips which explains the relationship of Feste's "Ginger" to Toby's "Cakes and Ale" and suggests that Feste spoke of a favorite custom of Armin's:

Use me with kindnesse, as you shall in the like commande me hereafter: whose Barke I will grate like Ginger, and carrouse it in Ale, and drink a full cuppe to thy curtesie.


Although Feste may ordinarily have accompanied himself on a tabor, the musical accompaniment to his songs was occasionally quite formal. When the Duke Orsino asks for an old song that he had heard the night before, and Curio tells him the singer "Feste the lester" is not at hand to sing it, the Duke commands that the tune be played "the while" Curio seeks him; and the text inserts the direction "Musick playes" (II.iv.13-17). The song that the Duke requests is the lugubrious "Come away, come away death," and Feste facetiously reminds the Duke when he rewards him for his pains, "No paines sir, I take pleasure in singing sir" (II.iv.73).

So far as I have been able to discover, the only lady who ever kept a fool in England was the Queen, and both Mary and Elizabeth supported fools in their ménages. Perhaps it was considered inappropriate for an ordinary noble lady to keep a fool because Shakespeare is at pains to explain through Curio that Feste is "a foole that the Ladie Oliviaes Father tooke much delight in" (II.iv.13-14), and he tells us with equally unnecessary care that Lavache of All's Well is retained by the Countess because:

My lord that's gone made himself much sport out of him. By his authority he remains here, which he thinks is a patent for his sauciness; and indeed he has no pace, but runs where he will.


The subtle and sophisticated Feste's own definition of his role must not be ignored in an investigation of the nature of his fooling. After his discussion of his tabor with Viola, the quibbling conversation continues, Feste making words wanton, until Viola is driven to ask him if he is not the Lady Olivia's fool. He denies the title, suggesting that it would be more fitting to her husband, when she takes one, and concludes that he is "indeede not her foole, but hir corrupter of words" (III.i.36-37). When Viola suggests that she has seen him at Orsino's, he replies that fools are readily to be found there: "Foolery sir, does walke about the Orbe like the Sun, it shines everywhere" (III.i.39-40). Feste thus denies that he is a fool unless everyone else is willing to accept the name too. It is after this witty passage, in which Feste has carefully educated Viola on the role of fool, that she makes the following comment, a compressed version of Armin's description of himself in his Quips, quoted earlier:

This fellow is wise enough to play the foole,
And to do that well craves a kinde of wit:
He must observe their mood on whom he iests,
The quality of persons, and the time:
And like the Haggard, checke at every Feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practice,
As full of labour as a Wise-mans Art:
For folly that he wisely shewes, is fit;
But Wisemens folly faine, quite taint their wit.


In the remainder of the play, Feste is at whiles the ordinary household servant, doing an errand for his mistress by importuning Sebastian-Viola to return to the house; the clever mimic who switches costumes to become Sir Topas, and changes voices to carry on a conversation with himself and baffle Malvolio; and, finally, the epilogue of the play, singing his bitter-sweet song, "When that I was and a little tine boy" (V.i.409). After the identities of Viola and Sebastian have been established and Malvolio returns to Olivia's mind, the fool is allowed the last word, and reminds the lady of Malvolio's earlier smugness and self-conceit which brought about their plot against him, quoting the gulling letter by Maria, "Why some are borne great," and concluding with Malvolio's mockery of himself:

Do you remember, Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascall, and you smile not he's gag'd: and thus the whirlegigge of time, brings in his revenges.


As has been pointed out earlier, Armin's own play abounded in imagery suggesting his trade of goldsmith, but the only suggestive reference of this sort in As You Like It is the name Touchstone. The language of Feste in Twelfth Night, however, occasionally reflects in its imagery some aspects of the goldsmith's trade. For example, when Feste has sung his song "Come away, come away death," he mockingly blesses the Duke with an invocation to the God of melancholy, asking that "the Tailor make thy doublet of changeable Taffata, for thy minde is a very Opali" (II.iv.77-80). To a son and brother of a tailor and as a goldsmith and lapidarist, comparisons of this sort would naturally occur, whether or not Armin had any influence on their occurrence here. The appropriateness of the name Sir Topas to the lapidarist goldsmith is particularly evident, and Furness long ago suggested that Shakespeare chose the name for its appropriateness to the situation, citing Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft, which says that "A topase healeth the lunaticke person of his passion of lunarie."12 Certainly any members of Shake-speare's audience capable of appreciating the appropriateness of the compliment to Armin in being called Touchstone in his first important role, could not fail to appreciate the additional jest of Armin as Sir Topas, and a roar might very well greet Sir Toby's admiring words, "The knaue counterfets well," because goldsmiths were responsible for coining and Armin's first master had been Elizabeth's master of the mint. When Malvolio cries out in despair, "Sir Topas, sir Topas," and the delighted Toby picks up the refrain with "My most exquisite sir Topas," Feste replies somewhat smugly, "Nay I am for all waters" (IV.ii.63-67). Furness comments as follows on the word "waters" without knowledge of Armin's special appropriateness to the role:

The word "water," as used by jewellers, denotes the colour and the lustre of diamonds and pearls, and from thence is applied, though with less propriety, to the colour and hue of other precious stones. I think that Shakespeare in this place alludes to this sense of the word "water." The Clown is complimented by Sir Toby for personating Sir Topaz so exquisitely, to which he replies that he can put on all colours.13

Another place in the play which suggests this pecu-liarly appropriate pattern of imagery occurs when the Fool replies to the Duke's query, "Belong you to the Lady Olivia, friends," with the pert retort, "I sir, we are some of her trappings" (V.i.10-11). Now "trappings" conveys a clear enough meaning without reference to a dictionary, but, remembering the Fool's predilections to play on words mockingly, one is always tempted to look beyond the immediate and in this case he is rewarded: "trapping, n., Jewelry. Cutting of a gem in the form called the trap, or step, cut, or the cutting of a trap brilliant." Feste-Armin then is obviously paying himself and Fabian a deft compliment.

In my discussion of the peculiar appropriateness of some of the imagery associated with Feste to Armin, I certainly do not wish to suggest that all of these associations were inserted deliberately to carry on a private joke or that Armin himself was responsible for any of them. There do seem to be enough references, however, to tempt one to believe that Shakespeare, who was always fascinated with words and their punning and other ambiguous possibilities in his plays, may have been enjoying a little private joke from time to time in Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night ends with Feste alone on the stage singing his bitter-sweet epilogue song, which will become more poignant when it reappears under tragic circumstances in King Lear:

Clowne sings.
When that I was and a little tine boy,
with hey, ho, the winde and the raine:
A foolish thing was but a toy,
for the raine it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world began,
hey ho, &c.
But that's all one, our Play is done,
and wee'l strive to please you every day.

(V.i.408-412, 425-428)

In contrast with Touchstone, whose status hovers between natural and artificial fool until the final act of As You Like It when Duke Senior finally gives a considered judgement on his wit, Feste is clearly the allowed fool from the very beginning of his part. Only when Feste himself reflects on the paradox of his position to Malvolio does he make any reference to himself as a born or natural fool. Nor is there any hint of the "roynish" or rustic fool in Feste, who is shown associating only with gentlemen and who says that he frequents only the best taverns. Touchstone, Lavache, and Pompey, in contrast, are equally at home in low society, and the first two fools court plain country wenches.

Like Armin in his Quips, Touchstone rhymes badly in doggerel vein, but Feste sings and mimes like Tutch. Both Touchstone and Feste are material fools; two successful variations on the fool character. Feste is an especially graceful beggar of gratuities, but each Fool makes use of proverbial wisdom, seems to be lettered, and has some knowledge of classical lore.

For his third variation on a fool, Shakespeare wrote the unpleasant character of Thersites into Troilus and Cressida, a play which may never have been shown at a public performance during Shakespeare's time. In most discussions of Troilus, Thersites is treated as a foul-mouthed malcontent rogue, which indeed he is but it should also be noted that Shakespeare describes him as a fool—a combination of Touchstone and Jacques might be the aptest comparison. In his quarrel with Ajax, however, Thersites makes it clear that he is not a hired servant, for he says that he serves him not and emphasizes this in the next line by stating, "I serve here voluntary" (II.i. 102), a statement which Ajax does not deny. His privilege is explained by Archilles when Patroclus objects to this insult:

Ther. Ile decline the whole question: Agamemnon commands Achilles, Achilles is my Lord, I am Patroclus knower, and Patroclus is a foole.

Patro. You rascal1.

Ther. Peace, foole, I have not done.

Achil. He is a priviledg'd man, proceed Thersites.

Ther. Agamemnon is a foole, Achilles is a foole, Thersites is a foole, and as aforesaid, Patroclus is a foole.


But the conclusive statements of Thersites' role as fool are made by Ulysses and Nestor as they discuss the anger of Ajax at Achilles:

Nest. What mooves Aiax thus to bay at,him?

Uliss. Achillis hath invegled his foole from him.

Nest. Who Thersites? Ulis. He.

Nes. All the better, their fractiô is more our wish then theit [r] faction, but it was a strôg composure a foole could disunite.

Ulis. The amity that wisdom knits not, folly may easily unty.

(II.iii.98-100, 105-111)

Thersites differs from Touchstone and Feste in a number of respects. First, he serves voluntarily without any formal pay arrangement and contractual agreement such as a servant was likely to have. He seems to have assumed his role of privileged fool in order to liberate his tongue, yet he is the only fool in Shakespeare's plays who is actually beaten by his master, Ajax. Whereas Touchstone and Feste are more often witty at the expense of the foibles of society, such as courtly love, unseemly melancholy, and the excesses that develop from them, Thersites makes more fun of individuals directly; no one escapes his calumny and the greater the target the better he is pleased. Like the malcontent Jacques, lacking qualities of greatness in himself, he mocks them in others; but he is forced to admit a grudging admiration for the wisdom and policy of Ulysses and ancient Nestor.

Thersites' part in Troilus is an important one, for some 271 lines of dialogue are assigned to him in the Folio version. He supplies the commentary on the motives of the various contestants, and, along with Pandarus, by words and deeds develops the tawdry moral tone of the play. Unlike Pandarus, however, he is fully conscious at all times of his mean role, and in his concluding words weighs himself to the exact scruple of his worth: "I am bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in minde, bastard in valour, in everything illigitimate" (V.vii. 18-20).

In the next two important parts which Shakespeare wrote for Armin's line, the fool suffers a decline in his social position, the size of his part, and his relative importance to the plot. The part of Lavatch in All's Well ranks seventh with 214 lines and that of Pompey in Measure for Measure ranks sixth with 185 lines. Parolles, who becomes LaFeu's fool at the end of All's Well, has the second part in the play with 415 lines. McManaway dates All's Well, as 1603-1604, and Measure for Measure, 1604-1605.14

Lavatch's position as fool in the Countess's household is semi-official only. He is also very obviously a serving-man, and a somewhat troublesome one at that, as the Countess's displeasure on his first appearance in the play makes clear:

What doe's this knave heere? Get you gone sirra: the complaints that I have heard of you, I do not all beleeve, 'tis my slownesse that I doe not: For I know you lack not folly to commit them, & have abilitie enough to make such knaveries yours.

(AWTEW I.iii.8-13)

Lavatch quickly detects mingled with the Countess's displeasure a willingness to listen to an excuse. There is no indication here or elsewhere that the fool is to be regarded as a lackwit. Feste in a similar situation invoked wit; Lavatch feigns a willingness to be discharged and manages in the process to put his kindly mistress off her guard:

'This not so well that I am poore, though manie of the rich are damn'd, but if I may have your Ladiships good will to goe to the world, Isbell the woman and w [sic] will doe as we may.


From the outset, Lavatch shows the somewhat theologically oriented moralism that comes out so clearly in a later exchange with Lord Lafew when he speaks of the broad way to hell, the narrow, winding way to heaven, and the Prince that he serves. When Lafew asks him the Prince's name, Lavatch replies: "The blacke prince sir, alias the prince of darkenesse, alias the divell, (IV.v.54-55).

Lavatch also jests in the customary way about cuckolds, delighting like Touchstone in the necessity of horns, and passes his sallies of wit on Parolles and Helena with impunity. So far as his costume is concerned, the text is silent, a fact which suggests that he was wearing the costume of an ordinary servant. When he answers Lafew's catechism as to whether he is knave or fool, however, he refers to his bauble; but he uses the term in its vulgar reference to the penis: "And I would give his wife my bauble sir to doe her service" (IV.v.31-32). But the ambiguous nature of Lavatch's role as privileged servant is not revealed fully until a discussion between the Countess and Lafew near the end of the play:

Laf. A shrewd knave and an unhappie.

Lady. So a is. My Lord that's gone made himselfe much sport out of him, by his authoritie hee remaines heere, which he thinkes is a pattent for his sawcinesse, and indeed he has no pace, but runnes where he will.


"Unhappie" probably refers to the moralistic nature of some of Lavatch's jesting.

With the arrival of Lavatch in Shakespeare's plays, the professional fool begins to merge for a time into a more ambiguous figure, the privileged servant, who appeared in Shakespeare's plays before the arrival of Armin. The exemplar of the privileged servant is Launcelot Gobbo. But Lavatch differs from Launcelot in that his language is more courtly, he is more at home in aristocratic circles, and he jests with more important people. Although he is less presumptuous in his familiarity with his betters than Feste or Touchstone, his jests are more vulgar and his moral is more bluntly stated.

Pompey of Measure of Measure is even less the professional fool than Lavatch. In fact the term "foole" is applied to Pompey only once, and then only in a general way rather than as a specific description: "Come: you are a tedious foole" (II.i.123). As tapster-pimp for Mrs. Overdone, the clown has no very central role in the play, but serves to indicate something of the moral tone of society, to relieve the occasional tedium of the main plot and to pass the time more merrily. Neither Lavatch nor Pompey rime (Lavatch does sing [I.iii.69-75]), and there is no hint as to how Pompey is garbed unless Escalus's reference to his large "bum" can be interpreted to mean that he wore doublet and hose rather than a long serving-man's coat.

With the appearance of Othello in 1604-5, the fool diminishes further and becomes a humble servant-clown with a part only seventeen lines long. His jokes are no funnier than those of generations of clowns before him, and he can be dropped from the play with no harm to its organic unity. The earlier tragedy of Hamlet similarly provided little scope for a fool, offering only the interlude-like part of the first gravedigger to the talents of Robert Armin.

Shakespeare's boldest and most poignant use of the fool, however, is in King Lear (1605-6). The Fool becomes an integral part of the play without any wrenching of decorum which would justify the older critical belief that the fool in the midst of tragic action mars all. In Lear, moreover, Shakespeare develops the apothegmatic wisdom of the fool and his paradoxical reflection on the general dilemma of mankind to its highest dramatic achievement. The Fool becomes a tragic interlocutor instead of a Touchstone or Feste, reminding Lear of the tragic consequences of his folly.

There is no hint of the existence of a fool in King Lear until the conversation between those two chillingly humorless characters, Goneril and the venal Oswald. Goneril seizes upon the privileged Fool's antics as an excuse to quarrel with her father:

Did my father strike my gentleman for chiding
of his Fool?
Oswald. Ay, madam.
Gon. By day and night he wrongs me; every hour
He flashes into one gross crime or other, That
sets us all at odds.



One of the aspects of this tragedy which the Fool brings out tellingly is the saving human grace of laughter—a grace which the party of Lear retains but which the parties of Goneril and Regan ignore. Indeed it is the denial of the dignity of the human condition and of the existence of love which brings about the downfall of the Goneril-Regan factions, for they fail to recognize the innate humanity of most human beings, including in Regan and Cornwall's case their own outraged servants.

Besides the Fool's prominence in the minds of Goneril and Oswald, he is also in the forefront of Lear's mind when he returns from hunting and calls for dinner and the Fool in the same breath:

ho, dinner! Where's my knave? my Fool?—
Go you, and call my Fool hither.


But the Fool is not his old gay self, for a knight replies:

Since my young lady's going into France, sir,
the Fool hath much pined away.
Lear. No more of that; I have noted it well.


Nothing further is said to develop this close relationship between the Fool and Cordelia, but it is clear from these lines that the Fool, besides his function as reminder to Lear of his folly in general, also is a constant reminder to Lear of his absent and beloved daughter. These lines also suggest a close family bond between the Fool, Lear, and Cordelia, like the faithful Touchstone's bond which made him willing to "go o'er the wide world" with Rosaline and Celia, or Yorick's with the young Hamlet, or William Summers' with the Tudor family.

After all these preparations for the Fool's entrance, he finally capers on the stage with a jest about the disguised Kent's folly in electing to serve a man whose fortunes are on the wane. He offers to give Kent his coxcomb in payment for his service (the only time this old-fashioned article of Fool's wear appears in Shakespeare as an article of apparel), and in return he receives from Lear a threat of the whip. The Fool continues to jest about Lear's folly in giving away his property, and simultaneously alienating two of his daughters who loved him for his property, until Lear is driven to call him a bitter fool. The Fool offers to teach Lear the difference between a bitter fool and a sweet one:

That Lord that counsell'd thee
To give away thy land,
Come place him here by me;
Do thou for him stand:
The sweet and bitter fool
Will presently appear;
The one in motley here,
The other found out there.
Lear. Dost thou call me fool, boy?
Fool. All thy other titles thou hast given
away; that thou wast born with.


It quickly becomes evident that in Lear the Fool is more the rimer and as much the singer as he is anywhere else in Shakespeare. The verse above suggests that in addition to his archaic coxcomb (possibly the term is used figuratively), he wore the motley garb of Touchstone, although his reference to Lear and himself as "Grace and a codpiece" may mean that he wore gaskins on which a codpiece would be visible. Like his Shakespearean and historic predecessors, the Fool is a material fool. Throughout the play he reminds Lear of his lack of power in terms of his loss of property. He also reminds him of his loss of love in the absence of Cordelia. Although Lear's Fool seems at times to be more natural, less "artificial," than Feste or Touchstone, Goneril, a careful observer in these matters, seems to have little doubt about his keenness, for after Lear departs enraged by her taunts, the Fool is prevented from lingering behind by this command from Goneril: "You, sir, more knave than fool, after your master" (I.iv.309).

But as Lear's plight worsens in his conflict with Goneril and Regan, the Fool's materialistic arguments undergo a subtle change. He continues to urge the materialistic point of view, not much differently from the way it is urged by Edmund, Goneril, and Regan, but at the same time he indicates that this is not the way for him. These verses spoken by the Fool after Lear's party has arrived at Gloucester's house, only to find Kent in the stocks outside, illustrate the Fool's way with respect to materialism:

That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm.
But I will tarry; the Fool will stay,
And let the wise man fly;
The knave turns fool that runs away;
The Fool no knave perdy.


For the first time in Shakespeare's development of the fool there is a hint that the improvident folly of the fool in following for love instead of gain shares a kinship with the Christian folly of doing what is unwise in the eyes of the world for the sake of righteousness rather than gain.

Enough has been said to indicate the artificiality of Lear's Fool. It seems to become more apparent as his master loses his wits; the Gentleman reports, for example, during the storm on the heath that no one is with Lear "but the Fool; who labours to out-jest / His heart-strook injuries" (III.i.16-17), a function hardly possible for a natural to perceive, let alone fulfill. Shortly after the poignant and terrible trial scene in which Lear in his madness appoints the Fool and the Bedlam as judges and arraigns Goneril and Regan, the Fool disappears wordlessly from the play. Despite his disappearance so early as Act III, however, the Fool has had some 253 lines to speak, ranking his part fourth among fools after Feste, Touchstone, and Thersites.

The daring of Shakespeare and Armin in creating the first and only high tragedy fool has been amply rewarded by the 250 years of critical praise that have followed. The Fool's humanity in the face of adversity, his love for his master, and his faithfulness have even caused sentimental critics to say that he disappears from the play because he is dying of grief. But a more objective approach is to ask what part a Fool could play with a master whose wits have gone. We should also remember that the Fool's irrelevant tag, "She that's a maid now, and laughs at my departure / Shall not be a maid long, unless things be cut shorter" (I.iv.55-56), and Merlin's prophecy at the end of III.ii suggest that Shakespeare and Armin were concerned lest their Fool be too different from his predecessors and introduced these jests, which now seem irrelevant, as sops to a conservative 17th century audience. However we explain occasional irrelevancies in the Fool, he nonetheless remains in our minds as a supremely bold artistic conception and as a poignant dramatic character—an apotheosis of the dramatic fool.

Although I conclude my discussion of Shakespeare's Fools with Lear's Fool, I by no means intend to convey the impression that Lear's Fool is the last of Shakespeare's fools. But the later fools contribute little or nothing new to the genre which reaches its supreme expression in the part of Lear's Fool. It is not necessarily true, however, that because fool parts become smaller and less frequent after 1605, that Armin the player's importance to the company was lessened. There was always the role of between-the-acts entertainer to be filled, and although little is known about the nature of this entertainment, Chambers and others show that such entertainment remained a part of the clown's role until the closing of the theatres. Moreover, John Shank, apparently Armin's successor with the King's Men, is mentioned in a contemporary bit of doggerel as singing "his rhimes," which he may have left off singing to join the King's Men between 1613-1619, where he apparently became very prosperous, despite having but few listed parts in later plays.16

It is not until 1610-12 that any significant roles in Armin's vein reappear in Shakespeare's plays; but when they do reappear, with the arrival of Autolycus in The Winter's Tale (1610-11) and Trinculo in The Tempest (1611-12),17 these roles become quite large.Of all the fool's parts, Autolycus is third in size with 322 lines and Trinculo is tenth with 116 lines. It may be true, as Baldwin has suggested, that Armin had in the meantime played parts like Polonius and Cloten, and if so the range of his performances in the Company would have been much greater than anyone has supposed. Whether Armin played these parts, however, must remain pure conjecture. But it is clear from Baldwin's charts that Robert Armin was given fatter parts than his famed ad-libbing predecessor, William Kempe. As company clown, Robert Armin would of course also appear in similar parts in other plays than those of Shakespeare. Among the extant plays by other authors for the Shakespearean Company, three embody rhyming, singing, saucy clowns with fool-like parts: Marston's The Malcontent (1604), Wilkins' The Miseries of Enforced Marriage (1605-07), and Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy (1607-11).18

In Wilkins' play the clown Robin is obviously a witty household servant, partaking of the nature of Tutch or Lavatch, and garbed in the ordinary household livery. His privilege, if any, is not mentioned in any of the repartee:

Enter Clowne

Ilf. But stay, here is a Scrape-trencher arrived: How now blew bottle, are you of the house?

Clow. I have heard of many Black lacks Sir, but never of a blew bottle.

Ilf. Well Sir, are you of the house?

Clow. No Sir, I am twenty yardes without, and the house stands without me.19

Miseries (A2r-A2v)

The clown's jest is similar to Feste's reply to Viola's question "Do thou live by thy Tabor?" (II.i.3-4). To Ilford's further question the clown provides further evasions which similarly echo earrimes and responses by Shakespearean fools:

Ilf. Dos maister Scarberow lie heere.

Clow. He give you a rime for that sir, Sicke men may lie, and dead men in their Graves, Few else do lie abed at noone, but Drunkards, Punks, & knaves.

Ilf. What am I the better for thy answer?

Clow. What am I the better for thy question?

Ilf. Why nothing.

Clow. Why then of nothing comes nothing.

Enter Scarborrow

Went. Sblud this is a philosophicall foole.

Clow. Then I that am a foole by Art, am better then you that are fooles by nature.


This is the only indication given in the play that the clown is to be regarded as an artificial fool and that it is not to be taken very seriously is evident in the balance of the play.

Robin's part is a hodge-podge of apparently successful bits repeated from Shakespeare's fools, suggesting that perhaps this part was created with Armin's line in mind, as it was developed in several of his Shakespearean parts. The more intricate impression of Armin's brand of fooling is certainly present on the follow lines:

Ilf. Whats your busines?

Clow. My busines is this Sir, and this Sir.

Ilf. The meaning of all this Sir.


When Ilford understands the clown's references and offers to take his letter, however, Robin refuses with the following explanation:

Because as the learned have very well instructed me, Qui supranos, nihil ad nos, and tho many Gentlemen will have to doe with other mens business, yet from me know, the most part of them prove knaves for their labor.


Shortly after delivering this message, Robin disappears from the play with a merry bit of doggerel which he may have sung:

From London am I come, tho not with pipe and Drum,
Yet I bring matter, in this poor paper,
Will make my young mistris, delighting in kisses,
Do as all Maidens will, hearing of such an ill,
As to have lost, the thing they wisht most,
A Husband, a Husband, a pretty sweete Husband,
Cry, oh, oh, and alas, And at last ho, ho, ho,
as I do.


Wilkins incorporated so much of Armin's line of fooling in his play, using bits of business from earlier Armin parts, that he may have decided to use the familiar nickname for Robert, "Robin," as an additional compliment to the company clown.

The part of the clown Fresco in The Atheist's Tragedy also shows the influence of Armin's art. Like Pompey Bum, Fresco is servant to a bawd and just as ready as Pompey to make a vulgar jest. When Belforest asks him if he has been acting as pander to Lady Levidulcia Belforest, he replies:

Fres. O yes! (Speakes like a Crier)

Belfo. Is not thy Mistresse a Bawde to my wife?

Fres. O yes!

Belfo. And acquainted with her trickes, and her plots, and her devises?

Fres. O yes! If any man o' Court, Citie, or Countrey has found my Lady Levidulcia in bed by my Lord Belforest, it is Sebastian.

Belfo. What dost thou proclaime it? Dost thou crie it, thou villaine?20

(p. 125)

In the final act of the play he defends his mistress, Cataplasma, in Pompey's vein:

Good my lord her rent is great.
The good gentlewoman has not other thing
To live by but her lodgings. So she's forc'd
To let her foreroomes out to others, and
Herselfe contented to lie backwards.

(p. 140)

Fresco and his mistress are then sentenced and disappear from the play.

The parts of Robin and Fresco, however, although similar in some respects to Armin's comic turns in Shakespeare's plays, are not large enough or distinctive enough to warrant making any very useful assumptions about the impact of the player Armin on the clownish parts. One must ask himself the question, If I did not know these were plays from the repertory of Shakespeare's Company, would the clown parts strike me as inevitably Armin's? And the only answer can be a mildly qualified No. But an investigation of the history of the clown part in the augmented version of John Marston's The Malcontent as played by Shakespeare's Company provides, in contrast, an unqualified Yes.

The Malcontent, produced in 1604 at the height of the stage fool's popularity, was obtained by the King's Men from the repertory of the Children of Blackfriars in apparent retaliation for an earlier act of dramatic larceny by the Children. The history of the three different Quartos of the play need not be given here except to point out that Quarto "C" is apparently the copy of the play produced by the King's Men.21 That the playing of the piece by the King's Men involved no quarrel with the author, however it is clear from the title page, which shows that Marston was responsible for a part of the rewriting job done to make the play suitable for an adult company:

The/ Malcontent/ Augmented by Marston./ With the Additions played by the Kings/ Maiesties servants. Written by lohn Webster./ (ornament)/ 1604./ At London/ Printed by V. S. for William Aspley, and/are to be sold/ at his shop in Paules/ Church-yard.

(p. xlii)

Stoll's analysis of the play, which concludes that only the induction to the play is by Webster and that the new work in the play itself is by Marston,22 has been generally accepted by scholars.

Webster's "Induction" introduces the players Sly, Condell, Burbage, and Sincklow to the audience, explains that the play was taken from the Boys' company in retaliation for their unauthorized use of "Ieronimo," and suggests that the additions are "not greatly needefull, only as your sallet to your great feast, to entertaine a little more time, and to abridge the not received custome of musicke in our Theater" (p. 143). The purpose of comic interludes in a serious plays could be explained much more learnedly than this, but no more effectively.

Substantial additions are made in Quarto "C" to Burbage's part of Malevole, the Malcontent, to the part of Bilioso, a court official of the Polonius type, and to the part of Bianca, his wife. But the most interesting addition to the play is the completely new part of Passarello, fool to Bilioso. The only modern edition of Marston, H. Harvey Wood's, seriously errs in indicating that a brief passage between Malevole and Passarello occurs in quarto "A". A check of the first edition in The Folger Shakespeare Library23 shows, however, that this passage does not occur in quarto "A". The part of Passarello is an entirely new addition by Marston, an extra ingredient of the "sallet to your great feast," spoken of in the Induction, as well as an indication that the important comic fool created by Robert Armin could not be ignored in 1604 by the King's Men any more than the boys' companies could "abridge" the "custome of musicke in" their "Theater."

The fool Passarello appears for the first time in I.vii with Malevole, and immediately reveals details of his profession and his costume:

Mal. Foole, most happily incountred, canst sing foole?

Passar. Yes I can sing foole, if youle beare the burden, and I can play upon instruments, scurvily, as gentlemen do. . . .

Malevole. You are in good case since you came to court foole; what garded, garded!

Passar. Yes faith, even as footemen and bawdes weare velvet, not for an ornament of Honour, but for a badge of drudgery.


Here is another variant costume for the fool, a long servant's gown ("in good case") perhaps of velvet (it is velvet in I, 177) with extra guards as a badge of his profession much like Launcelot Gobbo's gown, "more guarded than his fellows." When Malevole asks Passarello about his master, Bilioso, and the fool answers that he is a sorry figure, Malevole speaks of the wisdom of fools in terms which had become commonplace to Shakespeare by 1604: "O world most vilde, when thy loose vanities / Taught by this foole, do make the fooles seeme wise!" (I.vii.pp. 161 -162).

Although Armin's 116 lines in this play make the part he played smaller than those of Feste and Touchstone, and smaller even than those of Pompey and Lavatch, Passarello, like Pompey and Thersites, has an important function in the play in establishing the brooding atmosphere of corruption and lust that permeates it. He is a cynical fool who has no fondness for anyone and suspects everyone of baseness. He jests vulgarly with his master when Bilioso attempts to show his wife how he will entertain a beautiful lady, and he makes covert fun of him when asked to admire his leg in a long stocking, "An excellent calfe my Lord" (V.i. p. 199). He also offers logical proofs in Touchstone's syllogistic vein when informed that a rival of his is very valiant and a quarreller:

Pasa. O is he so great a quarreller? Why then hees an arrant coward.

Bili. How proove you that?

Pasa. Why thus, he that quarrels seekes to fight; and he that seekes to fight, seekes to dye; and he that seekes to dye, seekes never to fight more; and he that will quarrell and seekes meanes never to answer a man more, I thinke hees a coward.

Bili. Thou canst proove any thing.

Pasa. Any thing but a ritch knave, for I can flatter no man.


Passarello appears for the last time in V.i in a drunken scene with Malevole and Maquerelle the bawd. After some vulgar jesting and some toast-drinking, the bawd feels more friendly toward the fool, who has been insulting her about her trade: "Now thou hast drunke my health; foole I am friends with thee" (V.i. p.201). But Passarello, not flattered by the offer, replies with a question and a snatch of a bawdy song:

Art art
When Griffon saw the reconciled queane,
offeringe about his neck her armes to cast:
He threw of sword and hartes malignant streame,
And lovely her below the loynes imbrast.

(V.i. p.201)

He then disappears from the play.

It is clear that in adding to his play for the King's Men, John Marston kept, no doubt at the instance of the Company, three important dramatic lines in mind: Burbage's, the player of Bilioso (probably John Heminges), and Robert Armin's. We learn, moreover, that the play was lengthened in these comic parts chiefly because the King's Men could not provide musical interludes like the Boys' Company which first produced the play. Certainly if Marston kept the players of these parts in mind in writing his augmentations, it seems likely that Shakespeare followed the same practice in writing parts for his own Company. Passarello sings, rails, is wise, manipulates words skillfully, and conducts himself familiarly with everyone at the court much like Shakespeare's fools. His elegant velvet costume is his main distinguishing characteristic and suggests that Marston's version of the fool was no more to be considered stock clowning than the differently costumed versions of Shakespeare were.

As I hope I have shown in my discussion of fools in the plays of Shakespeare from 1599 to 1605 and in three other plays performed by Shakespeare's Company, the character of the fool—a kind of fool that was Armin's specialty—becomes an important part of the repertory of the company. Of the eight plays by Shakespeare during this period, only three, Hamlet, Merry Wives, and Othello, do not have important parts for fools, but even in these plays there are opportunities in other roles for Armin's brand of clowning in the older tradition. The evidence clearly suggests that William Shakespeare found in Robert Armin a clown versatile enough to fill the more traditional Kempe-like roles of servant-clown or rustic fellow, including the preeminent Kempe part of Dogberry, as well as an artful student of comedy who had some new ideas picked up in his travels with a provincial company which could be adapted to the theatre in the character of the fool. This new comic character could move freely among all classes of society because of his privilege as a fool, could reflect in his antics a more cultivated kind of entertainment, and could adapt himself comfortably in a sophisticated courtly environment. With the arrival of Robert Armin as a member of the Chamberlain's Men, the roynish natural clown of Shakespeare's earlier comedies becomes the witty artificial fool of his mature comedies and great tragedy, King Lear.


1 Sir Edmund K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. IV, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1923), 180.

2 "Recent Studies in Shakespeare's Chronology," Shakespeare Survey, ed. Allardyce Nicoli (London, 1950), III, 22-33. All dates used in my discussion of Shakespeare's plays follow McManaway's chronology.

3 All citations of AYLI are from A New Variorum edition of Shakespeare, edited by Horace Howard Furness, Vol. VIII: As You Like It (Philadelphia, 1891).

4 Leslie Hotson, Shakespeare's Motley (1952), p. 88, believes that Shakespeare and Armin were: "Faced with the necessity of weaning their public little by little from its fanatic addiction to the Tarlton-Kempe-Cowley convention. A significant progression in the treatment of the role can be traced in the comedies . . . As You Like It, and Twelfth Night."

5New Variorum Shakespeare, VIII, 262.

6 All line counts given with the exception of those for Thersites and Passarello come from Thomos W. Baldwin, The Organization and Personnel of the Shakespearean Company (Princeton, 1927) Charts between pp. 228-229.

7 I discuss the ambiguous use of the word "motley" as a specific description of a kind of cloth and as a general term meaning parti-colored in Appendix HI of my unpubl. diss. "William Shakespeare and Robert Armin His Fool: A Working Partnership" (University of Michigan, 1955). E. W. Ives, "Tom Skelton—A Seventeenth-Century Jester," in Shakespeare Survey 13, ed. Allardyce Nicoli (Cambridge, 1960) conclusively demonstrates in his discussion of the word "motley" and in the woodcuts reproduced in the text along with the paintings of Tom Skelton in Plate V that Elizabethan and Stuart fools were variously dressed off the stage as well as on.

8 See Hotson, Shakespeare's Motley and Robert H.Goldsmith, Wise Fools, of Shakespeare (1955).

9 All citations of TN are from A New Variorum edition of Shakespeare, edited by Horace Howard Furness, Vol. XIII: Twelfth Night (Philadelphia, 1901).

10 Suggested by Furness, New Variorum Shakespeare, XIII, 63.

11 Leslie Hotson, The First Night of Twelfth Night (New York, 1954), p. 157.

12New Variorum Shakespeare, XIII, 258.

13New Variorum Shakespeare, XIII, 264-265.

14Shakespeare Survey III, 22-33.

15 All citations of KL are from A New Variorum edi-tion of Shakespeare, edited by Horace HowArd Furness Vol. V: King Lear (Philadelphia, 1880).

16Elizabethan Stage, II, 338-339.

17Shakespeare Survey III, 22-33.

18 Dates derived from Alfred Harbage, Annals of English Drama 975-1700 (Philadelphia, 1940), p. 78 and p. 80.

19 George Wilkins, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage 1607, fac. ed. J. S. Farmer (London, 1913). All citations are from this volume.

20 Cyril Tourneur, The Plays and Poems of Cyril Tourneur, ed. John Churton Collins (London, 1878), Vol. I. All citations are from this volume.

21 John Marston, The Plays of John Marston, ed. H. Harvey Wood (Edinburgh and London, 1934), I, xlii-xliv. All citations are from this volume.

22 E. E. Stoll, John Webster (Boston, 1905), p. 56

23 John Marston, The Malcontent, Augmented by Mar-ston, with the additions played by the Kings Majesties Servants written by Iohn Webster (London, 1604).

Walter Kaiser (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Falstaff the Fool," in Praisers of Folly: Erasmus, Rabelais, and Shakespeare, Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 267-75.

[In the following excerpt, Kaiser analyzes Falstaff's position as the "wise fool" of the Henriad.]

"But Falstaff, unimitated, unimitable Falstaff, how shall I describe thee?" The frustration of Samuel Johnson's question has been shared by all who have ever tried to encompass the fat old fool. Embodying nothing less than nature itself, he is so enormous that, as Empson has said, "it is hard to get one's mind all round him."1 Because he actually is, in a certain sense, "all the world," he contains within himself so much that one can never take account of it all, and most attempts to map out this globe of sinful continents have tended to display the partial and falsified perspective of medieval cartography. Yet the very nature of the fool is such that it could hardly be otherwise. Even Stultitia, who knew more about fools than anyone, could not describe herself, because her influence was so vast and her nature so comprehensive (ME 5-6). Falstaff contains all the contradictions of folly, and just as nature includes both summer and winter, good and bad, Falstaff the Martlemas cannot be said to be either wholly good or wholly bad. If, as Empson claims, one's feelings of distaste for all the false sentiment about Falstaff "should not send one in headlong flight to the opposite extreme," at the same time one must confess that "it is hard to defend this strange figure without doing it too much."2 In compensation for the affinity he felt with the fat old man, Johnson himself was, in the end, probably too morally censorious of him. But he came perhaps as close as one can to describing Sir John when he addressed him as "thou compound of sense and vice; of sense which may be admired but not esteemed, of vice which may be despised, but hardly detested."3

In calling Falstaff a compound of sense and vice, Johnson points directly at the oxymoronic nature of the wise fool. As an isolated figure, Falstaff is as filled with contradictions as Stultitia: he acts like a young man though he is old, he talks like a Puritan though he is an Epicurean, he teaches by misleading, he pays by borrowing, he counterfeits in order not to counterfeit, he claims that vices are virtues. One could pile up such self-contradictions endlessly, but these are simple in comparison with the complexities he engenders whenever he is in the presence of someone else; for then our point of perspective is not merely dual, but multiple. The dramatic form in which Falstaff is presented multiplies the complexities even more than the mock-encomiastic form in which Stultitia was presented. And while it is easy for Falstaff to pretend he is resolving all the confusion by mendaciously asking "Is not the truth the truth?" the rest of us come to despair of ever knowing what the truth is.

As perhaps only Prince Hal is meant to see, the truth somehow comprehends all the different points of view that the drama presents. But Falstaff, in his own way, comes close to an understanding of this also. At least, he is the only other person in the drama who is able to understand a point of view opposite to his own; it is because he understands it so well that he realizes he must oppose it so strongly. Another way of looking at this capacity of his is to perceive that he could not operate so successfully as a liar if he did not know what the truth is. He demonstrates this clearly when he boasts that he is not only witty in himself, but the cause that wit is in other men. Boast though it is, it is also the truth, and it is a truth of greater dimensions than either of those facts alone. That he can say he is the butt of wit as well as the source of wit reveals that he is able to see himself as others see him. Despite all the bombastic, conceited, stultiloquent smokescreens that he puts out to conceal it (smokescreens which, at times, confuse even him), he knows very well that he is a fool—that, as Dryden put it, he is "a liar, and a coward, a glutton, and a buffoon."4

The ability to see the same fact from his and from the opposite point of view is the capacity of the ironic man, and in this Falstaff represents one of the great flowerings of that Socratic irony which Stultitia replanted in the soil of European literature. But if he is what Cicero called Socrates, an eirôn,5 he is also what Aristophanes called Socrates, an alazôn.6 When Falstaff admits that he is the butt of other men's wit, he is wearing the mask of the eirôn; when he boasts that he is the source of wit in himself, he is wearing the mask of the alazôn. The distinction between the two is most clearly set forth in the Nicomachean Ethics in the course of Aristotle's discussion of the mean to which I have already referred in connection with honor. The passage in which he discusses the characteristics of the eirôn and the alazôn is, however, even more illuminating for the character of Falstaff and must be quoted:

There are also other means, which, though similar to each other, yet are different one from another. They are all connected with intercourse in words and deeds, but they differ in that one is concerned with truth in this intercourse and the others with its pleasure. Of these latter two, one is concerned with giving pleasure in all circumstances of life . . . With regard to truth, the moderate man is a truthful person (alêthes) and the mean is truthfulness: pretense, which exaggerates, is boastfulness and he who has pretenses is a boaster (alazôn); understatement is false modesty and he who understates is falsely modest (eirôn). With regard to pleasure in amusement, the moderate man is witty (eutrapelos) and the condition wit: excess is buffoonery and he who exceeds a buffoon (bômolochos); he who is defective is a boor (agroikos) and the condition boorishness. With regard to the other pleasure, that in the affairs of life, he who is properly pleasant is a friend (philos) and the moderation is friendship: he who exceeds is (if he has no ulterior motive) obsequious (areskos) or (if he is looking for gain) a flatterer (kolax); he who is defective and unpleasant in every circumstance is contentious (dyseris) and surly (dyskolos). . . . 7

[The] application of this Aristotelian schematization to Falstaff can help us to understand some of his paradoxical complexity and may indeed even help us to make his defeat more comprehensible. For once we perceive that Falstaff plays the alazôn as well as the eirôn, we can better understand, it seems to me, not only his personality but also the role he plays in this cycle of history plays. Whatever the old fool is, he is never the man of mean. That role is reserved for Hal to play when he becomes Henry V; and one way of looking at the story of the reign of Henry IV is to see it as a kind of Bildungsspiel—an account of a prince's education. Hal's ultimate role, like that of Spenser's Prince Arthur, is to personify Aristotle's magnanimous man, and that goal is reached by way of the middle road upon which he is able to set out only after he has defeated Hotspur in Part One and Falstaff in Part Two.

While Hotspur himself may be seen as a kind of alazôn, it is really the old lad of the castle who usurps this role. When Falstaff gives his speech on honor, when he admits to being old and white-bearded, when he concedes that he is the butt of other men's jokes, he is the eirôn. At most other times, however, he is the alazôn; for generally we hear him boasting of his prowess in love and war, his friendship with the prince, his courage and virtue. We think of him more often as the buffoon than as the boor. The point is that he incorporates within himself both extremes, and the complexity of his character arises from just this fact. What is more, he confuses things even further because, in a certain sense, he plays his roles in the wrong places. From one point of view at least, the alazôn, the man who claims to be more than he is, may be thought properly to belong to the heroics of the battlefield; the eirôn, the man who claims to be less than he is, would belong to the antics of the tavern world. Yet Falstaff reverses this. It is in the tavern world that he plays the alazôn, "the man of war" (2:V.i.31), boasting that he is more than he actually is. It is in the world of battle that he plays the eirôn, pretending that he is less than he is, even to the extent of pretending that he is dead.

The way of excess is the winding mountain path to the battlefield of tragedy; the way of defect is the crooked back-alley to the tavern of comedy; the middle road is the Camino Real of history. Although history may lead to either comedy or tragedy, the moment of comedy and the moment of tragedy are essentially timeless and outside history. Since time, as we have seen, is the fool's mortal enemy, he can play a role in either of those timeless moments, that of comedy (like Feste) or that of tragedy (like Lear's fool), but he cannot survive in the time of history. Time and history destroyed the comic moment of Yorick's gibes and gambols, but when the moment of tragedy comes he has a role to play once more. Thus Falstaff can be the eirôn and mock at honor and death on the battlefield of tragedy, and he can also be the alazôn and boast of courage and youth in the tavern of comedy. The prince, on the other hand, though he is challenged onto the battlefield by Hotspur and misled into the tavern by Falstaff, has his destiny on the broad King's Highway that leads between them, and, when he finally passes down this highway, the fool must stand rejected at the side.

That highway is, as Aristotle says, the place of truth. Since eirôn and alazôn stand on either side, and since Falstaff plays both, in him we look on truth from both sides. And this is where the greatest complexity of his character lies. By spanning the distance between defect and excess, he also manages to take in the mean. Were he simply on one side or the other, the mean would be external to him; but since he is constantly moving from one extreme to the other, the implication is that he is constantly passing through the condition of the mean, the location of truth. To be sure, he does not stop there (for to stay would be suicide), but he does pass through. In an inexplicable, paradoxical sense that such imagery may or may not help to understand, he comprehends the truth of the mean within his advocacy of the two extremes. And just as he may be looked upon as the most faithful friend (philos) and the wittiest man (eutrapelos) in the play, so he may also be said to be in possession of truth (alêthes)—perhaps even of the greatest truth. Not only does he possess the truth that he is a fool, but also, with his synoptic, comprehensive view of all three conditions of defect, mean, and excess, he possesses the Stultitian truth that folly is truth.

Yet history—the middle road, the moderate position, Henry V—defeats him in the end, rejecting the Stultitian truth he stands for. It was preordained that it should, for otherwise Falstaff would have defeated history. He is, as a recent critic has said, "the fool of the history plays. He steps out of the way of English history, an intruder who announces himself in the face of the commonwealth; and in Falstaff the idea of order meets its most dangerous fact."8 He had warned that to ban-ish him would be to banish all the world. That is not strictly true, for the world of Henry V goes on. Yet it is true that in order to banish him the world has had to narrow its scope; it has had to shrink, as it were, to fill up the large void the corpulent fool leaves behind. It has had to forego that breadth which can include the opposite extremes of excess and defect and that expansiveness which gives Lebensraum to the laughter of irony. As the fool goes off, he takes part, if not all, of the world with him; and Falstaff is entitled to say with Donne, "since you would have none of mee, I bury some of you."9

Though we understand why he must be banished, rare is the man who has not been bothered by the rejection of Falstaff. It is easy to dismiss the distress of Bradley and others as maudlin sentimentality; yet it is, I think, much harder to accept the moral justification of the expulsion provided by Johnson. Moreover, that Johnson felt obliged to give a justification and that so many others have indulged in sentimentality betray the more important fact that somehow the rejection does fail to come off properly. Tragic though it is, no one "objects" to the death of Hamlet, and even the shock of Cordelia's death, which Johnson found hardest to bear, has not occasioned nearly so much discountent as this rejection of the fool. Explain it though we may, if we are really honest with ourselves, I think we must admit that we never feel quite right about it. Falstaff has presented his case too strongly to be put down quite so simply. The fool, as he always will if given half a chance, has run away with us.

C. L. Barber has given a valuable explanation of why, though the rejection is morally justified, it is not dramatically cogent, and his comments on this are as valuable as anything that has been written about the end of Henry IV. His examination of the problem begins with an analysis of the historical situation that is particularly germane to this study:

But Falstaff proves extremely difficult to bring to book—more difficult than an ordinary mummery king—because his burlesque and mockery are developed to a point where the mood of a moment crystallizes as a settled attitude of scepticism. As we have observed before, in a static, monolithic society, a Lord of Misrule can be put back in his place after the revel with relative ease. The festive burlesque of solemn sanctities does not seriously threaten social values in a monolithic culture, because the license depends utterly upon what it mocks: liberty is unable to envisage any alternative to the accepted order except the standing of it on its head. But Shakespeare's culture was not monolithic: though its moralists assumed a single order, scepticism was beginning to have ground to stand on and look about—especially in and around London. So a Lord of Misrule figure, brought up, so to speak, from the country to the city, or from the traditional past into the changing present, could become on the Bankside the mouthpiece not merely for the dependent holiday scepticism which is endemic in a traditional sociey, but also for a dangerously self-sufficient everyday scepticism. When such a figure is set in an environment of sober-blooded great men behaving as opportunistically as he, the effect is to raise radical questions about social sanctities. At the end of Part Two, the expulsion of Falstaff is presented by the dramatist as getting rid of this threat; Shakespeare has recourse to a primitive procedure to meet a modern challenge. We shall find reason to question whether this use of ritual entirely succeeds.10

Surely this is the case. An increasingly skeptical cen-tury must have found a voice in Falstaff as it had in the two earlier fools; in such remarks as his speech on honor he must have given formulation to the doubts of many who had lived through a century of war. And yet the final appeal of Falstaff involves more than his articulation of doubt. What Barber calls his settled attitude of skepticism does not actually end there. Like the skepticism of Stultitia and Pantagruel, his does not come to rest in the despair of pyrrhonism, but rather it manages to lead beyond that doubt to optimism, which is, as Empson puts it, "a greater trust in the natural man [and] pleasure in contemplating him."11 Hamlet will be left holding the empty skull of Yorick to symbolize all his disillusionment, but Falstaff goes off displaying his great belly as a symbol of the virtues of the little kingdom of natural man. That is his answer to doubt.

If he left us in doubt, we could accept his rejection; it is because he expresses such a positive answer that we find it so intolerable. Unquestionably, Shakespeare invented him in order to create doubt, and the answer to that doubt was to be Henry V; but Falstaff got out of control, so to speak, and answered his own doubt. Fools, if we are not careful, always do. By their very nature, their tendency is to exceed the roles we assign to them, and because we suffer fools gladly we let them take us where we are not supposed to go. The problem can perhaps be seen most clearly as a technical one, and in this Stultitia once again helps to explain Falstaff. Both Erasmus and Shakespeare start out with the intention of attacking the accepted values of society—what Erasmus calls sapientia mundana. In order to depose these idols, they ironically praise the accepted vices of society—stultitia. The two are expected to destroy each other, leaving (as we know from the Enchiridion and the portrait of Henry V) the field free for the triumph of the reasonable man—homo rationalis. Now when you have folly challenge worldly wisdom, the advantages, to begin with, are all on the side of worldly wisdom; for that is what the world accepts as its values. Therefore, in order to make the combat equal (and it must be exactly equal, so that the two opponents will destroy each other), you must give folly all the ammunition you can. Since, that is, the spectators start out having all their sympathies with worldly wisdom, the author must do everything possible to transfer some of those sympathies to folly.

The problem, of course, is that the fool enlists too much of our sympathy. His gaiety and license are so appealing that we cannot keep ourselves from falling in with him completely. In terms of the sympathies of the spectators, it is as easy for the author to kill off the wordly wise as it is for him to kill off Hotspur; but the fool has a frustrating habit of staying alive, even when you think he has died. At the end of Part One the rational man stands triumphant over Hotspur and Falstaff, and everything has worked out as it should: reason has triumphed over both folly and the false wisdom of the world. But then the fool gets up and takes over again. Erasmus wanted to leave us with a picture of a man reasonable in worldly things and a Fool in Christ. In order to exalt the reasonable man, he had to destroy the man "wise" in earthly things, and he created the fool to destroy him. But the arguments he gives to the foolish man are so compelling that we forget about the reasonable man. Once we are made to see things from the perspective of the fool, the reasonable man bears much too close a resemblance to the wise man. Shakespeare is able to force the triumph of the reasonable man, in a way that Erasmus without the drama at his disposal could not, by having him visually crowned at the end. The audience follows his progress to the palace, but too many of its sympathies stay behind with the rejected fool. Only Rabelais seems to have managed to control the situation as he wanted to. His fool, Panurge, creates exactly the proper doubt to knock down the idols of the "wise." Yet Panurge is as much the victim of the wise as they are his: the result is the defeat of both parties. For though Panurge is made powerful enough to demonstrate that the answers of the wise are wrong, he is not powerful enough to get an answer himself. At this point, the rational man, who is also the Fool in Christ, triumphs over both fool and wise in the character of Pantagruel.

We accept Pantagruel's triumph over Panurge in a way that we never do Hal's over Falstaff. We know that Falstaff must go, for he is far in the devil's book. We also know that "the King is a good king." And yet we are obliged to add, with Nym, "but it must be as it may; he passes some humours and careers" (Henry V, II.i.125-6). It is Falstaff who has won our hearts, and we wish, with Queen Elizabeth, to have the old fool back again.


1 Empson, "Falstaff and Mr. Dover Wilson," p. 221.

2 Empson, "Falstaff," pp. 221, 256.

3Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Raleigh, p. 125.

4 John Dryden, "Preface to Troilus and Cressida: or, Truth Found Too Late, A Tragedy," in The Works of John Dryden, ed. Sir Walter Scott and George Saintsbury, VI (Edinburgh, 1883), 269.

5 Cicero, >De officiis,

6 Aristophanes, Nubes, 102.

7 Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea, 1108a.

8 Geoffrey Bush, Shakespeare and the Natural Condition (Cambridge, Mass., 1956), p. 31.

9 John Donne, "The Funerali."

10 Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, pp. 213-4.

11 Empson, "Falstaff," p. 245.

Gareth Lloyd Evans (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Fools: The Shadow and the Substance of Drama," in Shakespearian Comedy, Edward Arnold, 1972, pp. 142-59.

[In the essay below, Evans observes developments in Shakespeare's dramatic representation of the fool character as they coincide with the appearance of Robert Armin as a member of Shakespeare's acting company.]


In recent years increased attention has been paid by criticism to Shakespeare's Fools. This increase was, doubtless, fired by the excellently detailed and imaginatively presented work of Enid Welsford1 which showed the vast antecedents of the character both in art forms and in real life, and suggested its importance to a full understanding of the nature of Shakespeare's imagination. Later, Robert Goldsmith2 dealt shrewdly with the contradictory nature of the Fool—the contrapuntal effects of his drollery and sage comment. One of the most recent books takes the study a stage further. William Willeford3 discusses, in both philosophical and psychological terms, the nature of folly and the significance of the relationship of the Fool to the actor and his audience.

The scope of the area for research is well indicated by recalling Leslie Hotson's4 intricately clever work on the meaning of the word 'motley' and what it implies about the dress of real Fools and their status in royal and noble households. Hotson provided valuable pointers to yet another aspect of study—the nature and status of real Fools in history. At the time of writing, no such study, on a comprehensive basis, has yet appeared. If and when it does far greater attention than hitherto will have to be paid to sources other than literary; the evidence capable of being supplied by the social historian and the art historian is likely to prove immensely valuable in attempting to establish the place of real Fools in their society and their relationships with the various forms of entertainment in the early and late medieval periods.

For, indeed, with this figure, the student of Shakespeare is faced with the intriguing fact that an apparently fictional type has an accredited reality. Any Shakespeare Fool has (and there is perhaps a touch of wry irony here) a far more clearly definable and recognizable source than, say, Lear, or any other of Shakespeare's great characters whose 'historical' reality is so shadowy. The student also confronts the unique fact that the realization of the Fool figures on the Elizabethan stage was entrusted to a man who had a unique knowledge of real Fools. Robert Armin, who played Touchstone, Feste, Lear's unnamed Fool and Lavache, knew far more about their typical antecedents than Burbage did of the originals of the parts he played—Lear, Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet. It might, in passing, also be timely to record that Armin knew the difference between true Fools and clown figures like Gobbo far more clearly than many modern directors of Shakespeare's plays who, following a passing mode, seem to wish to put every zany into motley.

Armin serves to remind us that the study of the relationship of the actor to his role has been a marked preoccupation of twentieth-century thinking and writing on theatre matters. What happens to Olivier when he is Macbeth, or to Gielgud become King Lear? Most actors (but strangely fewer actresses) of quality have, in the past few decades, questioned deeply into the nature of their own personalities. It should perhaps not be surprising in a century in which psychology has drifted and sprayed its effects into almost every corner of existence, to find actors particularly prone to be magnetized by the kind of anwers that a probing into the unconscious might reveal. After all, not only is psychology a wonderful boost to the ego but it must be very beguiling to consider the nature of a man whose professional function is not to be himself. Has a chameleon a personality?

The implications of this preoccupation are many, and an indication of the extent to which it can exercise not only the minds of actors but also the modes of directors is Peter Brook's much-hailed production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (Straftord-upon-Avon 1970, London 1971). As is customary in an age of shifty and shifting values, the production's importance was overrated. Phrases more applicable to the plastic enormities of technological discovery like 'break-through' and 'new horizons' were used to evaluate what was an extremely competent display of directorial ingenuity. The truly remarkable fact about the production was, however, its adroit use of a Shakespeare play to illustrate the twentieth-century preoccupation with the nature of the relationship between actor and role. For example, all the actors quite deliberately stepped out of character when they were not required to be an integral part of the spoken or visual action and watched (in their own 'real' personalities as it were) what was happening. It was like the chínese box, and the whole affair very germane to the preoccupation under discussion—partly because the audience wondered how much the non-acting postures that were taken up were, indeed, yet another layer of illusion. Brook's procedure (a sort of anglicized version of alienation) would impose far less strain on an audience's credibilities when the play is a comedy than when it is in any other mode. For an actor, on stage, as himself, to laugh at the antics of his colleagues playing parts and then, in turn, to be laughed at himself, seems curiously right. Yet, for an actor, on stage, as himself, to watch, for example, the murder of Lady Macduff which he set in motion in his role of Macbeth, seems curiously wrong.

Comedy invokes less identification from an audience than does tragedy. In fact, comedy depends for its effects upon a certain distancing. It requires a barely realized mental posture of superiority so that there can be a full deployment of that element that causes us to laugh. If tragedy induces the feeling—'there but for the grace of God and art go I'—then comedy involves the response—'catch me doing or saying that'.


If a study of his plays did not convince us that Shakespeare was, in a very direct sense, concerned about the relationship between actor and role, then a reminder of the conditions in which he worked should smother any doubts. The very close involvement with actors in the imbroglio of both public and private theatres must have daily brought him face to face with a practical manifestation of the problems facing the playwright who is not just a visitant but a close working colleague of temperamental actors. Drama created while the eventual executants are breathing over the dramatist's shoulder has a complicated grain that differs from the polished results of the writer's solitary immunity from interference.

What may seem definitive, imperishable, even sacrosanct in the quiet of the study may well be the first element to be transmuted, altered, even replaced when subjected to the various expediencies and histrionic expertise of the rehearsal room. To be aware that Shakespeare's plays were deeply and inevitably subjected (given the nature of the acting companies) to the latter environment immediately raises questions which admit of no final answer but whose very fascination invites speculation. How much of Burbage went into Macbeth? How much of Armin informed the creation of Feste or Lear's Fool? Is there, indeed, any common denominator to roles known to have been played by the same actor in Shakespeare's company?

Some common denominators seem to spring out of the group of tragic heroes known to have been played by Burbage, despite the singular differences we can observe in them. Two examples seem obvious enough. First the actor who played the tragic heroes must have had (and still needs to have) an imagination and a mental and emotional sensibility of a very developed order. These roles are beyond the run-of-the-mill matinee idol; they demand more than technical skill. Second, the actor who played these roles needed (and still needs) to have a quite unusual sensitivity to the appreciation and communication of language. Your rodomontade player will pull off Henry V, your skilled technician and cold-voiced villain will conquer Angelo, and Romeo would be adequately served by one with a sense of music, soft lips and a disposition to sentimentality. But Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth, in particular, demand a huge poetic feeling and an ability to apprehend the implications of the intellectual content of the lines. This is not to ask for an actor of immense intellectual stature, but one of limitless mental and emotional intuitiveness. Such men are rare. It is not enough to say that because Shakespeare was a great poet it is natural that his characters should speak great poetry: a bad actor can make sow's ears out of any poet's silk purses.

It is very tempting to assume that Burbage was possessed of these rare qualities and that this gave Shakespeare a kind of confidence which put no restriction whatsoever on his own imaginative immensity and his verbal splendour. The characters were, so to speak, only possible in the terms in which they eventually came to exist because the actor was big enough to meet the terms—indeed, may well have suggested them.

These kinds of relationships, and others less inchoate and theoretical, might well be multiplied. For example, were the evidence firmer, it might with confidence be expected to apply to all of Shakespeare's major characters. At least it can be said that all the tenuous evidence available points unerringly towards the existence of far closer relationships between actor and role than has hitherto been admitted. One might, indeed, find certain quirks of certain actors being exploited (perhaps covertly) by Shakespeare in the creation of certain characters.

If it is objected that there is too much supposition in this, it should be recalled that the use of the idosyncrasies of players (Green Room raw material, as it were) is far from uncommon in theatre today and has distinguished confirmation for its past usage in the work of Congreve who seems, quite relentlessly and presumably undetectedly, to have caused some well-known actors and actresses of his time to reproduce their own habits in fictional characters without being aware of what they were doing. Shakespeare, the most assiduous picker-up of trifles in the history of drama, could hardly give second place to Congreve in the matter of source-hunting. Equally, it should be recalled that the consanguinity of actor and role is at least suggested by the intriguing substitution of the names of actors for their roles, possibly as a result of a prompter, in II. ii of Much Ado About Nothing. Cowley (i.e. Richard Cowley, a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men) appears three times for Verges, but the entire contribution of Dogberry, which is a major one, appears under the name of Kemp (i.e. Will Kemp) twelve times.

Two points are worth stressing here. First, the scene is, in an obvious sense, a throwaway, barely necessary to forward the action, and its dialogue is almost entirely designed to promote comic business. Second, the comedy of the scene seems arranged to 'feed' Dogberry/Kemp and, moreover, seems deliberately to be leading up to giving him the opportunity for the last solo speech of the scene—ending with 'O that I had been writ down an ass'. In truth, we get very much the same impression from those pantomime and music-hall sketches where a stooge or stooges build up the verbal atmosphere to enable the star comic to explode into his big solo which often ends with a well-known catchphrase.

When the substitution of Kemp for Dogberry for the entirety of the scene is considered, when the nature of the scene is recalled, when its dramatic irrelevance is recorded, is it unreasonable to lean towards a belief either that Kemp wrote it or that Shakespeare did, but in absolute and well-judged servility to the known values of Kemp's comic, genius?

Discussion of Burbage and Kemp in these contexts admittedly runs the risk of bogging down in speculation. Where, however, the Fools and Robert Armin are concerned, there is much firmer ground.

We know, with a certainty equal to that applicable to Burbage and his roles, that Armin played Feste, Touchstone, Lear's Fool and probably Lavache. It has been suggested that he also played Dogberry. The evidence for this derives from a line in the dedication to Armin's play The Italian Taylor and his Boy (1609) which goes—'I pray you the boldness of a beggar who hath been writ down an Asse in his time'.5 Faced with the Kemp/Dogberry substitution already referred to, the strong possibility that the Ass phrase was, or became, a popular catchphrase either deriving from, or popularized by, Kemp and, as it is hoped to show, the quite un-Armin qualities required to play Dogberry, the difficulty of accepting the suggestion is very great.


It is well known, and it is thoroughly documented by Enid Welsford, that the Court Fools of Shakespeare derive, in essentials, from the real Fools of history. These essentials were transmuted by Shakespeare for his own dramatic puposes but he capitalized very much on his sources. The most obvious of them are:

  1. The Fools are conspicuously classless or, at very least, difficult to place with confidence in the social hierarchies. Although, like Feste, they may haunt the houses, mansions, palaces of the high and mighty, they are obviously neither of the upper class nor distinctly of any other. Jaques' reference to Touchstone that he is 'One who hath been a courtier' seems calculatedly vague. Touchstone gives no particular indication of being more than on jester/master terms with the highborn of the play. If he cannot be truly seen as a member of the upper class, neither does he seem to fit well with the lower orders. His marriage to Audrey seems, in every way, a monumental aberration—like is certainly not marrying like in any sense, least of all a social one. Lear's Fool is classless to the point where even to consider his place in the social hierarchy seems ridiculous. Lavache, though listened to, is presented as a confidant whose words are countenanced, not because of equality of social status, but for some other reason.
  2. This other reason has much to do with the fact that the Fools are conspicuously a law unto themselves. They utilize (as, for example, in Feste's catechizing of Olivia or Lear's Fool's wisdom-shafted jibes) an accepted right to speak their minds. A marked and important feature of this acceptance of a right is, of course, the irony that is embedded in it. They do speak what they think, they are often expected even incited to do so, and yet they can, incontinently, at the whim of the piper's payer, be punished for doing so—'Sirrah, the whip'.

    This ironic 'right' to speak is often referred to as a Fool's licence and it is usually assumed that it is a tradition and not a palpable reality—a wry ghost of something that itself has no substance. An example of the way in which the art and social historian may well guide future research into the history of Fools may be indicated by the fact that, in the many depictions of these creatures carved on the underside of choir-stall seats in so many of our cathedrals and medieval churches, there are some who are holding quite conspicuously in one hand what seems like a rolled-up parchment. Whether or not the artist's licence has created a Fool's 'licence'—depicting something that did not exist but was well-known as a tradition—or whether some Fools actually did possess a written licence, is not known, but the matter is amenable to much detailed research.

  3. At certain times—and, in the case of Feste, Lear's Fool and Lavache, at most times—their 'comic' utterances, whether in dialogue or monologue, are embarrassingly unsimple. It is an area of theatre-experience worth commenting on that the status of Fools in an audience's experience is quite dissimilar to that of the plain comic folk who are sometimes found in the presence of the Fools. Martext and Audrey provide uncomplicated laughter; Touchstone does not; Aguecheek by the side of Feste is a funny simple droll. When Feste is being 'funny' in the dialogue with Olivia, Viola and as Sir Topas, we are well aware that 'this is not altogether Fool'. There is little in Lear's Fool that inclines us from a strong feeling that he is less a comic than a prophetic or even tragic figure; and Lavache is more cynic than jester.

    It may be added that another element in the audience's experience of these creatures re-emphasizes the complexity of their status. How often, as members of an audience, do we watch and listen to the actor playing the Fool and react a little nervously as he seems to beg for our laughter at his quips about the Vapians and impeticosing gratillity. Our response is so often nervous not only because we recognize the difficulty the actor has in inducing comic responses from what seems intractable material but also because we are reluctant for our neighbours to know that we do not understand the joke. On the contrary, to laugh alone in these circumstances can either be a conceit or a form of desperate insincerity!

    It is true, of course, that some of the quips which leave us darkling would have had an immediate response from an Elizabethan audience because of their contemporary allusiveness. It is equally true, however, that there remains an area of their verbal communications which seems opaque for other, mysterious reasons.

  4. The Fools have (to use a modern catch-phrase that any good Fool would reduce to mincemeat) a conspicuous withdrawal syndrome. Their involvement in the action, incidents, tensions of the plays is peripheral. This posture is implicitly comprehended on a reading of the plays but becomes explicit when the plays are experienced in the theatre. Feste's withholding of any comment whatsoever and his withdrawal from the action at the sudden intervention of Malvolio in the drunken below-stairs scene is sudden in its impact. In the production at the then Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959, Feste couched beneath a table quietly strumming on a musical instrument—he seemed light years away from Illyria. Even Touchstone, the most socially integrated (to use modern parlance again) of them all, is not at the heart of the play. Comments about him hint at a kind of alienation in his make-up. 'He uses his folly like a stalking-horse and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit' (As You Like It, V. iv. 100).

    Lear's Fool is the most removed of all. He darts in and out of the play with his wry comments, his unremarked wisdom and warnings, his saws and jingles which seem to come from a time before clock-time began. When he is no longer dramatically needed he disappears from the action with utter finality.

These four characteristics alone entitle us to look closely at these Fools, for a mystery seems to hand here. No other Elizabethan dramatist exploits the real Fools of history in this way. The kind of character that has been described is unique to Shakespeare.


It is suggested that this is partly due to the fact that Robert Armin was unique in Shakespeare's company and that Shakespeare and he had a certain affinity in the sense that each kindled the other's imagination. Armin sensed what Shakespeare wanted, Shakespeare sensed what Armin could give him. Moreover they came together in a working relationship at a time (1599) when the timbre of Shakespeare's dramatic imagination was changing, becoming more complicated. For the kind of comedy he was about to begin writing at this particular time he needed the kind of conception which, it is claimed, Armin instinctively and sensitively understood. Together, they created a figure unique in drama and, through that figure, revealed an attitude towards comedy, acting and drama which is as strange as it is singular.

We know practically nothing about Robert Armin except that he was probably a pot-boy in a tavern, that he was probably anti-puritan and that he wrote plays, tracts and a curious work, Foole upon Fooled,6 which is a remarkable if uneven commentary on real Fools and some speculation upon the nature of folly. Armin probably belonged for a time to the Lord Chandos' men but in 1599 or thereabouts he joined the Lord Chamberlain's, replacing the great custard-pie, physical comedian, Will Kemp. The entry of Armin into the company coincided with the appearance and development of the Fool in Shakespeare's plays and with the consequent diminishing in importance of broad physical comedy.

It is reasonable, surely, to believe that Armin brought with him an excited respect for Shakespeare's work. There are a considerable number of both close and possible echoes of Shakespeare's plays in Armin's work—perhaps more in number than in any other Elizabethan writer. Surely only close acquaintance and an attendant admiration could recognize the beauty of the image in Romeo and Juliet which goes—'Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light' and reproduce it as 'Earth's bright-treading stars' in his own play The Two Maids of Moorclacke?7 Again, surely only an intimate acquaintance with a popular play by his colleague could lie behind a remark in the same play—'there are, as Hamlet says, things called whips in store'. The fact that he has misquoted is no argument against intimacy. The modern scholar is only too well aware that familiarity often breeds this kind of carelessness.

Apart from such respect and admiration, it is further suggested that Armin delivered into Shakespeare's mind and greedy imagination a notion of comedy far different from any he had perpended before and, through it, a more complicated notion of the place and function of character in drama.

Some idea of the strength that may lie in the suppositious connections thus made between Armin and Shakespeare may be strikingly indicated by a passage in an epistle signed 'R.A.' but prefixed 'R. Armin' printed in 1590 with a tract entitled A brief Resolution of the right Religion. The probability that the actor Armin is one and the same man as R. Armin is strong, and although nine more years were to elapse between the publication of the tract and Armin's joining the Lord Chamberlain's men this is no argument against Shakespeare's having read the tract either before 1599 or indeed having been introduced to it by a new colleague eager to impress the well-known dramatist. The passage in question refers to Puritans and it reads:

The other vicious and detestable sect are Martinets, who see so far into matters that they oversee themselves, wresting things from the right sense to the wrong, making show of zeal when it is mere folly.8

A more evocative general description of Malvolio's colouring it would be difficult to find. The start of recognition which such a passage invokes is frequently repeated in a close examination of Foole upon Foole and its companion publication A Nest of Ninnies which amplifies some of the comments Armin makes in the former study of Fools. Not only are there occasional sharp reminders of the unusual ambience which Shakespeare's Fools have about them (as in Armin's description of Will Sommers, Henry VIII's Fool: 'His melody was of a higher strain, and he looked as the noon broad waking'), but occasionally it is possible to catch something of the rhythms, the anticlimaxes, guile and shrewdness, and descent into quipping bathos so characteristic particularly of Feste and Touchstone:

By the first merry emblem I reach at stars, how they fire themselves at the firmament; whether it be with sitting too near the sun in the day, or couching too near the moon in the night I know not, but the hair of their happiness often falls off, and shoots from a blazing comet to a fallen star, and carries no more light than is to be seen in the bottom of Plato's ink-horn, and when they should study in private with Diogenes, in his cell, they are with Cornelius in his tub.9

We recall, for example,

bid the dishonest man mend himself: if he mend, he is no longer dishonest; if he cannot, let the butcher mend him. Anything that's mended is but patch'd; virtue that transgresses is but patch'd with sin, and sin that amends is but patch'd with virtue.

(Twelfth Night, I. v. 40-44)

Armin's conception of the subtlety of true folly and his sensitivity to the language of fooling—one moment a broad quip, then a nerve-jolting pun, then a mordant comment, all interwoven with strands of strange verbiage and occasionally decorated with a sad lyricism—is of the same order as Shakespeare's. What is more, his sense of the wisdom in folly is absolutely in line with Shakespeare's, not merely in conception (for the idea of wise folly was not original, as both men would have known from a reading of Erasmus's Moriae Encomium (translated as The Praise of Folie, 1549), but in its form of expression. It is in this that the uniqueness of the two writers lies.

Fools questions reach to mirth, leading wisdom by the hand as age leads children by one finger, and though it holds not fast in wisdom, yet it points at it.10

To read Armin's books and to recall Shakespeare's Fools is to be immediately aware that both men had come to inhabit a country of the imagination in which the notion of comedy as a mere laughter-maker had been put aside. To hear Feste mocking Malvolio about whirligig Time, and Touchstone gravely turning to Rosalind and saying, 'but as all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly', to overhear Viola say, 'This fellow is wise enough to play the Fool', is to be made aware that we are in a different realm from that inhabited by Gobbo, Costard, Bottom and their like.

The Fool's comic function in contradistinction to theirs is well expressed by William Willeford:

The Fool is a fact, and he is the only fact that cannot be governed by the comic dream. . . . He is the reminder that the moment of perfection realized by the comic dream is only pretending.11

This comment not only suggests something of a clue to the nature of the Fool's effect in deepening and maturing Shakespeare's conception of comedy, but also the figure's status as a new kind of dramatis persona.


Before the coming of Armin and the Fool, Shakespeare, we may say, had exulted in the comic dream. Love's Labour's Lost, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night's Dream are territories of delight which Shakespeare, no doubt, inhabited with wise joy. The adjective is important because, admittedly, even the earliest comedies are not without dark hues. In them the young playwright's comic spirit occasionally stirs a little restlessly in perturbation about mutability, aware that the sunlight on the garden must harden and grow cold. More than this, even the gayest, most effervescent, most witty moods and modes in these early comedies are rarely self-indulgent. This early comedy looks outward from itself, is purposeful in the sense that it is never allowed to cheapen or minimize, for the sake of mindless laughter, Shakespeare's deep sense of values in the matter of love, fidelity, friendship.

The arrival of the Fool immediately heightened Shakespeare's awareness of the contrast between created dream and ever-incipient reality. In his green days comedy and high exciting romance was able always to hold back the shadows of reality, but now Shakespeare fully realized that the darkness cannot be banished. Twelfth Night and As You Like It are indeed more poignantly comic, and their sunlight the more welcome and subtle, simply because the Fools are so often reminding us that comic perfection is, in a way, only pretending:

But that's all one, our play is done.

(Twelfth Night, V. i. 393)

But the Fool does much more than to remind Shakespeare and ourselves about the pretence of the comic dream. Inside the Fool there lies a mystery about which all we can instinctively say, either in reading or seeing the plays, is that it has something to do with a knowledge and sometimes a purpose which is exclusive to the Fool. This knowledge is connected not with the comic dream per se, but seems, we feel, to lie outside it, and the purpose is curiously stern. It is brilliantly expressed in the speech of Jaques to the Duke and his assembled followers:

O worthy fool! One that hath been a courtier,
And says if ladies be but young and fair,
They have the gift to know it; and in his brain,
Which is as dry as the remainder biscuit
After a voyage, he hath strange places cramm'd
With observation, the which he vents
In mangled forms. O that I were a fool!
I am ambitious for a motley coat . . . . . .
It is my only suit,
Provided that you weed your better judgments
Of all opinion that grows rank in them
That I am wise. I must have liberty
Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
To blow on whom I please, for so fools have;
And they that are most galled with my folly,
They most must laugh. And why, sir, must they so?
The why is plain as way to parish church:
He that a fool doth very wisely hit
Doth very foolishly, although he smart,
Not to seem senseless of the bob; if not,
The Wiseman's folly is anatomiz'd
Even by the squand'ring glances of the fool.
Invest me in my motley; give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of th' infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine.

(As You Like It, II. vii. 36-61)

The knowledge and the purpose are implicit here. The Fool's knowledge is of the folly of mankind, the fool's ability is to exorcize that folly. It is as if Jaques is saying that the exercise of the kind of wise folly possessed by the true Fool can purge mankind's so-called wise men of their own kind of folly. It is Jaques' ambition to ascend to this status of high therapy.

Why should Jaques be so adamant that the Fool's brand of folly should be so efficacious? Why should wit burn out rage, why should fooling cauterize pretensions, why should jibes and saws in the mouth of a true Fool be capable of making the mentally blind see and those near to madness come nearer to sanity? Why should the folly of Lear's Fool be so much more a kind of wisdom than any words uttered by anyone else in the infected world of the King? We know his words are more wise because our instincts tell us so as we listen to them—but why?

Simply because no true Fool is completely committed to the world within which the actions of the plays are placed. The Fool, in a way, is an ideal 'us'; he represents that part of us which does not identify with characters or situations, but sits back and is able to see behind illusion. But it is the uncommitted part of us in an idealized form which the Fool represents. His is the wisdom we would like to have, and if we had it not only would we be able to deal clearly with the 'truth' that lies behind the actions of a great play but, perhaps more pertinently, we would be able to deal more certainly with our own real infected world, and purge ourselves of our own folly. It is often said that if you look in a glass you see a fool. What Shakespeare does is to make us look into the glass of the world of his play—but the Fool we see there wears not our motley in his brain. The Fool, then, is able to purge folly and be seen to do so because this is, ideally, what we would wish to be wise enough to do—'give me leave to prove a fool' is unconsciously echoed by every member of the audience.

The Fool is capable of this purging process also because his licence is always at hazard. Yet there is a paradox here. Although at hazard, he is still more free than anyone else to speak because he is relatively uncommitted to any close association with anything or anyone, as has been noted above. He is almost as free to speak about the world of the play as we are in the audience, but the best kind of critic, like the best kind of Fool, is always at hazard because both are more likely to speak a truth that no-one wishes to hear unless they speak it themselves.


Yet a further question arises from this consideration of the wisdom and status of the Fool within the play. If he has these antecedents with the audience and this distance from the rest of the dramatis personae, what kind of dramatic figure is he? He simply refuses to be categorized as we can categorize the other characters in a Shakespeare play; and yet we know him to be based on reality.

The Fool, in effect, as he is developed in Shakespeare's plays—a brain-child shared, we have assumed, with Armin—is like any real actor; his professional function is not to be himself. Like any true actor, the Fool's job is to wear the mask of jester or folly. He is, in his function in the social environment of the play's world, a purveyor of illusion—yet we know that beneath whatever mask he is wearing something very far from illusion is being communicated to us. We are experiencing what seems to be the impossible process by which a dramatic character whose function in the very play itself is virtually that of shadow is, nevertheless, the repository of the most important truths that the play has to communicate; it is like that curious form of (to mutate the original meaning) negative capability by which an actor who, offstage, is completely negative, evanescent, lacking in personality can ascend into the highest embodiment of historic invention when he steps into the limelight on stage. As Willeford says 'the fool on stage strikes us as radiant with a life that transcends his stylized attributes and often inconsequential jokes'.

The Fool's sudden quips, one line jokes, odd staccato sentences, often hide or contain a significance beyond their apparent meaning, and their jingles, like nursery rhymes, reverberate in the head and heart:

The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,
That it had its head bit off by its young.

There is an uncanny resemblance, although of course the form and usage is different, between the dramatic effect of the Fool's interpolations (for this is where the meaningful trivia often occur) and that employed by another poet of the theatre—Harold Pinter. Those famous pauses of his, sometimes sudden and unexpected, sometimes 'telegraphed', have an equivalent importance to the Fool's utterances. Like the words of the Fools, the pauses are often more important than what, verbally, lies on each side of them. In the case of the Fools what is entirely misunderstood or only partially understood by others is important; in Pinter's case, what is unsaid—significantly unsaid—between people is important. Somewhere, we may fancy, a Fool lurks inside a Pinter play giving silence a wise language; and, curiously, we may apprehend that inside a Fool's mouth, when he speaks, in Shakespeare, what only he really understands, there is an aspiration for silence.

Fool: If a man's brains were in's heels, were't not in danger of kibes?

Lear: Ay, boy.

Fool: Then, I prithee, be merry; thy wit shall not go slipshod.

Lear: Ha, ha, ha!

Fool: 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.

Lear: What canst tell, boy?

Fool: She will taste as like this as a crab does to a crab. Thou canst tell why one's nose stands i'th' middle on's face?

Lear: No.

Fool: Why to keep one's eyes of either side's nose, that what a man cannot smell out, he may spy into.

Lear: I did her wrong.

Fool: Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?

Lear: No.

Fool: Nor I neither; but I can tell why a snail has a house.

Lear: Why?

Fool: Why, to put's head in; not to give it away to his daughters, and leave his horns without a case.

Lear: I will forget my nature. So kind a father!—Be my horses ready?

(King Lear, I. v. 7-32)

Mick: I'm very impressed with what you've just said.


Yes that's impressive, that is.


I'm impressed, anyway.

Davies: You know what I'm talking about, then?

Mick: Yes, I know. I think we understand one another.

Davies: Uh? Well . . . I'll tell you . . . I'd . . . I'd like to think that.

You been playing me about, you know, I don't know why. I never done you no harm.

Mick: No, you know what it was? We just got off on the wrong foot. That's all it was.

Davies: Ay, we did.

Mick: Like a sandwich?

Davies: What?

Mick [taking a sandwich from his pocket]: Have one of these.

Davies: Don't you pull anything.

Mick: No, you're still not understanding me. I can't help being interested in any friend of my brother's. I mean, you're my brother's friend, aren't you?

Davies: Well, I . . . I wouldn't put it as far as that.

Mick: Don't you find him friendly, then?

Davies: Well, I wouldn't say we was all that friends. I mean, he done me no harm, but I wouldn't say he was any particular friend of mine. What's in that sandwich, then?

Mick: Cheese.

Davies: That'll do me.

Mick: Take one.

(The Caretaker, II. ii.)

The pauses (implied or stated) in each case, and the quips or terse comments, accrete, because of the way they are placed, and where they are placed in the text: a body of knowledge about matters behind the apparent, behind what is being actually said. But, even more, what gives the resemblance a particular frisson is the atmospheric quality and effect of the experts. What lies in both dramatists, whether it be comment, judgement, irony, satire, grief, seems to come from light years away from the immediate environment of the play. Deep inside Pinter's pauses and his carefully architectured dialogue, there is a primitive, elemental source whose nature is telling us something of what man really is and what his condition is. Deep inside the Fool's language and in Shakespeare's carefully modelled use of it, there seems to lie an area of comprehension of what man is that reaches back to a kind of beginning—a time before time:

This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live
before his time.

(King Lear, III. ii. 95)

The arrival of Armin gave Shakespeare the opportunity, which he took, of inserting into his plays an agency quite different from those other created characters of his plays written up to this time. We may say that, before 1599 and indeed basically, Shakespeare's normal method of characterization is realistic—that is, his characters have a high degree of fidelity to the actualities of real life. The Fools do not. They are, so to say, wild cards in the pack, errant strange jokers. They are neither realistic nor, indeed, may they confidently be asserted to be symbolic. William Willeford comments that 'The Fool is neither the player nor the audience, but both and something else', and he adds that 'The Fool is, in a unique way, both the actor and the thing he enacts.'12

One can sense how the critics and scholars strain as they try to come to terms with this figure. At the moment when it appears that one has grasped it, it slips away. At times the Fool seems to represent us, the audience—through his eyes and in his mouth we see and hear intimations of what might be beneath the play's obvious activities. At other times the Fool can be identified with the actor, any actor, who plays him (this is particularly true of Feste) and there is a wry poignancy in observing a superb purveyor of illusions (like Max Adrian) wandering through Illyria not, so to say, as a character but as his lonely vulnerable self.

Yet, in the long run, perhaps, in a certain sense, the Fool-figure is Shakespeare himself. The Fool was entertainer—so was Shakespeare. The Fool, as part of his professional function, lived in and helped to sustain a world of illusion—so did Shakespeare. The Fool used the mask of folly to hide his lonely apprehension of the truth behind illusion—Shakespeare, as dramatist, is the highest exemplar of the way in which the artist uses illusion to communicate reality.

The new element that entered into Shakespeare's plays with the coming of Armin was a full realization that the conventions of characterization and of drama itself are not final forms. Through Armin and the Fool he learned that character does not have to depend on that impersonative factor which ties it to the appearances of so-called real life, and that there is another country of drama in which the metaphorical and the allusive are as effective for the communication of character and meaning as what is actual and explicit.


1 Enid Welsford, The Fool: His Social and Literary History (London, 1935).

2 Robert Hillis Goldsmith, Wise Fools in Shakespeare(Michigan, 1955; Liverpool, 1958).

3 William Willeford, The Fool and His Sceptre (London, 1969).

4 Leslie Hotson, Shakespeare's Motley (London, 1952).

5Works, edited by A. B. Grosart (London, 1880).

6Works, edited by A. B. Grosart (London, 1880).


8Works, edited by A. B. Grosart (London, 1880).


10Works, edited by A. B. Grosart (London, 1880).

11 Willeford, op. cit., p. 74.

12 Willeford, op. cit., p. 49.

Fools In The Comedies

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, potentially so threatening to one another, never impinge on one another. Theseus enters the wood, but only in the morning after Oberon has withdrawn; Oberon enters Theseus' palace, but only after the Duke has retired for the night. Two other sets of characters, however, find themselves subjects of both rulers: the artisans (the clowns, in more general terms) and the young lovers. Both of these groups begin their adventures in Athens under the authority of the Duke, go into the wood where they are dominated by Oberon, and come back to Theseus' court at the end of the play. The lovers leave Athens either to escape Theseus' laws or to pursue persons they love. The artisans go to the wood not to run away from the Duke's world and its laws, but to rehearse a play which will, they hope, be offered at the Duke's wedding celebration. I call attention to the motives for leaving Theseus' world because I think they are significant: the lovers are rejecting the Duke; the artisans are honoring him.

The artisans are in this sense Theseus' loyal subjects. Their intention is to please the Duke and to profit themselves. What makes them funny and dear to us is their honesty, their enthusiasm, their determination, combined with the most abysmal ignorance of play presentation and of the courtiers for whom they plan to put on their play. The mighty lords and ladies of the court are mysterious, unpredictable presences who must be approached with caution and with fear. The actors must name themselves so there will be no misunderstanding and a prologue must describe the action so that when Pyramus draws his sword to kill himself the audience will know it is only make-believe; and most especially Snug the Joiner, who plays the Lion, must name his name, and half his face must be seen through the Lion's neck, and he must roar sweetly, for "if you should fright the ladies out of their wits, they would have no more discretion but to hang us" (I, ii, 81-83). The management of stage problems is equally innocent: Moonshine must be brought on in person with his lantern and bush of thorns and "Some man or other must present Wall; and let him have some plaster, or some loam, or some rough-cast about him, to signify wall; or let him hold his fingers thus, and through that cranny shall Pyramus and Thisby whisper" (III, i, 69-73). Thus we see in the clowns the common sense, the reasonableness of Theseus carried to absurd literal-mindedness, with imagination entirely eliminated and with tragedy reduced to tears of laughter.

But the greatest triumph of their ignorance may be seen in their admiration for Bottom the Weaver, whose enthusiasm and accomplishments dazzle his fellows, and without whom they are sure the play could not go on: "If he come not, then the play is marr'd. . . . he hath simply the best wit of any handicraft man in Athens" (IV, ii, 5, 9-10). And indeed, Bottom deserves our full admiration as well. He will play the lover as it has never been done before:

That will ask some tears in the true performing of it. If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes. I will move storms, I will condole in some measure.

(I, ii, 27-30)

If given the chance, he would play the beloved too. But most of all the Lion's part strikes his fancy, either with a great roar "that I will do any man's heart good to hear me," or with a tiny roar to please the ladies: "I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove; I will roar you an 'twere any nightingale" (I, ii, 72-73, 83-86).

His unawareness of others carries him triumphantly through the play. When he is given the ass's head by Puck, he will not let his new appearance and his friends' desertion frighten 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 here, and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid.

(III, i, 123-127)

Bottom proves impervious to everything. Impervious to the ass's head—presumably he feels just as much at home with it as without it. Impervious to his new friends Titania and her night spirits who are ready to serve his every whim; his chief interests, however, are to be fed "a peck of provender" and to be left in quiet: "I have an exposition of sleep come upon me" (IV, i, 33, 41). Impervious too to the night's experiences:

Methought I was,—and methought I had,—but man is but a patch'd fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called "Bottom's Dream," because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the Duke.

(IV, i, 213-222)

Impervious, finally, to the laughter and the satirical remarks of the courtiers as the clowns play their play. Yet Bottom, totally unaware himself, most literal-minded extension of Theseus' world of reason, is yet the agent by which the night quarrel of Oberon and Titania is healed, his earthy stupidity and animal appearance revealing to Titania the mad folly of which that night world is capable. And Bottom and his fellows provide in their play of Pyramus and Thisbe a sobering commentary also on the whirlwind exchanges of the young lovers, for their story shows young love coming to disaster when it lacks approval of parents, which as we recall is the problem in the beginning of the play. Theseus, the reasonable man, must learn tolerance of love; this he does through the madcap lovers; Oberon and Titania, rulers of the world of impulse and imagination, must learn tolerance of reason; this they do, as I have suggested, through Bottom the Weaver. Indeed Bottom himself sounds the keynote of this theme when he says upon meeting Titania:

. . . to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days; the more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends.

(III, i, 146-149)

Thus, the dramatic function of Bottom and his fellows is clearly set forth. They are absurd extensions of Theseus' reasonableness; they are one of the specific agents along with the little Western flower for reconciling Oberon and Titania; they present a new perspective to the commitments to love expressed throughout by the young lovers. They are essential dramatic elements in the fundamental opposition of reason and love and, symbolically, they are among the "honest neighbours" who help make them friends.

In The Merchant of Venice the clown Launcelot Gobbo occupies no central position such as Bottom's. His part is relatively small, and his function seems limited first to delivering messages between the romantic young lovers Lorenzo and Jessica, second to suggesting the differences between Shylock's way of life and Bassanio's, and third, to lending gaiety to the Belmont scene during Portia's absence in Venice. Considered superficially, Launcelot's actions seem either insignificant or irrelevant buffoonery beside the romantic events in Belmont or the steadily growing tensions in Venice. Yet thematically Launcelot Gobbo stands for an attitude and behavior which helps in a major way to establish a contrast between Belmont and Venice. For two of the most romantic conditions of the Belmont world are: one, the complete intimacy between the Lady of Belmont and her companion Nerissa, so complete that Nerissa knows all Portia's secrets, so complete that her future happiness in marriage is bound up with her mistress's; and two, the total commitment of Portia to her dead father's request that she marry the man who chooses the proper casket. In humorous but real terms, Launcelot Gobbo stands in Venice for a denial of these same conditions. When we first meet him he is debating whether to honor his commitment to serve Shylock:

Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master. The fiend is at mine elbow and tempts me. . . . Well, my conscience, hanging about the neck of my heart, says very wisely to me. . . . "Launcelot, budge not." "Budge," says the fiend. "Budge not," says my conscience. . . . The fiend gives the more friendly counsel. I will run, fiend; my heels are at your commandment.

(II, ii, 1-3, 13-14, 18-19, 31-33)

Since Shylock makes it unnecessary for Gobbo to run away by releasing him from his servant's agreement into the hands of Bassanio, since, in other words, there is insufficient affection or need on the part of either servant or master, no harm arises from Gobbo's decision, but the relationship shows the primacy given material advantage over duty and love. Gobbo wants the full dinner and the rare liveries that Bassanio offers; Shylock although he is fond of the boy wants more output for his input:

The patch is kind enough, but a huge feeder;
Snail-slow in profit, and he sleeps by day
More than the wild-cat. Drones hive not with me.

(II, v, 46-48)

The relationship between Bassanio and Launcelot is no more personal. They meet only once, on which occasion Bassanio is amused by the clown and his old father, gives orders that his new servant be given "a livery More guarded than his fellows'" (II, ii, 163-164), and goes off on other business. In Venice there is no evidence of a relationship between master and servant such as that of Orlando and Adam in As You Like It in which protection and loyalty and service are ultimate considerations or such as the complete intimacy of Portia and Nerissa.

The relationship between father and child is also given dimension by Launcelot's behavior toward his old half-blind father. When Old Gobbo comes looking for his son, Launcelot first gives him confusing directions, then pretends that the youth has become a gentleman, then that he has died, and finally identifies himself and asks his father for his blessing but fools him still by pretending that the hair on the back of his head is his hairy chin. This instance is a comic anticipation of the more serious misunderstanding of Jessica and Shylock and lends generalizing force to the impression that family ties in Venice are either absent or extremely weak. Affection in Venice is expressed through friendship and romantic love but not family respect and loyalty.

These thematic functions are joined to an equally important thematic contrast between the worlds of Belmont and Venice. Briefly stated, Belmont relies on good will and an unspoken understanding of others' motives in official relationships. Thus Portia's agreement with her suitors is that she will be won by the man who chooses the proper casket. Their agreement with her is that they will never marry if they choose incorrectly. Both sides treat these words seriously and are prepared to honor what is after all only verbal commitment.

Venetians in their relations with outsiders, however, rely on the law and the contract to give assurance of intention. The single instance we find, it is true, is Shylock's bond made with Antonio. But that contract is a sign of the whole law of Venice, a phenomenon stated most clearly (but not for the only time) by Antonio himself:

The Duke cannot deny the course of law;
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of the state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations.

(III, iii, 26-31)

Launcelot Gobbo is a perfectly consistent comic extension of the risks incurred by words, spoken or written, in the play. He soliloquizes about whether to follow his conscience and serve Shylock or the fiend who urges him to run away; he misleads and deceives his father: he diverts the gift his father had intended for Shylock to his new master Bassanio. Later, in joking with Jessica he maintains that she is damned for being the Jew's daughter, or damned if she is not the Jew's daughter—"a kind of bastard hope" (III, v, 7); and finally he argues that Lorenzo is to be blamed for making her Christian, for "This making of Christians will raise the price of hogs" (III, v, 25-26). To Lorenzo's accusation that Launcelot has got the Moor with child, he replies with witty but irrelevant evasion. Lorenzo aptly identifies this tendency in Launcelot:

Oh dear discretion, how his words are suited!
The fool hath planted in his memory
An army of good word's; and I do know
A many fools, that stand in better place,
Garnish'd like him, that for a tricksy word
Defy the matter.

(III, v, 70-75)

And suddenly we see all the characters who fit the description: the Princes of Morocco and of Arragon, who are deceived by the tricksy word on the gold and silver caskets; Shylock, driven out of his humanity by a lifetime of loneliness and by the unexpected, final betrayal of his daughter, relying on the tricksy word of his bond for revenge; Portia garnish'd in her lawyer's disguise using the tricksy word to save Antonio and the state from that revenge. Clearly in a Venetian world where traditional human values have broken down, the word, the bond, the contract is no promise of humanity. What is needed is the reliance on inner worth asked for by Portia's father; the internal assurance of a Bassanio who is not to be deceived by words; the generous, human deed of a Portia. Words in themselves are without value, as Portia says in welcoming Antonio to Belmont:

Sir, you are very welcome to our house.
It must appear in other ways than words,
Therefore I scant this breathing courtesy.

(V, i, 139-141)

Launcelot lives in comic word games, and he provides through those games a light but consistent counterpoint to the serious activities of Venice which also hinge so heavily on the uses to which words are put. Launcelot serves in The Merchant of Venice not as agent of the plot but as comic and thematic counterpoint. Bottom, as I have tried to suggest, though unconscious himself of his contribution, is a positive force in A Midsummer-Night's Dream; Launcelot Gobbo, though he sees nothing beyond his own interests, is a symbol of the disruptive forces which bring The Merchant of Venice close to tragedy.

The unmatchable Dogberry of Much Ado About Nothing takes the best talents of both his predecessors and emerges as one of the most awesomely stupid figures in all literature. Bottom as a logician is a mere novice to him. For instance, as constable, his officious charge to his watch contains this sample of reasoning: "The most peaceable way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him show himself what he is and steal out of your company" (III, iii, 60-63). But never did Launcelot Gobbo have more confidence in himself and in his own ability to outwit Shylock, to play tricks on his father, to jest with Lorenzo, than Dogberry does without any ability at all. When he and his side-kick Verges report to Leonato, Governor of Messina, their garbled introduction leads Leonato to say impatiently, "Neighbours, you are tedious." To which Dogberry:

It pleases your worship to say so, but we are the poor Duke's officers; but truly, for mine own part, if I were as tedious as a king, I could find in my heart to bestow it all of your worship.

(III, v, 20-25)

His condescension toward Leonato, consistent as it is throughout the play, is exceeded only by his patronising attitude toward his slightly less foolish neighbor Verges.

A good old man, sir; he will be talking: as they say, When the age is in, the wit is out. . . . Well, God's a good man; an two men ride of a horse, one must ride behind.

(III, v, 36-37, 39-40)

And Leonato says: "Indeed, neighbour, he comes too short of you." To which we have Dogberry's irrepressible reply, "Gifts that God gives" (III, v, 45-47).

Along with the gross stupidity and the grand conceit, there goes finally a great pride in his place and standing in the community. When the villainous Conrade, furious and frustrated at being apprehended and cross-examined by such dolts, cries out at Dogberry: "Away! you are an ass, you are an ass," the constable's immortal reply is:

But, masters, remember that I am an ass; though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. . . . I am a wise fellow, and, which is more, an officer, and, which is more, a householder, and, which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to; and a rich fellow enough, go to; and a fellow that hath had losses, and one that hath two gowns and every thing handsome about him. Bring him away. O that I had been writ down an ass!

(IV, ii, 75, 78-80, 82-90)

Yet, like Bottom and Launcelot, Dogberry makes his contribution to and his commentary on the action of the play.

He contributes to the action of the plot by obscuring the confession which would have saved Hero the pain of being accused publicly by Claudio. Later he conducts the "examination" in which the treachery of Borachio and Conrade is revealed to the transcribing Sexton, though Dogberry himself misinterprets all the actions taken. Finally, he brings the villains into the presence of Pedro and Claudio where Borachio openly confesses, a confession which includes a shrewd comparison between the obtuseness of Don Pedro and Claudio and the stupidity of Dogberry and his fellows: "What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light" (V, i, 238-240).

And indeed the comparison is apt. For Dogberry's very presence in the play acts as a devastating commentary on the world in which Much Ado About Nothing takes place and especially on the character of Don Pedro of Arragon, the victorious warrior to whom so much deference is paid. Dogberry's pride in place and his conceit and his ineptness are only a picture in little of the pride and conceit and hollowness of the mighty Prince, who prides himself on his generosity and perception and especially his wit when he no more than the pretentious constable can tell that he is being taken in. He and his young favorite Claudio allow the innocent Hero to be publicly slandered and disgraced and indeed to die (at least as far as it is reported to them) without an indication of remorse, a cessation of witty remarks, a change or even a sign of a change of heart. By comparison with Pedro, Dogberry looks worthwhile, lovable, even perceptive.

In their one confrontation in the play, we are reminded of the magnificent stupidity of the constable and the shallow nothingness of the prince. As Dogberry and his men come in with his prisoners Conrade and Borachio, Pedro stops them:

Officers, what offence have these men done? DOG. Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.

Pedro's reply is:

First, I ask thee what they have done; thirdly, I ask thee what's their offence; sixth and lastly, why they are committed; and, to conclude, what you lay to their charge.

(V, i, 217-228)

The jest, so rich and appropriate for Dogberry to utter, dies on the lips of Pedro and becomes one more in a long series of affronts to our sensibilities. We look back with some regret to Duke Theseus and his tender concern and humanity for his simple-minded subjects when the courtiers debate whether to allow them to put on their play:

. . . never anything can be amiss,
When simpleness and duty tender it. . . .
Our sport shall be to take what they mistake;
And what poor duty cannot do, noble respect
Takes it in might, not merit.

(A Midsummer-Night's Dream, V, i, 82-83, 90-92)

Though the clowns make us laugh in each of these three plays, there is less to be cheerful about in values, in trustworthiness, as each of these worlds succeeds the other. Reason and imagination in A Midsummer-Night's Dream give way in The Merchant of Venice to a struggle between external show and the tricksy word on the one hand, and internal values and human deeds on the other, which with the help of garden and moonlight and music of the spheres and perceptive lovers turns out all right. But Much Ado About Nothing is a picture of a world where other types of external shows (the office of prince, the ceremony of a wedding) and other types of tricksy words (empty-hearted witticisms and eavesdropping scenes) completely dominate what is left of internal values and humane deeds. Beatrice alone can see what kind of men are in charge here:

. . . manhood is melted into courtesies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too.

(IV, i, 321-323)

Her forcefulness sways Benedick, but when the ruffled surface is smoothed over, even they, knowing better, defer to the status quo. When Beatrice protests mildly to Benedick: "There's not one wise man among twenty that will praise himself," Benedick enlightens her:

An old, an old instance, Beatrice, that liv'd in the time of good neighbours. If a man do not erect in this age his own tomb ere he dies, he shall live no longer in monument than the bell rings and the widow weeps. . . . therefore is it most expedient for the wise, if Don Worm, his conscience, find no impediment to the contrary, to be the trumpet of his own virtues, as I am to myself.

(V, ii, 75-82, 85-88)

In such a world Dogberry rightfully has office. Where clowns formerly were private citizens, or brash young servants on the make, now it is time, it is almost inevitable, that they speak with the voice of authority. Wisdom and conscience will no longer suit; stupidity alone will serve.

In As You Like It Shakespeare moves in another direction. First of all, an unliterary consideration but one of great importance to Shakespeare: the actors had changed. Kempe, master of buffoonery, of the broad gesture, of the pratfall and the raucous laugh, was gone; and his place was taken by Robert Armin, à highly skilled dancer and singer, a subtle comedian, and a well-known wit in his own right. Touchstone in As You Like It and Feste in Twelfth Night are fools by title and profession rather than by desert.

Second, and more important for our purposes, Shakespeare seemed to be glancing back at the Belmont which had triumphed in The Merchant of Venice, and presenting some second thoughts about it. For the Forest of Arden like Belmont is certainly a world removed from time and place and specific actions and tensions. There is no clock in the forest; it is winter and spring together. Its place is one of all trees, of all types of animal creatures, of bleak air and hot sun, of love's idleness and philosophical speculation, of hunting and love songs. Though Belmont is a garden world, a projection of Portia's orderly and luminous and beautiful personality, and the Forest of Arden is an image of Nature beyond and above any single figure in the play, both are ideal worlds to be aspired to but never achieved. Yet the point of As You Like It, it seems to me, is not that the Forest world cannot be achieved but that it would not be a good thing if it were. For those who are out of touch with time and place, for him "Who doth ambition shun, And loves to live i' th' sun" (II, v, 40-41), the Forest is eminently suitable. Corin the shepherd in this world is a true laborer: "I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man's happiness, glad of other men's good, content with my harm" (III, ii, 77-80); Silvius, the lover, in this world is a true lover:

If thou rememb'rest not the slightest folly
That ever love did make thee run into,
Thou hast not lov'd;
Or if thou hast not sat as I do now,
Wearing thy hearer in thy mistress' praise,
Thou hast not lov'd;
Or if thou hast not broke from company
Abruptly, as my passion now makes me,
Thou hast not lov'd.
O Phebe, Phebe, Phebe!


The melancholy Jaques in this world can moralize on the stricken deer deserted of the herd, and brag of how he could cleanse the foul body of the infected world, and anatomize the story of man.

But for some in the Forest this life will not suffice. Duke Senior cannot help regretting that he is not Duke, and is clearly willing to return to his home at the end of the play. Young Orlando can be content with banishment and idle wooing only for a time; then heroic action and family name and a real Rosalind to hold in his arms become more important than aimless drifting. And Rosalind too, though her charming deception as Ganymede fills us with wonder and delight, cannot escape for long some thoughts for her father and some for her child's father, dwelling by implication on the values of family relationship, the importance of position, and the rightfulness of possession, which are reasserted in this play. And Touchstone, too, to come to my point, belongs to this group whose essential happiness must lie outside the Forest.

The function of the clown is neither agent (as in A Midsummer-Night's Dream) nor comic dimension of limitations in more major characters (as in The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing) but instead a perceptive attitude toward one set of characters in this play—the Forest "natives"—and indeed toward the prevailing views of the Forest world.

For he is a fool who has lost his job, who has followed his mistress to the Forest where he idles with the rest until Duke Senior restores him to his position. Early in the play, Touchstone tells Rosalind and Celia how a knight may swear by his honor to a lie and yet not be forsworn; that is, if he has no honor. But when he hints that the knight he means is a friend of the usurping Duke Frederick, Celia cuts him off: "You'll be whipp'd . . . one of these days." To which he replies: "The more pity, that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly" (I, ii, 90-93). The professional fool's job is to utter truth as wisely and as wittily as he can. Being a "motley fool", Jaques' term (II, vii, 17), "an allow'd fool", as Olivia is to say of Feste (Twelfth Night, I,v, 101), he can say what he likes to his master without fear of reprisal from any but that master, in this case Duke Frederick. But Frederick will no longer hear truth and Touchstone goes into banishment as readily as do Rosalind and Celia and Orlando. In the Forest he is still without a job. He whiles away his time being "deep-contemplative" (again Jaques' term) (II, vii, 31):

"Thus we may see . . . how the world wags.
'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine;
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale."

(II, vii, 23-28)

Or patronising Corin the shepherd and forest life in general:

In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now, in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious.

(III, ii, 15-19)

Or wooing the ill-favored Audrey or pretending marriage to her, or mocking her bumpkin suitor William. In these confrontations he is acting different roles: philosopher, courtier, lover, rival suitor. These are all games, all out of the fool's part. It is only when he comes into Duke Senior's presence that he finds himself again. When Jaques introduces him as one who has been a courtier, he reaffirms his fool-ship with relish:

If any man doubt that, [that is, that he has been a courtier] let him put me to my purgation. I have trod a measure; I have flatt'red a lady; I have been politic with my friend, smooth with mine enemy; I have undone three tailors; I have had four quarrels, and like to have fought one.

(V, iv, 44-49)

And the Duke encourages him. "I like him very well. . . . he is very swift and sententious. . . . He uses his folly like a stalking-horse and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit" (V, iv, 55, 65-66, 111-112).

So Touchstone, whose profession is Fool, helps like many others to assert the importance of place and time, of rank and standing without which flesh and blood cannot exist. Arden must be rejected; it is not an acceptable alternative to the failures of Venice or Messina. Bottom who lacks the wit to learn a new profession, and Launcelot Gobbo who does not have the will to practise the profession he has, are not any more deprived than Touchstone who, having wit and will, has not the opportunity to practices it seriously, either in Frederick's court or in the Forest of Arden.

His case is appropriately compared to Feste's in Twelfth Night. Feste is also a professional fool, also brilliant, also "allow'd." His function, like Touchstone's, is to perceive and comment on the world in which he lives. But whereas Touchstone is witty in behalf of his profession and is lost without it, Feste is witty in behalf of himself. He will sing for Orsino, he will be witty for Olivia, he will dance for Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, he will play a role to mock Malvolio.

But the motive is money, or some self-satisfaction. "I did impeticos thy gratillity" (II, iii, 27), he says, having received money from Sir Andrew; and when Orsino gives him gold, he pursues the matter: "But that it would be double-dealing, sir, I would you could make it another." And when the Duke gives him another, he continues: "Primo, secundo, tertio, is a good play; . . . the third pays for all" (V, i, 32-33, 39-40). And he is not beyond personal revenge nor beyond bragging of his wit; as he says to Malvolio:

I was one, sir, in this interlude; one Sir Topas, sir; but that's all one. . . . But do you remember? "Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal? An you smile not, he's gagg'd." And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

(V, i, 380-381, 382-385)

But if he is unlike Touchstone and will not follow his mistress "along o'er the wide world" (As You Like It, I, iii, 134) but is secretly scornful of them all, can we blame him? Orsino is hardly a practising duke, so much in love with Olivia is he. Yet not truly in love with her but with music and flowers and mooning and musing. Feste signs to him of love:

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

(II, iv, 52-55)

Orsino calls it an "old and plain" song (II, iv, 44), one that "dallies with the innocence of love" (II, iv, 48); but the mockery in it is clear. Rosalind has already in As You Like It pronounced that "Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love" (IV, i, 107-108). No more does Orsino die from love; he simply gets a new girl when his "fair cruel maid" marries another.

And what shall Feste admire in Olivia? Though their affection for one another is clear, he mocks her extravagant mourning:

CLO. Good madonna, why mournest thou?

OLI. Good fool, for my brother's death.

CLO. I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

OLI. I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

CLO. The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.

(I, v, 72-78)

Surely he has no respect for Toby and Andrew. He sings to and milks those continuous toss-pots and speaks to them in their own tongue:

Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure.

(II, iii, 49-50)

Even more surely he has none for Malvolio, who has no sense of humor, is full of his own importance, and is an enemy to everything Feste stands for. The prisonhouse for him and darkness for him and mockery for him.

Only with Viola does Feste approach serious confrontation. She is deserving, alone and lonely, in her page's disguise, desperately in love with Orsino, who is sending her to woo Olivia, who is in turn desperately in love with Viola. But he has no chance to read correctly through the disguise and his talk though serious occasionally is riddling and jesting:

To see this age! A sentence is but a chev'ril
glove to a good wit.
How quickly the wrong side may be turn'd

(III, i, 12-15)

When Viola says to him, "I warrant thou art a merry fellow and car'st for nothing," he replies, "Not so, sir, I do care for something; but in my conscience, sir, I do not care for you" (III, i, 30-33). And adds later, to give a hint of what he cares for: "Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere" (III, i, 43-44). Foolery everywhere: a lovesick Orsino, a distracted Olivia, a sottish Toby, a blown-up Malvolio, a pretty young messenger who looks like a girl. Whatever the values of a Theseus, of a Portia, of a Beatrice, of an Orlando and Rosalind, they have emptied out of Illyria. The world has no substance; the clown has no master; he has no place, for everyone would take the position from him. Foolery shines everywhere. He has moved in this play away from the function of the other clowns; Bottom is agent of the plot; Launcelot Gobbo and Dogberry set off in comic dimension the limitations of their worlds; Touchstone with wit and perception casts light on one aspect of his world, the Forest; now Feste stands as the sane, perceptive mind in a world where laughter still rings but where healthy minds and hearts are hard to discover.

So at the end of Twelfth Night as the actors retire from the great aproned stage, one of them, our Fool, steps forward and sings to the still lingering audience:

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came to man's estate . . .
'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate. . . .

But when I came alas! to wive . . .
By swaggering could I never thrive. . . .

But when I came unto my beds . . .
With toss-pots still had drunken heads. . . .

A great while ago the world begun
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.

(V, i, 398-402, 404, 406, 408, 410, 412, 414-417)

It is a jesting and riddling song. But its general meaning is not hard to fathom. And its relevance is to the shadows of the Twelfth Night world he has just walked out of. Foolish things were but toys to the child; but now equally foolish things—possession, for instance, or love, or pleasure—are taken seriously by men who should know better. And its relevance is to the shadows in the audience in front of him. ". . . we'll strive to please you every day," he says, giving to himself and his fellow players the function and role Feste had maintained throughout the play. The foolishness of Orsino, Olivia, Toby, Malvolio is given, just for a moment, just with the softest glance imaginable, a wider, more universal application. Foolery, indeed, shines everywhere.

The clowns have moved closer to center stage as the romantic comedies have developed, until at this moment Feste sounds the death knell of the gaiety and romantic, happy love relationships. We pass from here to the cynicism of Troilus and Cressida, the corruption of Measure for Measure, the obsession with sex and death in Hamlet, the convulsive emotions of Othello, straight on to the inevitable, pitiful shaking reprise of the Fool standing beside his tottering master Lear out on the heath, amid sheets of fire and bursts of horrid thunder:

"He that has and a little tiny wit,—
With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,—
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
For the rain it raineth every day."

(King Lear, III, ii, 74-77)

So the pageant of the romantic comedies is done. The early clowns, those innocent fun-makers who followed whither their masters and fortune directed, were, as the plays went on, either placed above their station like Dogberry or removed from their position like Touchstone, or left like Feste, with the knowing charm and the calculating brilliant wit and nothing difficult or worth achieving in man's estate. With Twelfth Night the romantic comedies come to an end. That particular form as form is now used up. The man who so triumphantly mastered that form must now in 1601, halfway through his career, abandon it utterly and strike out in new directions to present new and more complicated thoughts and feelings in new and more complicated ways.

David Ellis (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Finding a Part for Parolles," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, October, 1989, pp. 289-304.

[In the following essay, Ellis marks Parolles' progress from knave to fool in Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well.]

Shakespeare's plays often include characters ready to save us the bother of seeing for ourselves. Generally speaking, the higher their social status, the more chance they have of being listened to. Maria's character-sketch of Malvolio in Act II, Scene iii of Twelfth Night would not have enjoyed so much success if her mistress hadn't already pronounced him 'sick of self-love'. When in Act III, Scene ii of All's Well That Ends Well the two French lords deliver Bertram's unpleasant letters to Rossillion, the Countess asks who is with him in Florence and, on hearing that it is Parolles, complains, 'A very tainted fellow, and full of wickedness; / My son corrupts a well-derived nature / With his inducement'. This interpretation receives some support from the Florentine ladies watching the soldiers go by in Act III, Scene v. Diana remarks that it is a pity such a good-looking young man as Bertram is not honest and adds, 'Yond's that same knave / That leads him to these places. Were I his lady / I would poison that vile rascal'. The context makes clear that she is shifting to Parolles some of the blame for Bertram's 'dishonesty' in paying court to her when he is already married. But much weightier confirmation of the Countess's belief that Bertram has been led astray comes from Lafew. With the war in Tuscany over and Helena supposed dead, Act IV, Scene v opens in Rossillion as Lafew is saying,

No, no, no, your son was misled with a snipp'd-taffeta fellow there, whose villainous saffron would have made all the unbak'd and doughy youth of a nation in his colour. Your daughter-in-law had been alive at this hour, and your son here at home, more advanc'd by the king than by that red-tail'd humblebee I speak of.

The notion of Parolles as a successful corrupter of youth has received wide critical approval despite the obvious vested interest of those figures in All's Well who propound it (Bertram's mother, a young girl physically attracted to him and an old friend of the family). One reason is that critics, unlike ordinary playgoers, have recognised in Parolles vestiges of the medieval Vice. A similar recognition, allied to a similar inclination to trust 'the quality', leads several of them to believe those at Henry IV's court who say that Hal has been corrupted by Falstaff. The interpretation is no more satisfactory in one case than it is in the other, but for different reasons. There is never a moment in the Henry IV plays when an audience feels that Hal is in any genuine danger from Falstaff. All's Well begins with a few half-hearted indications that we shall be shown a well-bred young man tempted from the straight and narrow by a flashy companion; but it quickly becomes the tale of a headstrong youth with all the natural gifts for going to the bad on his own.

Joseph Price claims that Parolles 'prompts the plan that leads to his young master's flight' and the editor of the Arden edition goes further when he says that Parolles 'ships (Bertram) off to the war'.1 They can only refer to the one occasion in the play on which Parolles appears to initiate rather than merely encourage wrong-doing. This is in Act II, Scene i when Bertram is complaining of the King's refusal to allow him to go to the Tuscan wars and Parolles says, 'And thy mind stand to't, boy, steal away bravely'. Urging a fiery young man to defy authority is perhaps wrong but it is hardly criminal, and any discredit which attaches to the gesture is lessened by the support Parolles receives from the two French Lords. After Bertram has decided that he will indeed steal away, the first of the Lords says, 'There's honour in the theft'; and when Parolles interjects, 'Commit it, count', the second adds, 'I am your accessory'. If Parolles is a wicked corrupter, so too are they.

When the two Lords have left the stage, Parolles makes an absurdly affected speech in which he tells Bertram that he ought to have used 'a more spacious ceremony to the noble lords' and urges him to go after them to 'take a more dilated farewell' (II.i. 49-56). Bertram's 'And I will do so' is the last serious indication we have of his being under Parolles's influence. There is no suspicion that he is acting on any but his own headstrong authority when in Act II, Scene iii he responds with indignant, snobbish dismay to the idea of marrying Helena ('A poor physician's daughter my wife! Disdain / Rather corrupt me ever!'); and after the King has forced him to accept her, he takes no-one's advice before flatly announcing his intentions, 'I'll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her'. Parolles is enthusiastic in Bertram's support and clearly not averse to being the young Count's instrument in fobbing Helena off; but he is a means of bad behaviour not its cause. This remains true for the rest of the play and, as R. L. Smallwood has pointed out, that 'Parolles is not the wicked angel responsible for leading Bertram astray is vividly shown in the final scene where, long after he has been made to see his companion for what he is, Bertram goes on to show himself independently capable of his most objectionable behaviour, in that long demonstration of weakness, cowardice, and lying'.2 The demonstration Smallwood refers to also militates against efforts to represent the exposure of Parolles as a necessary stage in Bertram's moral regeneration. 'The two scenes which conclude Act III', writes Joseph Price, 'prepare for the expulsion of Parolles's influence and the cure of Bertram' and he goes on to claim that, 'when Bertram realizes the folly of his model he will begin to understand his own faults'.3 It is true that in Act IV, Scene iii the two French Lords succeed in convincing Bertram that Parolles is not the courageous captain he pretends to be; but the young Count is shown as far less disturbed by this discovery than by the realization (via the letter to Diana discovered in Parolles's pocket) that his messenger in his own double-dealings with women can't be trusted. His indignation reaches its height when he learns that Parolles has not only made a feeble effort to seduce Diana on his own behalf ('Men are to mell with, boys are not to kiss'), but also had the audacity to tell her that a man like Bertram tells lies and doesn't keep his promises.

The failure of Shakespeare's text to support the readings which the Countess, Diana and Lafew try to impose upon it has clearly led to strange goings-on in the theatre, some of which must be reflected in J. L. Styan's relatively recent commentary on Act II, Scene iv of All's Well in the 'Shakespeare in Performance' series. This is the scene in which Parolles comes to tell Helena that Bertram will be leaving Paris before consummating his marriage. According to Styan, Parolles 'takes his time before he breaks the news that Bertram is leaving (Helena), for us an intolerable delay'; he 'relishes his secret', 'teases Helena with the unaccustomed colourfulness of his notion that this obstacle in the way of her wedded love will make fulfilment all the sweeter when it comes', and ends the scene 'beside himself with triumph'.4 Although they purport to be a statement of the theme on which variations could be played, these comments on Act II, Scene iv sound much more like the description of a specific performance. But if Parolles does not immediately deliver his message to Helena it is because he makes the mistake on his entrance of acknowledging the Clown, who happens to be present, 'Oh, my knave! How does my old lady?' Lavatch is never complimentary to anyone, but he is particularly scathing with Parolles, calling him a nothing, a knave and a fool in rapid succession. Of the 150 or so words in their exchange, Parolles only has 27. He is too patently the unwilling recipient of a stream of witty insults to be relishing any secret, and would clearly be only too glad to say what he has to say to Helena, if he could only get rid of the Clown.

When he is able to speak to her, his language is colourful; but it is difficult to make much of that in a figure who is continually shown priding himself on elaborate speech. There is no convincing evidence in the text that Parolles takes any special pleasure in doing dirty work which, as the following scene shows, Bertram is in any case always prepared to do for himself. Parolles has told Helena that her new husband wants her to take 'instant leave a' th' king' and in Act II, Scene v she comes to Bertram to report that she has done so. He assures her that his reasons for going away and not consummating the marriage are better than they seem, when they are in fact much worse (11. 58-69); and after a series of painful exchanges meanly denies her a parting kiss. In productions from the 1950s which Styan describes, Parolles was made responsible for preventing a kiss which would otherwise have come about.5 It is in the spirit of these productions, or of others like them, that Styan writes his commentary on Act II, Scene iv. To present Parolles as more enterprisingly and, above all, effectively wicked than any lines he is given suggest he should be, makes it easier to turn him into a scapegoat; and if directors often share the same interest as the Countess, Diana and Lafew in achieving that result it is because it lessens the unattractiveness of a Bertram to whom, as Dr. Johnson memorably complained, it is difficult to reconcile one's heart.6

Giving Parolles behaviour which exaggerates his effectiveness also has the advantages of making him seem more coherent. 'Character criticism' may be long out of fashion among academics but, in the theatre, actors and directors are still inclined to look for some centre around which they can organise the various manifestations of a Shakespearian role. To see Parolles as the corrupter of youth helps to impose order on what, in the first half of All's Well is an unusually loose assemblage of comic types. As an addition to the faint indications of the corrupting Vice which he offers, Parolles is also—with varying but never complete conviction on his creator's part—the traditional boasting soldier, the parasite, the foppish would-be courtier, the traveller and, in the feature of his many-sidedness which arbitrarily determines his name, the man of many words. In other circumstances, this variety of constituents might have been a sign of satisfying complexity; but in All's Well it leaves an audience wondering what or who Parolles is supposed to be. Their puzzlement is only likely to be increased by the fact that no-one in All's Well, apart of course from Bertram, believes in any specific part he attempts to play. (So strikingly is this so that Bertram's failure to see through his companion comes to seem more and more of an obvious dramatic convenience.) Parolles moves forward via a series of mortifying encounters as first Helena, then Lavatch and Lafew successfully call his bluff and oblige him to fall back on lame expostulation or excuse. The ineffectuality of his efforts to impose upon the world, and his lack of success in trying to hold his own in any company other than Bertram's, make it impossible to credit him with the force to corrupt anybody, least of all a young nobleman capable of replying to his king as impudently as Bertram does in Act II, Scene iii (111 - 3).

Parolles has too many features for Helena's accusation of cowardice in Act I, Scene i (186-202) to fix him in the mind as the miles gloriosus and Lavatch's refusal to take him seriously as a gentleman (II.iv. 17-36) doesn't determine how he should be taken. In remarks which excite Parolles to unwise and untypical self-defence, Lafew casually assumes that Bertram must be his 'master' (II.iii. 84-230), but servant is too broad a category to be usefully defining. These bruising encounters are effective in demonstrating that Parolles is not what he pretends to be but they fail to make clear what he is. The illusion of what a Shakespearian character 'is' most frequently establishes itself through monologue or soliloquy. The various parts which Iago plays in Othello, for example, are put into perspective by the explanation of his intentions which he offers in private to the audience. It is not until Act IV, Scene i of All's Well that Parolles is found communing with himself and on that occasion the consequence is not the tardy discovery of some 'key' to his character but engaging confirmation of an audience's feeling that—qua Captain, in this instance—he is not much of an actor. 'They begin to smoke me, and disgraces have of late knock'd too often at my door' (27-8). With the First Lord and his associates listening in, Parolles curses his habit of talking himself into situations which he has no means of handling. Since Bertram's enterprise and his own general ineffectuality up to this point prevent Parolles from being perceived as a serious threat, it is hard not to feel some stirrings of sympathy for him in his dilemma: 'I must give myself some hurts, and say I got them in exploit; yet slight ones will not carry it. They will say, "Came you off with so little?" And great ones I dare not give' (37-40). This sympathy is important because of the fine balance Shakespeare achieves during the great scene (IV. iii) in which the blindfolded Parolles is interrogated in the presence of Bertram and the two Lords.

The comedy in Act IV, scene iii depends not only on the irrepressible fatuity of Parolles in a 'life-threatening' situation but also on the way the balance of power shifts towards him as the conditions of the joke oblige Bertram and the two Lords to stand by helpless whilst he insults them. As the scene progresses, a vital difference emerges, which is not merely comic, between the first Lord's amused tolerance of the outrageous lies Parolles tells about him and Bertram's anger at characterizations ('lascivious boy' etc.) which are broadly accurate. Like the great Boar's Head Tavern scene (II.iv) in 1 Henry IV, Act IV, Scene iii of All's Well gets even better after the reader or spectator is persuaded it has reached its climax. The play is a long way from being Shakespeare's most successful work, but there are few more effective moments in his drama than when Parolles is 'unmuffled'. With a laughing audience on one side and the social superiors he has just been betraying and abusing on the other, no-one's situation could be more humiliating. His first reaction is to protest with some justice that anyone can be crushed with a plot. But after the officers have bid him their ironic farewells, and the interpreter has left him alone on the stage with the ominous, 'Fare ye well, sir. I am for France too; we shall speak of you there', what every reader or spectator of All's Well remembers is the first half of Parolles's full response to his plight,

Yet am I thankful. If my heart were great
'Twould burst at this. Captain I'll be no more,
But I will eat and drink and sleep as soft
As captain shall. Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live.

(IV.iii. 319-323)

Every critic of the play refers to these famous lines, but there is considerable confusion and disagreement over what to make of them. This is partly because the most striking of them—'Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live'—depend for their full effect on everything that has gone before. But a further difficulty for many has been that the lines have to be reconciled with the strong moral disapproval of Parolles which has become part of the orthodox interpretation of this play, and which is usually sustained by adding to a sense of his egregious shortcomings much of the blame for Bertram's. How the reconciliation is effected can be traced back at least as far as H. B. Charlton who, in the tone of a superior officer criticising a disgraced subaltern for failing to blow his brains out, described Parolles's response to his final discomfiture as 'his ignominious acceptance of mere existence'.7 The critical climate which this remark suggests was evident in Michael Hordern's Parolles at the Old Vic in 1953, or at least in Richard David's account of that performance.

When Parolles is finally unblindfolded, and discovers his captors to be his own comrades, Hordern managed an immediate and breathtaking transition from farce to deadly earnest. At the discovery he closed his eyes and fell straight backward into the arms of his attendants; then, as with taunts they prepare to leave him, he slithered to the ground, becoming wizened and sly on the instant, and with 'simply the thing I am shall make me live' revealed an essential meanness not only in Parolles but in human nature as a whole.8

David's whole description is vivid enough for its essentials to have found their way into Robert Hapgood's 'The Life of Shame: Parolles and All's Well', a short piece, published in these pages in 1965, which usefully reminded its readers that Charlton had called Parolles, 'that shapeless lump of cloacine excrement'.9 (At the height of his anger in Act IV, Scene iii, even Bertram could only manage, 'I could endure anything before but a cat, but now he's a cat to me').

At the beginning of Act IV, Scene iii the first Lord shakes his head over Bertram's conduct and complains, 'As we are ourselves, what things we are!'. His 'things' here are human beings who are spiritually degraded because they ignore the teachings of religion. It is unlikely that Parolles ever paid much attention to these teachings either, but it is hard to see why so many commentators have found his celebration of being a 'thing' memorable if the intended sense is the same as the first Lord's. Harder still to understand is how a good proportion of these commentators could find something exhilarating in the celebration if all it revealed was, 'an essential meanness not only in Parolles but in human nature as a whole' Robert Hapgood was justified in refusing to believe that 'Shakespeare intended an effect simply of revulsion'. He attributes the positive way in which many people respond to Parolles's soliloquy to the character's comic vitality, describing as 'his most redeeming trait' 'a love of life so strong that it can make him welcome (all too easily, it's true) even the prospect of living safest in shame'. Like Falstaff, Parolles turns his back on the precept 'Death rather than dishonour' and celebrates not the meanness of human nature but its resilience and powerful instinct for survival—its 'all-surviving tensile-strength', as Hapgood puts it.10

His remarks are helpful but insufficiently specific—after all, many other comic figures, apart from Parolles, have a jack-in-the-box resistance to misfortune—and they don't do enough to counter Charlton's charge that Parolles's thankful acceptance of life, after being deprived of any respectable social identity, is 'ignominious'. The memorability of Parolles's soliloquy, and its exhilarating effect on some, cannot only be dependent on his delighted relief that all his desperate efforts to stay alive—'Let me live, sir, in a dungeon, i'th' stocks, or anywhere, so I may live' (IV.iii. 235-6)—have been successful. What they depend on more is implied in his witty recognition that escaping death would not have done him much good had he in fact been the greathearted captain the joke was designed to prove he wasn't. 'If my heart were great / 'Twould burst at this'. One certainly responds to the instinct for survival in his words, but even more to the feeling of relief in having to throw off a social role which had become a burden. Being a captain was especially burdensome to Parolles because, as the audience recognized and he himself acknowledged in his first soliloquy, he was such a proor performer in the part; but the oppressiveness of a defined social position is something which everyone occasionally feels from captains to authors with bad reviews ('Author I'll be no more, / But I will eat and drink . . . etc.'). Shakespeare has already instructed us in these matters earlier in All's Well. The King of France has consulted all the best doctors as only Kings can and is so convinced he is dying that his first instinct is to refuse Helena's offer of a cure.

I say we must not
So stain our judgement or corrupt our hope,
To prostitute our past-cure malady
To empirics, or to dissever so
Our great self and our credit, to esteem
A senseless help, when help past sense we deem.

(II.i. 118-123)

These lines are good enough to bring to mind the intolerable dilemma of someone in the last stages of a fatal illness who is trapped between 'What harm could it do?' on the one hand and 'Have I not the courage to face up to the truth?' on the other. The King believes that he owes it to himself as a rational creature to reject what would constitute—and what in fact turns out to be—'a miracle cure'. Impossible to disentangle in his lines (especially as they move from the first person singular to the first person plural) is what he expects from himself as the individual who happens to be King, and his awareness of the general responsibilities of his position; but his sense of the latter is plain enough in his reference to the dangers of separating his 'great self from his 'credit', or reputation. What he might think of himself if he welcomed Helena's offer is inextricably bound up with his sense of what other people would think of a King who accepted 'A senseless help'. In his case, the oppressiveness of a defined social position comes near to having fatal effects and it is evident that, if he could have followed the example Parolles is later to give and said, 'King I'll be no more', his resistance to his good fortune would have disappeared more speedily.

Parolles offers a momentary glimpse of a world where people have to play, not Jaques's 'many parts', but no part at all. In the best Falstaffian tradition, he turns the tables on his recent captors, emerging triumphantly from his ordeal like a Brer Rabbit thrown into the briar patch of non-identity by those who failed to realise how far his previous experiences would incline him to welcome it as his natural habitat. He makes of necessity an exhilarating virtue as does also, one might reasonably say, the Shakespeare who, up until this point in All's Well, has given Parolles a number of different personae none of which has proved wholly satisfactory. Now he both explains and excuses the relative failure of Parolles as a 'character' by allowing the audience to share in a Utopian escape from the necessity of having any character at all: 'Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live'. In general, Shakespeare is always inclined to be more interested in immediate dramatic effect than larger questions of consistency or coherence. It is as if he wrote his parts in the foreknowledge that there would one day be a Coleridge to lay the foundations of a method for filling in all gaps and explaining away all discrepancies. Here he can be taken as using Parolles to entertain very briefly the notion of a 'thingness' which would absolve the dramatist from the duty of giving his figures adequate social definition. There can of course be no such absolution just as, when 'dropping out' is always as firmly defining as social conformity, Parolles can have no realistic hope of living both off and free from society. Shakespeare is obliged to draw back from having a 'thing' on the stage and Parolles will have to re-integrate himself into social life. The two processes are simultaneous and have already begun in the second and less memorable half of Parolles's soliloquy.

Who knows himself a braggart,
Let him fear this; for it will come to pass
That every braggart shall be found an ass.
Rust, sword; cool, blushes; and Parolles live
Safest in shame; being fool'd, by fool'ry thrive.
There's place and means for every man alive.
I'll after them.

(IV.iii. 323-9)

The move here into a different and, for modern ears, more conventional idiom exemplifies the struggle between two different kinds of drama which goes on throughout All's Well. The conflict is easiest to locate in Helena and has given rise to much dispute as to whether the emphasis should fall on revelations of a delicately sensitive inner life (as in III.ii. 99-129, for example), or on the actions to which she is committed by Shakespeare's sources and which, when the point of view remains psychological, mark her out as a predatory schemer.11 In Parolles's soliloquy the change of manner is evident in the appearance of couplets, but also in his reminder of one of the several stock types ('braggart') with which he has been loosely associated. Now all of these are no longer serviceable, either for himself or Shakespeare, there is a hint of what will replace them ('being fool'd, by fool'ry thrive'), but as yet no clear or obvious indication. His decision to follow his recent tormentors into France ('I'll after them') is nevertheless a plain enough sign that the release from association of any kind, which he has just been celebrating, is imaginary.

'Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live' may be a defiant assertion of freedom from social definition, but by the end of his soliloquy Parolles is already referring to the 'place' which exists for every man alive. It is significant that in his quest for a new 'place', and in Shakespeare's final efforts to place or characterise him, the first person Parolles should meet is Lavatch. In a play in which many figures are problematic, Lavatch is not the least puzzling. This is not because, like Parolles, the impression he initially makes is indeterminate. On the contrary, the dominant features of his composition are immediately apparent on his first entrance and only become more so with each subsequent appearance. The difficulty lies rather in trying to follow the by now well-established custom of thinking of him along with the other domestic fools Robert Armin is assumed to have played; Touchstone, Feste and the Fool in King Lear. When the Countess excuses Lavatch to Lafew by saying, 'My lord that's gone made himself much sport out of him' (IV.v. 61-2), she is paying a very considerable tribute to the sturdiness of her late husband's sense of humour. To an even greater extent than the other three Fools, Lavatch has his order's earthy cynicism, especially on sexual matters; and his Fool status is confirmed by the memories and threats of whipping in Act II, Scene ii. Several important similarities between the four figures can be established, but Lavatch is unlike the others in that at no point in All's Well does he offer the slightest hint of mental unbalance. Touchstone and Feste can lay claim to being the cleverest people in their respective plays: they are much more clearly than the Fool in King Lear 'artificial'. But neither of them abandons completely a protective colouring of madness without which their manner of talking to social superiors would become unacceptable. Lavatch is different in that he never appears to feel he needs folly as a stalking horse, and one consequence is that Lafew's question in Act IV, Scene v—'Whether dost thou profess thyself—a knave or a fool?'—becomes a highly pertinent enquiry. The knave/boy collocation found in King Lear is obviously irrelevant and the dialogue which follows Lafew's question—the one in which Lavatch expounds the bawdy implications of his claim to be a fool at a woman's service and a knave at a man's—makes it clear that the issue is not whether Lavatch is a domestic fool or an ordinary servant or menial. 'So you were a knave at (a man's) service indeed', says Lafew, after Lavatch has explained that he would give the man's wife his bauble 'to do her service'; and he has then to admit, 'I will subscribe for thee; thou art both knave and fool'.

In the official designations of All's Well, Lavatch is more Fool than knave and Parolles the opposite. Their second encounter (V.ii) temporarily justifies the old adage that fools and knaves divide the world. Lavatch is even more scathing to the ragged and dischevelled Parolles than he had been on their first meeting and Parolles is only saved from his scorn by the entry of Lafew. After first of all failing to recognize the former dandy, Lafew offers Parolles a symbolic handshake. Earlier in the play, he had asked Parolles to acknowledge that he had been detected as a fraud by shaking hands: 'So, my good window of lattice, fare thee well; thy casement I need not open, for I look through thee. Give me thy hand' (II.iii. 212-14). The offer had been indignantly rejected. There is now no reason for Parolles not to acknowledge openly that all his disguises have been stripped away, but despite Lafew's 'though you are a fool and knave you shall eat', what if anything they will be replaced by is not yet clear. The process of clarification is interrupted by the entry of the King and the final scene of reconciliation between Bertram and Helena. Parolles's minor role in this includes humbly accepting the King's reference to Bertram as his 'master', and then talking himself of the tricks 'which gentlemen have' in a way which makes it obvious that he no longer aspires to be one of them (V.iii. 233-9). But it is only after Helena and Bertram have been finally brought together that his own fate is decided. 'Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon,' says Lafew, and then to Parolles, 'Good Tom Drum, lend me a handkercher. So, I thank thee. Wait on me home, I'll make sport with thee. Let thy curtsies alone, they are scurvy ones' (314-318). That the Countess's husband enjoyed making sport with Lavatch strengthens the impression that Parolles is here being adopted as Lafew's household fool and confirms the appropriateness of his advice to himself in his great soliloquy: 'being fool'd, by fool'ry thrive'. Looking back over All's Well in the light of this conclusion, it becomes evident that Parolles has already shown several attributes of the Fool or Clown, the most easily identifiable being his opening discussion with Helena on virginity (I.i.104-160). When this dialogue is compared with the one in Act I, Scene iii in which the Countess plays the straight-man for Lavatch and when the topic is also sexual (7-93), it is hard not to feel that, in comparison with the Countess, Lafew has arranged for himself the better or at least more comfortable deal. Now that there are two Fools, it is also hard not to conclude that the official account of who is more knave than fool will have to be reversed.

From experimenting with various roles—none of which, either singly or in combination, he is much good at—Parolles moves to an exhilarating shedding of all social categorization, and is then finally accounted for as a domestic fool. Like the recovery of Bertram, his reintegration into society is a sign of that 'tolerance' so often stressed in thematic accounts of All's Well: 'There's place and means for every man alive'. Yet the ending to his career is no more unambiguously happy than the one which in the final scene unites the two protagonists. The lesson it provides as to what it means to be social—the stress on our inevitable dependence on the social group—is sobering. Interiorized social norms are always more likely to govern our behaviour than the promptings of some putative essential self.

The progress of Parolles is also illustrative of a problem of casting which Shakespeare appears to be struggling with, or at least working on, throughout All's Well. In the first part of the play the figure is too unfixed and ineffectual to be capable of the serious knavery of corrupting Bertram, a task for which Shakespeare does not give him the necessary character. As he moves from one humiliating encounter to another, his efforts to find himself a place in a world of gentlemen are too unsuccessful to be seriously threatening. The decisive contribution to the problem of how Parolles should be regarded is probably made in Act IV, Scene iii by the First Lord. When the blindfolded Parolles first begins to talk about the First Lord and suggests he was whipped from Paris 'for getting the shrieve's fool with child, a dumb innocent that could not say him nay' (181-2), Bertram has to restrain his fellow officer from violent retaliation. But after Parolles has slipped into his comically abusive stride and made a long speech on the First Lord's 'honesty', the latter's response is, 'I begin to love him for this' (253). A few lines later the First Lord says of Parolles, 'He hath outvillain'd villainy so far that the rarity redeems him' but the truth is rather than his insults are so outrageously and ineptly wide of the mark that they are laughable. It is this ability to provoke laughter which, after Shakespeare's brief euphoric toying with a drama of 'things', marks Parolles out as a Fool or Clown.

In As You Like It, Jaques is 'ambitious for a motley coat' (II.vii. 43) and in Twelfth Night Malvolio is reduced to the status of a 'poor fool' (V.i. 368); but only at the end of All's Well is there a genuine doubling of the number of Fools.12 In the traditional method for distinguishing one kind of fool from another, 'natural' refers to those who are mentally deranged and 'artificial' to those who only pretend to be. The distinction can also be extended to refer to Fools whose humour is either inadvertant or deliberate. Lavatch is very clearly 'artificial' in that he tells jokes and exercises full control over the comedy of the situations in which he is involved. Parolles has some control in his opening dialogue with Helena but, in general, he might well have said of his rival Lavatch's fooling what Sir Andrew Aguecheek says of Sir Toby's, 'Ay, he does well enough, if he be disposed, . . . but I do it more natural' (II.iii. 82-4). Perhaps the disapprovers of Parolles, and latter-day Johnsonians anxious for Shakespeare to demonstrate more clearly his antipathy to vice, can be comforted with the thought that his likely role in Lafew's household would be less to make his new master laugh than to be laughed at by him.


1Joseph G. Price, The Unfortunate Comedy, A Study of All's Well That Ends Well' and its Critics (Toronto, 1968), p. 143. My citations are all taken from the Arden edition of All's Well (1959), ed. G. K. Hunter. For the remark quoted here see p. xxxiii.

2 R. G. Smallwood, 'The Design of All's Well That Ends Well ' in Aspects of Shakespeare's 'Problem Plays '. Articles reprinted from 'Shakespeare Survey', eds. Kenneth Muir and Stanley Wells (Cambridge, 1982), p. 30. Smallwood is in a minority of critics who are sceptical of Parolles's influence on Bertram yet shortly before the sentence I quote he refers to the two figures as 'the comic villain and his dupe' (p. 28). More unequivocal concordance with my own scepticism can be found in Russell Fraser's Introduction to the New Cambridge edition of All's Well (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 8 & 22.

3 Price, pp. 162 & 165.

4 J. L. Styan, Shakespeare in Performance: 'All's Well That Ends Well' (Manchester, 1984), pp. 69-70.

5 Styan, p. 72.

6 Arthur Sherbo (ed.), Johnson on Shakespeare, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, vol. VII (New Haven and London, 1968), p. 404.

7 H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Comedy (1938), p. 262.

8Shakespeare Survey, vol. 8 (Cambridge, 1955), p. 135.

9 Vol. XV, (1965), p. 274.

10 ibid., pp. 269-274.

11 Opposing views of Helena can be found in Ian Donaldson, 'All's Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare's Play of Endings', E in C, vol. 27 (1977), pp. 34-35 and Richard A. Levine, 'All's Well That Ends Well and "All seems Well" ', Shakespeare Studies, vol. XIII (1980), pp. 131-144.

12 My references are to the Arden editions of As You Like It (ed. Agnes Latham) and Twelfth Night (eds. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik).

As David Wiles has shown in his Shakespeare's Clown (Cambridge, 1987) the words 'fool' and 'clown' could both in Shakespeare's time refer to a particular kind of comic actor. I have used a capital letter when I want this meaning to be predominant, but in plays where a Fool plays a fool any attempt to make it consistently exclusive is both difficult and a waste of useful ambiguities.

Fools In The Tragedies

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 between the clown and the hero is also a contrast that supplies the fool show with materials and energies.

The clown's attraction to the heroic role is partly based on the quality of greatness that the hero shares with the king; but in addition, the hero, freer to act than is the king, stationary at the center, provides a suitable alter ego for the clown in his mobility and his urge actively and concretely to explore the unknown. The image of Ben Turpin as Hamlet accommodates the clown to the role of the hero in an even more specific sense: the presence of the clown within the character of Hamlet is not only a general fact about the heroic nature but belongs to the uniqueness of his character and to the deepest truth of the over-all action of the piece.

Since the time of Dr. Johnson several writers have seen similarities of one kind or another between Hamlet and the fool. Coleridge remarked that in Hamlet the character of the fool is divided and dispersed throughout the play, an idea that has also been developed, among others, by Francis Fergusson, Geoffrey Bush, L. G. Salingar and Harry Levin, who have described the ways in which Hamlet for moments becomes a part-incarnation of the foolish presence that can be felt in the background of the action.1 Bush writes: "There is no fool in Hamlet; Yorick [the jester of the late king, Hamlet's father] is dead; and it is Hamlet himself who . . . puts on an antic disposition. . . . With a 'crafty madness,' Hamlet 'keeps aloof.' Like the fool, he is both within and without his situation; it is not only his misfortune, but his tragic privilege, to stand at one remove from the world."2 This description would fit Lear's Fool, the punctum indifferens, as Enid Welsford describes him, of the Lear story. But the difference between Hamlet-as-jester and Lear's Fool parallels that between Hamlet the dispossessed young king (or king-to-be) and Lear the dispossessed old king. Hamlet is called upon to act, though he cannot find a metaphysical and moral basis for the action demanded of him; Lear (after his initial folly) is deprived of the basis he had for action. Thus, although Hamlet and Lear superficially share the fate of the dispossessed, there is an essential difference in the demands placed upon them by their dispossession.

Hamlet's dispossession has come through no fault of his own, but he is left with the imperative of an action that will affect the whole body politic. Lear is dispossessed partly through his own folly, though behind his treatment of his daughters and his division of the kingdom stands his senility as a natural fact; and the range of action that is left him is primarily personal, with little direct consequence in the affairs of state. Hamlet must search for a metaphysical and moral basis for his action, because that basis, as it is provided naturally in the primitive kingship, has failed and become the lie of the person of the king, Claudius, against his office. Hamlet must find his way from his own position, with its personal motivations, to one from which he can act for the general weal. Thus the purification of purpose he must undergo in a sense leads in an opposite direction from that of Lear—from the personal to the collective, rather than the reverse; and it is in this necessity that he adopts the ambiguous, helpful, and disruptive role of the fool.

The background against which Hamlet acts and clowns is the rottenness in the state of Denmark; more specifically, it is the corruption of the center, which is expressed (whether as cause or effect or both) in Claudius' killing of the rightful king and the "unseemly haste" with which Hamlet's mother entered into her union, in any case incestuous, with the usurper. What is at stake in the action is the kingdom itself; the concept of kingship that informs the play is alive with the mythical significance of the center with its ritual and magical overtones. Rosenkrantz' speech about "the cease of Majesty," for example, draws for its effect upon the primitive sense of the king as the embodiment of the cosmic center:

It is a massy wheel,
Fix'd on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortis'd and adjoin'd; which when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boist'rous ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh, but with a general groan.

(III. iii. 17-23)

As Fergusson writes (following Dover Wilson): "Hamlet has lost a throne, and he has lost thereby a social, publicly acceptable persona, a local habitation and a name. It is for this reason that he haunts the stage like the dispossessed of classical drama."3 And this dispos-session—quite apart from his melancholy and the other flaws critics have found in his character—maims his capacity for action, since in the archaic conception it is precisely the hero's relation to the throne that not only defines his actions but ultimately makes them possible. And the problem of the center upon which the movement of the play is based may be seen in part in the absence of the fool. Just as the kingdom lacks an adequate king, so it lacks anyone in whom folly assumes a redeeming form: the hero is not really abetted by his folly, and there is no helpful jester. The ambiguity in the person of the king is reflected in Hamlet's fluctuation between the possibilities of heroism and those of folly.

The action of the play, the killing of the false king, requires a hero; but the problem on which the action is based, the hidden malady of the state, is one with which the hero alone, without the blessing of his folly, cannot deal; a vicious circle ensues that draws Hamlet again and again into the "imposthume" that he should stand outside and lance as though it were a monster or human enemy outside the kingdom. The vicious circle comes from the fact that the integrity of the center needs to be restored, but the abscess at the center destroys the basis for the action needed. It is, of course, possible for a hero to set himself against a corrupt or failing monarch and to assume the throne himself: even the crime of regicide may be regarded as justifiable under certain circumstances, especially when there is confusion as to who is the rightful king. But for a hero legitimately to oppose the reigning king, he must have a clear and undivided allegiance to the ground of the kingdom, to the center prior to its embodiment in that king. Hamlet is caught in the uncertainties which permeate the whole kingdom, in which none of the main characters is sure of his relation to anyone else, as may be seen in the elaborate spying on one another that engages them. Moreover, Hamlet's allegiance is divided between his dead father and his living mother, who, he feels, might not be spared if he were to give his capacities for action free play. He must admonish himself:

Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites.

(III. ii. 413-15)

in the same moment in which he is fighting to overcome what he feels to be hypocrisy. And insofar as the Oedipus complex, following Ernest Jones's interpretation, is central to Hamlet's dilemma, he is in his personal feelings toward his mother caught in a variant of Claudius' incestuous relationship to her.

The whole kingdom needs to free itself of the murk and disease that envelops and covers the center and obscures the working of the cosmic principle; thus Hamlet must purify his motives in an affirmation of allegiance to the ground of the kingdom, the archaic level of the kingship that overrides considerations of personality, including that of the reigning king. The purgation of the kingdom is, as Fergusson demonstrates, to be achieved through what he calls the ritual and improvisational elements of the play. The ritual elements are in part formal actions, magical in intent, arising from the primitive basis of the kingship and affecting it in turn; they are like attempts at self-healing by a physical organism. He writes: "If one thinks over the succession of ritual scenes as they appear in the play, it is clear that they serve to focus attention on the Danish body politic and its hidden malady: they are ceremonious invocations of the well-being of society, and secular or religious devices for securing it."4 The improvisational elements of the play consist most importantly of Hamlet's clowning and playing of the madman. By stepping outside the main course of the action, Hamlet taps the fool's ability to suspend and even dissolve personal feelings when they become too sticky: he gropes for the freedom found by the mourner who laughs at a funeral. The ritual and improvisational strands would ideally be united in the figure of the court jester; but the position of Yorick stands empty, except insofar as it is illegitimately filled by Hamlet—as does that of Yorick's royal master, except insofar as it is illegitimately filled by Claudius.

The role of the clown seems to Hamlet to provide him with the sought-for position of a punctum indifferens in the midst of the action, but the role is a trap from which he must fight to get out, though he fights in vain. The fool becomes the punctum indifferens through the renunciation of action; and to renounce action in face of the threat of raging chaos is to become a fool either in the sense of the failed hero or in that of Lear's jester. Lear can become interchangeable with his fool, because the fool in his incapacity for action and his humble and shrewd acceptance of that incapacity leads Lear toward the moral condition in which he may find whatever salvation is open to him, a state in which he must leave off posturing as the personal agent of a might he does not have. But for Hamlet the necessity is to become the personal agent of a power that he does not have but should have. It is the power of the hero only partly differentiated from the fool, a state in which the hero is open to the dispositions of unseen powers and to the unexpected possibilities in the present moment for action, in which he is free from the inertia of his personal feelings and deaf to the play of reason when it is not immediately relevant to the task at hand. As Hamlet assumes the role of the fool actor, he becomes dissociated from the kind of folly that would have furthered heroism. It is appropriate to the nature of Hamlet's dilemma that at the peripeteia of the action, the play within the play, he should retire to a position between the Danish audience and the players. It is appropriate because the crucial members of the audience are infected with the disease of the state and because the enacted killing of the king points both to the source of that disease in the past and to the task demanded of the hero in the future. If (from Hamlet's viewpoint) the essentials of the action can be reduced to drama, there is a chance that the real world, momentarily focused in the spectacle, will become irradiated with the relative clarity and consciseness of the playlet and that Hamlet will be jarred from his own dramatic role-playing to become an actor in the world.

Fergusson writes about the play within the play that it is

a "ritual" in that it assembles the whole tribe for an act symbolic of their deepest welfare; it is false and ineffective, like the other public occasions, in that the Danes do not really understand or intend the enactment which they witness. It is, on the other hand, not a true ritual, but an improvisation—for here the role of Hamlet, as showman, as master of ceremonies, as clown, as night-club entertainer who lewdly jokes with the embarrassed patrons—Hamlet the ironist, in sharpest contact with the audience on-stage and audience off-stage, yet a bit outside the literal belief in the story: it is here that this aspect of Hamlet's role is clearest.5

Moreover, when the mousetrap springs, Hamlet, who has been the failed hero, emerges not as a hero but as a failed fool. And even if he is, as a result, moved to action, part of his energies must continue to leak into the role of the unsuccessful fool-as-mock-hero, to which he has unwittingly committed himself.

The play within the play is superficially like jokes that jesters have made about the weaknesses, vices, and even villainies of their masters, but those jokes could be permitted and laughed at because the king and the jester were each in his place according to a convention that supported, even while mocking, the king's pretense of power. That Hamlet in his complex reaction to the playlet is on the verge of laughter is in keeping with Freud's idea that a joke often contains some kind of illicit material (of a sexual or aggressive nature) and that the person telling the joke uses the reaction of the hearer as a justification for his reveling in that material.6 But a good joke does provoke laugh-ter. According to the plausible notion of Helmuth Plessner, laughter is an autonomous reaction to a situation to which there is no answer according to one's habitual ways of thought and feeling and which is at the same time unthreatening; Hamlet's play is threatening in the extreme. It is like a joke in which the malice of the teller toward the listener is splashed like acid, the grimacing teller caught without the jester's mask of innocence, inconsequence, and unrelatedness. It is also like a joke with an even more specifically sinister purpose, which the teller gratuitously and pointlessly reveals—as when one politician or businessman intends to cheat another, makes a joke about cheating him, and, instead of luring him into the belief that the possibility of his being cheated is only a joke, puts him into a panic. Like the joke in Freud's description of it, the play within the play can be seen as an attempt to objectify Hamlet's anxieties, to justify them, and at the same time to relieve them in a wish-fulfilling fantasy. If the point of such a loaded joke does not open into the impersonal freedom of folly and thus meet Plessner's criteria for what is laughable, the joke is no longer a joke but an act of aggression or of self-immolation or of both. Hamlet's entertainment is both; it goads the king, and its point spreads like poison, working from him to Gertrude to Polonius to Laertes to Ophelia. Hamlet's position at the edge of the stage is that of both the clown and the stage manager and master of dramatic illusion. Dramatic illusion, the clown's presence, and heroic purpose cancel one another out in the offense of a bad joke that makes the teller a marked man.

In Fergusson's summary, "The performance of Hamlet's play is both rite and entertainment, and shows the Prince as at once clown and ritual head of state."7 But the reunion of the two separate figures of clown and ritual head of state in the larger pattern of the kingship is the culmination of a long process. In becoming the hero in a public sense, the hero divests himself of that folly until the moment of his full power, when at his accession that power is bound. Then his folly reemerges embodied in the fool actor as jester, who will re-establish his connection to the foolish ground from which he has separated himself. Hamlet, wise much before his time in the way the old king should be and lacking both the king's position and a jester of his own, must stumble in and out of the folly which he tries simultaneously to divest himself of and to enact. His course from this moment leads as though inevitably to the scene in which, in Fergusson's words, "Hamlet jokes and moralizes with the Gravedigger and Horatio. He feels like the gag-man and royal victim in one."8 The skull of Yorick, the late and rightful king's jester, is like a lodestone to which he is drawn throughout the action, while intending instead to earn his right to his father's throne. The death's-head and skeleton are traditional emblems of the fool in the sense that death makes a fool of life's joys and purposes, as may be seen in graphic representations by Dürer, Holbein, and others.9 And even more in keeping with the fun-damental action of the play, the hero-prince's familiarity with the cynical Gravedigger as they contemplate the skull of the jester is a final epiphany, outside the course of consequential events, of the disintegration of the social structure, the death of the body politic that now can only await renewal from without.

However, Yorick's skull is an emblem of Hamlet's folly in a more personal sense as well. James Kirsch is convincing in his suggestion that the death of Ophelia means symbolically the death of Hamlet's soul;10 by the time Hamlet encounters the grave-digging clowns he is himself one of the living dead. Moreover, the fact that the skull is unearthed in the grave intended for her implies a relation between the jester and the girl as factors in Hamlet's fate. In this light the skull may be taken to represent a single ambiguous psychic content that has expressed itself in both Hamlet's clowning and Ophelia's madness. Through his clowning he has sought, as Yorick surely had before him, to sustain the value of his father's kingship and to accommodate it to the circumstances of the kingdom. But even if Hamlet could somehow have managed the illegitimate amalgamation of princely and foolish roles in which he was caught, his clowning would still have remained contaminated by the self-destructive actual madness of Ophelia, since he was bound to her by affective ties, and these, in turn, entailed projections of psychic determinants within himself.

The character of this amalgamation of roles, and its self-destructive motivation, may be seen in Hamlet's famous question, "To be, or not to be . . . ?" (III. i. 56). The ego has no right to ask such a question; asking it is a form of psychic self-mutilation—in psychoanalytic terms, of self-castration—the deliberate abandonment of any possible basis for action. If we draw ourselves up enough to reject Hamlet's pathos, we may see this question as an intellectual equivalent of a clown's attempt to take a step with one foot while standing on it with the other. Or we may treat Hamlet's pathos more respectfully by regarding the question as an intellectual equivalent of Ophelia's suicide. This crucial question of the dispossessed royal person will give way in King Lear to another: "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" (I. iv. 50). The Fool's answer there—"Lear's shadow" (1. 251)—means in part that the jester, facing death with his royal master, serving as Psycho-pompos or Seelenführer, as guide to the living soul, can tell him who he is. But here, in Hamlet, the dead jester seals the Prince's doom. Just as Hamlet has been unable to find his way through his personal entanglements to a living connection with the center, so he has failed to achieve a connection with folly as the play of life furthering heroic purpose. In Yorick's skull, joy is dead and laughter silenced. In Yorick's skull, too, the force is at last objectified that has blocked Hamlet from assuming his father's throne and marrying his destined bride. (This objectification takes place somewhat in the way that a feeling-toned unconscious complex of archetypal character is sometimes revealed in the course of psychotherapy.) Hamlet's encounter with the skull might thus have signaled a new and more adequate differentiation of his motives and purposes, if it were not too late. But death has already won—and death's accomplices and foes, the grave-digging clowns.


1 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931), II, 212; Francis Fergusson, The Idea of a Theater (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1953); Geoffrey Bush, Shakespeare and the Natural Condition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956); L. G. Salingar, "The Elizabethan Literary Renaissance," in Boris Ford (ed.), The Age of Shakespeare (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1955), pp. 88-89; Harry Levin, The Question of Hamlet (New York: Oxford, 1959), pp. 121-28.

2 Bush, Shakespeare and the Natural Condition, p.100.

3The Idea of a Theater, p. 112.

4Ibid., p. 125.

5Ibid., p. 134.

6 Sigmund Freud, "The Motives of Jokes—Jokes as a Social Process," in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Strachey, Complete Psychological Works (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1960), VIII, 140-58.

7The Idea of a Theater, p. 126.

8Ibid., p. 127.

9 Erica Tietze-Conrat, Dwarfs and Jesters in Art (New York: Phaidon, 1957), pp. 50 and 105. On the ambiguous interplay between death and the fool in literature before Shakespeare see Barbara Swain, Fools and Folly (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), pp. 42 ff. Salingar sees Death as the "supreme 'antic'" in Hamlet (The Age of Shakespeare, pp. 88-89). William Empson turns his attention briefly to "the business of the macabre, where you make a clown out of death." He observes that "Death in the Holbein Dance of Death, a skeleton still skinny, is often an elegant and charming small figure whose wasp waist gives him a certain mixed-sex quality, and though we are to think otherwise he conceives himself as poking fun; he is seen at his best when piping to an idiot clown and leading him on, presumably to some precipice, treating this great coy figure with so gay and sympathetic an admiration that the picture stays in one's mind chiefly as a love scene" (Some Versions of Pastoral [Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1950], p. 14).

10Shakespeare's Royal Self (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1966), p. 174.

Catherine I. Cox (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "'Horn Pypes and Funeralls': Suggestions of Hope in Shakespeare's Tragedies," in The Work of Dissimilitude: Essays from the Sixth Citadel Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Literature, edited by David G. Allen and Robert A. White, University of Delaware Press, 1992, pp. 216-34.

[In the following essay, Cox explores Shakespeare's blending of comedy and death, principally through the use of laughter and clowning, in his tragedies.]

As death coverges with humor in Shakespeare's tragedies, our sense of the grotesque reaches its highest pitch. Death is now literal and ominous. It cannot be averted as in the comedies by a symbolic gesture of humility but must be confronted at its most hideous and awesome. As death becomes more terrifying, so its convergence with gaiety becomes increasingly discordant. Many critics, such as Susan Snyder in The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies, see in Shakespeare's mingling of "Kings and Clownes" intimations of tragic absurdity. Commenting on the grave-maker scene in Hamlet Snyder insists that the graveyard questions the grounds for all action; for death, which renders human remains indistinguishable, indicates a meaningless world.1 Images of death, however, do not for the Renaissance Christian negate all meaning. The skull dissolves only temporal meanings and questions actions for temporal ends. The Antic Leveler points its bony finger not at the existence of an immortal soul, but at earthly fame, beauty, and knowledge.

That death's grimace often expresses scorn and mockery is indisputable. In George Wither's emblem "This Ragge of Death," for example, the poem explains the grim meaning of the skeleton's smile: ". . . and marke what ugliness / Stares through the sightlesse Eye-holes, from within: / Note those leane Craggs, and with what Gastlinesse, / That horrid Countenance doth seeme to grin."2 Death's scoffing smile starkly underscores life's transience and our own foolishness when we trust in life's illusion of permanence. The meaning of death's smile is often more complex, however, evoking not only a sense of mockery, a stark reminder of our inescapable destiny, but one of gaiety and joy as well. Wither's "Death is no Losse" . . . provides an example of the skull that both jeers and celebrates. The scene places in the foreground a large skull poised upright on an hourglass. In its eye sockets, the crevices of its temples, and the corners of its mouth, long strands of wheat protrude as though they are growing from the head. As the hourglass supports the skull to indicate life's brevity, a glowing candle stands upon the skull, illuminating the entire scene with its brilliance. While the hourglass and the candle pull together the ideas of death and life, so too do the background vistas. The scene on the left shows a bleak city and a procession of mourners delivering a casket for burial. On the right, a pleasant country scene suggests life's simple joys. A cottage with smoke rising gently from its chimney sits comfortably on a hill. In front of the cottage, workers are shown busily harvesting wheat. The accompanying poem clarifies the meaning of this smiling death's head. Like the wheat, the poem explains, we must lie in the earth awhile, "But, from that Wombe receives another Birth, / And, with Additions, riseth from the Clay." The grave then becomes not a "Place of Feare" but rather a "Bed of Rest. "3 This memento mori thus serves as a reminder not only of death but also of the bliss that awaits beyond the grave.

Like this emblem's hopeful message, Shakespeare's plays often blend death with the comical so as to suggest an unquenchable life force whose energy either emerges at moments of intense tragic awareness or develops within a comic context into a transforming and creative power. This paradoxical union of death and life finds an analogue in the comedy of Christian redemption in medieval and Renaissance thought. For death not only provides a portal to eternal life and an agon to test sincerity of belief, but also, by showing people their own nature, death encourages the requisites of remorse, humility, and faith. Thus the medieval preoccupation with bodily decomposition reveals not merely morbid sensuality but a desire to reify spiritual awareness. An anonymous work entitled "A Sermon of the Misery of Mankind" explains that, for the faithful "bodily death is a door or entering unto Life, and therefore not so much dreadful (if it be rightly considered,) as it is comfortable; not a mischief but a Remedy for all mischief . . . not a Sorrow and Pain, but to Joy and Pleasure."4 By thinking on the grave, the faithful real-ize the duality of their natures: for they share with beasts the inevitability of death and with angels the spirit that enables escape from death's confines. Recognition of this hybrid nature and of the precarious stance between death and life is cause for uneasy but hopeful laughter. Charlotte Spivack explains that "Endowed with a perspective of his own incongruity, man is afforded laughter as a means of reconciling the contrary aspects of his nature."5 Thus humor's frequent convergence with death in medieval literature and art should not be surprising, for the terms rationali, mortali, and risus capax interlock in the medieval conception of humanity.6

As in Christian comedy, so too in Shakespeare's comedies and romances death functions as an instrument of self-knowledge and regeneration. Unlike the Christian emphasis on celestial affairs, however, Shakespeare centers on temporal renewal.7 Feigned or imaginary deaths, like that of Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, imminent deaths, like that of Claudio in Measure for Measure, and real deaths occurring either off stage or before the play's action begins, such as the deaths of Mamillius and Antigonus in A Winter's Tale, provide frequent plot complications whose resolutions depend on the characters' capacity for human understanding. Initially frustrating happiness, death opens the way to remorse, repentance, and compassion. Sympathetic action thus surmounts death and the comic catastrophe ensues.

While Shakespeare's comedies and romances make explicit death's regenerative powers by providing happy endings, his tragedies suggest merely possibilities for communal reordering. Risible elements thus blend with moments of death to promote the audience's sense of freedom from destruction and hope for social restoration. Juliet's deathlike sleep amid servants who jest of her wedding night, Hamlet's encounter with the merry gravemakers who quibble and sing while unearthing skulls, Cleopatra's visit by the jovial clown who bears the "pretty worm of Nilus," and Macduff s greeting by the equivocating porter who bids him enter Hell-Gate point at once to the unceasing dialectic of death and life and to our potential for future rejuvenation. We realize the intimate relation between death and its victims while we simultaneously sense, through the jovial nonchalance of the clowns, a cyclical order extending beyond personal tragedy. Herbert Weisinger's theory of tragic structure and John Holloway's discussion of ritual pattern in Shakespeare tragedies provide a context for understanding the function of risible moments in Shakespeare's tragedies. Both Weisinger and Holloway agree that it is our engagement with the protagonist as he or she undergoes a journey towards death that accounts for our sense of the tragic. Holloway explains, "It is rather that we make contact very directly with the experience through which the protagonist passes in the course of the play. The issue is not, what kind of man Hamlet is; but what he does. Or rather, what he both does and undergoes; how one can describe the whole volume of the experience through which he passes, as one who both acts and suffers the actions of others."8 For both Weisinger and Holloway, great tragedy awakens in us a paradoxical feeling of suffering and joy as it imitates the ritual of death and resurrection. Weisinger explains that "our response to tragedy is a response deeply rooted in the past of man, which tragedy has the power to evoke afresh."9 The pleasure that we take in suffering is not a per-verse desire for another's pain or for our own but comes from our awareness of "a rational order" that extends beyond an individual's death: "The tragic occurs when by the fall of a man of strong character we are made aware of something greater than that man or even man-king; we seem to have a new and truer vision of the universe. . . ."10

Although neither Weisinger nor Holloway addresses the issue of the comical in Shakespeare's tragedies, Weisinger offers numerous examples of the festivals, maskings, and orgies that in ancient primitive rituals played a part in the society's slaying of the god-king. The comical elements in Shakespeare's tragedies serve a similar function, allowing the audience an occasion to complete its identification with the sacrificial victim and then begin to release him or her. The medieval cycle plays lend support to this theory, for the death of Christ is almost always accompanied by games and farce. V. A. Kolve emphasizes the distancing effect of the tortores' games: "The horror of the Passion is controlled by constantly breaking the flow of its action. As the judges, scorners, tormentors, and executioners become totally absorbed in each new and limited game which they take up, so too is our attention diverted in turn: the Cornish making of the nails, and the premature Chester dicing are notable examples."12 Kolve also recognizes the irony implicit in these games and its regenerative value. While the torturers feel that they control the game, we realize by Christ's composure amid all their noise and laughter that they are unwitting participants in a cosmic game: "The tortores play with Christ, but we must not forget that Christ is playing too—that He is in the game, by His own choice, to serve His larger purposes. And the game must go as God intends."12

Sir Philip Sidney's defense of tragic purity in An Apologie for Poetry may shed further light on the irony implicit in comic-tragic blending:

But if we marke them [the ancients] we shall find that they never, or very daintily, match Horn-pypes and Funeralls. So falleth it out that, having indeed no right Comedy, in that comicall part of our Tragedy we have nothing but scurrility, unworthy of any chast eares, or some extreame shew of doltishness, indeed fit to lift vp a loude laughter, and nothing els: Where the whole tract of a Comedy shoulde be full of delight, as the Tragedy shoulde be still maintained in a well raised admiration.13

In this passage Sidney explains that the mistake play-wrights often make is in confusing delight with laughter. Although laughter and delight may arise from a single incident, the two are in themselves opposed. Delight "has a joy in it" and springs from things proportioned and apt. Laughter, on the other hand, is "a scornful tickling," arising from things disproportioned and incongruous. Sidney here considers laughter as satiric, as vituperatio. Thus while they may appear simultaneously, Sidney explains, laughter does not spring from delight, as many believe. Illustrating his point, Sidney refers to the brawny, heavily bearded Hercules who, dressed in woman's clothes, spins the distaff of Omphale. Delight and laughter here arise at once, "For the representing of so strange a power in love procureth delight: and the scornfulness of the action stirrith laughter" (140). While censorious laughter and delight are often independent responses, as Sidney holds, there may at times exist a paradoxical affinity between the two. If we examine closely Sidney's image of Hercules' spinning the distaff, we find that laughter and delight are not merely simultaneous occurrences but are interrelated effects. While delight does not here induce laughter, laughter does increase our delight. It is our laughter, mocking though it is, that informs us of the intensity of Hercules' passion, of his willingness to sacrifice his identity and his dignity for the love of Iole.

Just as comic degradation is essential to delight in the case of Hercules, it is similarly important to tragic joy in the cases of Hamlet, Macbeth, Cleopatra, and Juliet. Through the clowns' foolishness and through their satirical jibes, we glimpse the frailty and the folly of the protagonists and this in turn heightens our awareness of their passions and their tragedies. In act 4, scene 3, of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet gives her imagination free reign to the horrors of premature burial and then lifts the dreaded vial to her lips with the pledge, "Romeo, Romeo, Romeo! Here's drink—I drink to thee" (58).14 The potion, whose virtue she fears, recalls the Friar's earlier correlation of human qualities with natural elements:

For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strain'd from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
And vice sometime by action dignified.


Juliet's dangerous and defiant action suggests this moral ambivalence where good may "stumbl[e] on abuse" and vice find dignity in action. Both perspectives collide when laughter permeates the scene of seeming death. Juliet's drinking of the potion visually suggests suicide and is an unwitting preparation for that final action. The echoing words of the Friar thus push on to their bitter conclusion: "And where the worser is predominant / Full soon the canker death eats up the plant" (29-30). As Juliet swallows the potion, we realize her physical and spiritual jeopardy as well as her desperation and pain. No sooner does she fall into a deathlike sleep, however, than we are propelled into the world of comedy. We enjoy the domestic hustle and bustle of the Capulet servants who are preparing for the day's wedding festivities. Old Capulet's officious ordering of the servants, Angelica's bawdy jests and exaggerated lamentations, and Peter and the musicians' farcical quarrel suggest something comical about Juliet's situation and about Juliet herself. The implied ridicule of these earthbound creatures allows us to feel more intensely Juliet's isolation and foolishness. Like Hercules, Juliet suffers comic degradation. But in proportion to their foolishness, her passion and commitment also touch the sublime. By refusing to honor her parents' wishes and marry Paris, Juliet has estranged herself from the compromising world of ordinary humanity. Her actions, though impudent and rash, demonstrate her willingness to risk defamation, madness, and death to be rejoined with Romeo.

The sacrificial victim, in this case Juliet, mingles the sacred with the profane, wisdom with foolishness. In ancient cultures, the distinction between king and god was constantly blurred. Since the god-king was associated with fertility and with the spiritual health of the land, it is understandable that in time he would become linked to a more humble symbol of fecundity and joy, the fool. Because he was associated with the earth's vital forces and perhaps because he was expendable and stupid enough to die willingly, the fool often became the surrogate king in ancient rituals of renewal.15 Exalted for a period of time, until his iden-tification with the king was complete, the fool would then be mocked, scourged, and slain. The victim's foolishness, as it indicates his humanity, provides the people with a bridge to the sacred. Realizing the interrelation of the absurd and the sublime, we should not be surprised to find a painting by one of the earliest followers of Christ representing the crucified lord with an ass's head.16 In the Corpus Christi cycles, Christ suffers similar indignities. The Wakefield Caiaphas in the Buffeting, for example, calls Christ "Kyng Copyn in oure game"17 while the tortores of the York cycle dress Jesus in white cloth, the dress of a fool, and make him the butt of their games and gibes.18 Here, of course, the plays satirize the torturers who do not see Christ's divine nature and the spectators who daily reopen Christ's wounds by their sins. The association of Christ with a fool is not merely ironic, however, for it points to the paradox at the heart of sacrifice. To suffer humiliation and death willingly for the salvation of another defies our most fundamental instinct of self-preservation and thus seems the height of folly. The action, on the other hand, is life-affirming. Because it is the highest demonstration of love, it is paradoxically the wisest and most sacred of actions.19 Unlike Christ, the tragic protagonist of Shakespeare's plays is not a deity who can carry the sins of the world and remain pure. He or she must fully absorb the evil to be purged. The term foolish thus bears a more sinister meaning when applied to the mortal scapegoats of Shakespeare's tragedies. Indeed, foolishness in the case of Macbeth is identical with the demonic.

The striking change in tone at the entry of the clowns in Shakespeare's tragedies suggests that we stand at an important juncture in the tragedy. We recall that comic interludes were sometimes used in medieval drama to separate distinctive movements of the plot. So, too, the comical intrusions in Shakespeare's tragedies may signal a directional change. In Macbeth, for example, the episode of the drunken porter separates the act of regicide from its necessary retribution. The porter, as his name implies, is a transitional figure. He stands between the starless night that seals Macbeth's murderous deed and the new dawn whose diffusive light directs Scotland to gaze upon bloody Duncan. As in Macbeth, so too in Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Antony and Cleopatra, the impertinent clowns signal the protagonists' changed or changing position in the play. The clown's gaiety in the face of death suggests an inversion of roles, for the protagonist is now discomfited. Although formerly secure, the center of society, the hero or heroine, is now exceedingly vulnerable. He or she has assumed the passive role of the scapegoat. Hamlet's return to Denmark, Juliet's swallowing of the Friar's potion, and Cleopatra's acceptance of the asp are all submissive responses to the call of death. Although Macbeth never submits to his destiny as fully as do the other victims, he nonetheless becomes increasingly numb and inert. The active champion of Scotland in act 1 will become in the acts that follow reactionary and defensive. Macbeth's sole endeavor will consist of warding off the dual furies, conscience and discovery.

Thus the clowns presage both death and life. With the exception of the burlesque figures in Romeo and Juliet, the merry harbingers bear no proper names. They are undeveloped, anonymous characters who appear suddenly, electrify the grim milieu with their indecorous antics, and disappear to be heard from no more. The startling appearance of these mysterious characters recalls the alarming image of death in the medieval and Renaissance Vado Mori and in the Dance of Death. Holbein's engraving of the queen and death is particularly relevant, for here death wears the cap and bells of a medieval jester. . . .20 The inversion of roles in Holbein's Dance is bitterly ironic, for the queen, who on a former day might have commanded her fool to perform, is now herself ordered to dance by antic death. A similar inversion occurs in Shakespeare's tragedies. But while Shakespeare's antics approach their "victims" with the amused detachment of Holbein's jester, they possess an element of childlike innocence that is absent from Holbein's figure of death. Unlike Holbein's high-spirited skeleton, Shakespeare's sportive commoners are not court jesters. The distinction is significant, for the court or household jester in Shakespeare's plays is a sophisticated professional who uses his wit like a "stalkinghorse" to pierce the pretensions and illusions of his patrons. While Shakespeare's merry reapers delight in the duplicity of words like the professional jesters, they do not seem fully aware of the import of their quibbles and gibes. They seem hybrid creatures, partaking of the wit of clever jesters, like Lear's fool, Touchstone, and Lavatch, and the innocent gaiety of bungling fools, such as Bottom, Dogberry, and Elbow. It is their affinity to these naturals, their capacity for childlike joy, that turns satiric inversion, like that of Holbein's dance, into festive topsy-turvydom.21 Thus while "a scornful tickling" contributes to our laughter, our laughter also springs from a humane and generous delight. The function of Shakespeare's gay harbingers is then primarily saturnalian. And satire in these plays waits upon mirthful celebration.22

The porter scene of Macbeth illustrates the clown's affinity to death and life and his ability to bring us intimations of tragic joy. As the drowsy porter staggers to the gate to receive the early morning visitors, he brings to mind weary and disturbed Macbeth. We recall Macbeth's envy of the sleeping guards and of their innocent prayers. And we remember his chilling prophecy, "Cawdor / Shall sleep no more" (2.2.39-40). The thane and his lady's hasty change into nightclothes at the sound of knocking emphasizes the truth that Macbeth has killed sleep. As the porter underscores Macbeth's fatigue and regret, our sympathy rises for the already haunted thane. We realize too that Macbeth, having cut himself off from this life-nurturing balm, must soon die. The knocking's disturbance of the porter's sleep and its startling effect upon Macbeth tell us that retribution has wasted no time in pressing its claim. As the porter welcomes the imaginary reaper, "Come in time!" (2.3.5), he seems a genius of death, signaling Macbeth's irreversible movement towards destruction. The porter, however, with his humorous role-playing and indecent puns, is just as surely a figure of life. Macduff s persistent knocking and the porter's allusion to hell's gate bring to mind not only the sudden visitation of death upon sinners, a frequent motif in the literature of the age, but also, as Glynne Wickham has pointed out, the victory of Christ over hell in the apocryphal harrowing of hell.23 Hell was often depicted in medieval plays and paintings as a castle, and Christ was shown to pound repeatedly upon the gate before bursting through and scattering the minions of hell. Macduff s entry into Inverness parallels Christ's entry into hell-castle and foreshadows Macduff s defeat of Macbeth and the resulting triumph of Scotland. The porter thus opens the door both to death and to life. The farmer, the equivocator, and the tailor whom the porter mentions must dance down the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire. We may imagine, countering their descent, the ascent of Adam and Eve, the prophets, and the patriarchs who are taken by the hand of Christ and escorted to Paradise. . . . 24 And as we watch Macbeth prepare to follow the lesser sinners to hell, we sense Scotland's future victory and our own release from death. Like the farcical episodes of Marlowe's Dr, Faustus, the porter's comical greeting of sinners to hell diminishes the grandeur of the fallen hero. And the allusion to Christ's harrowing adds to the irony of Macbeth's fall. Medieval and Renaissance painters often depict Jesus as a knight, like Saint George, thrusting a sword into the mouth of the dragon and pressing its head under foot. In the first act the sergeant describes Macbeth's defeat of the rebel Macdonwald in somewhat similar terms: ". . . he unseam'd him from the nave to th' chops, / And fix'd his head upon our battlements" (1.2.22-23). The porter now shatters this heroic image. Macbeth is no longer the victorious defender of righteousness but a small, despicable rebel destined, like the farmer, the equivocator, and the tailor, for defeat.25 Macbeth's shrinkage underscores his role as mock-king. Macbeth is a foolish and expendable usurper of majesty. By first eliciting our sympathy for Macbeth, the porter encourages us to accept him as our substitute. By then drawing forth our disdain, he prepares us for Macbeth's final diminution and readies us to release the shrunken king to his death. In act 5 Angus describes the diminished ruler as he awaits Malcolm's forces: "Now does he feel his title / Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe / Upon a dwarfish thief (2.20-22). Macbeth suffers an even more degrading death than Macdonwald. The tyrant's head is not merely "fixed . . . upon the battlement" but is severed from his body and held up in contempt before the armies. With the help of the sportive porter, we find hope in this grotesque emblem. For us, as for Scotland, "the time is free."

A chilling irony infuses such burlesque moments as that involving the porter, for the audience, more keenly than the protagonist, feels death's approach. Two sixteenth-century portraits utilizing the memento mori tradition may help to demonstrate the sympathy bred for the protagonist by the sudden entrance of Shakespeare's grosteque. In early illustrations accompanying vado mori lyrics and poems of the Dance of Death, representative figures such as kings, ladies, and knights are portrayed about their usual business. They do not seem to notice the grinning skeletons lurking behind them, weapons poised for attack. . . .26 One moral poem reads,

This day I satt full royally in a chayre.
Tyll sotyll deth knokkid at my gate
And unavised he said to me, "chekmate"!


The N Town Death of Herod explores the dramatic potential of this tradition. We first see Herod rejoicing at the death of the innocents. But as he boasts his preeminence and gormandizes at a sumptuous feast, the figure of death approaches, unnoticed to any but the audience. The irony mounts as death exclaims:

Ow! Se how prowdely yon kaitiff sitt at mete!
Of Deth hath he no dowte; he wenith to leve evyrmore.
To him wil I go and geve him such an hete
That all the lechis of the londe his life shul nevyr restore.


By substituting a specific biblical personage in the place of the generic king, the N Town modifies the tradition of sudden death. Herod, however, is much more a type than a flesh-and-blood individual, and so the emphasis remains homiletic. We find the convention radically altered, however, in Holbein's portrait of Sir Brian Tuke . . . and in a portrait of a young man painted in 1524 and signed H. F. (Hans Fries).29 The victims are now highly individualized. The figure of death still glares menancingly over its victim's shoulder. Unlike Herod, these men are prepared for death. Sir Brian Tuke, for example, points to a passage from Job, "Will not the small number of my days be soon ended?" Although the victims are pious, the irony in these paintings is nevertheless biting, for the distinctive personal quality of these gentlemen engages our sympathies. We pity these men as we cannot Herod, for Herod possesses no redeemable charcteristics. As we recognize the traditional memento mori context of these portraits, the finger of death turns towards us. Sir Brian Tuke and the young man painted by H. F. are not only Renaissance lords, but also Everyman. By modifying the convention of the unwary victim, the portraits pull together the personal and the homiletic. A similar irony penetrates Shakespeare's tragedies when the impish clowns come into view. As Hamlet asks the gravemaker for whom he digs the grave, we know, though Hamlet does not, that the grave is meant for Ophelia. We also realize that Ophelia's death has placed Hamlet in direst jeopardy, for it has doubled the ire of Laertes and his determination to take revenge. The gravemaker scene not only harbors irony, but it also overlays the specific and the general as in the portraits. The skulls of Ophelia, Yorick, and Alexander will mingle with that of "my Lord Such-a-one, that prais'd my / Lord Sueh-a-one's horse . . ." (5.1.84-85).30 The scene thus allows us to experience a crucial moment in the story of Hamlet and at the same time provides us with a forceful reminder of our own mortality.

With an enhanced sense of mortal limitations, we begin to move beyond identification with those facing death toward a new identity. Self-knowledge, as the Renaissance typically perceived it, begins with an acceptance of mortality and culminates in understanding one's relation to God, people, and the cosmos. The mistaken choices of the heroes and heroines have made their premature deaths unavoidable. With the knowledge of their errors and a consciousness of our own limitations, however, we hold the opportunity to shape our own futures. After the initial shock of death's nearness subsides, we begin to enjoy the levity of the clowns who hint at the healing power of laughter and encourage us to enter their magical arena of play. Participating in their unconscious mockery, we begin to separate from those who must soon die. With this release comes a sense of freedom and hope. The clowns thus prepare us to realize and accept the unavoidable calamity that awaits the protagonist and simultaneously to anticipate the sense of freedom and reintegration that this death makes possible.


1 Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's. Tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello and King Lear (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 126.

2A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (1635) by George Wither, Book I, Illustr. 8 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1975); this facsimile by the Renaissance English Text Society reproduces the Newberry Library copy, Taunton imprint (STC 25900d; call number Case W 1025.98).

3A Collection of Emblemes, Book I, Illustr. 21. As numerous critics such as Barbara W. Tuchman and Johan Huizinga have discerned, the skeletons and death's heads were often expressions of the terrors of the Black Death.

4Certain sermons of homilies, appointed to be read in churches; in the time of Queen Elizabeth . . . (London: Printed for George Wells, 1687).

5 Charlotte Spivack, The Comedy of Evil on Shakespeare's Stage (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh-Dickinson University Press, 1978), 25.

6 Ibid.,25. Also see V. A. Kolve's The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford Calif: Stanford University Press, 1966), 133-34: Diues et Pauper asserts that mirth is among the major purposes of medieval religious drama. The anonymous author "holds (on scriptural authority) that to play to God and for God is to please Him, that human joy and such humility as chooses to express joy in play and game are acceptable to heaven."

7 In Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1963), Roland Mushat Frye stresses the "need for a sane and informed secularism in the interpretation of the plays, because the plays are themselves primarily concerned with the secular realm." By "secular" Frye means "temporal and 'this worldly,' somewhat after the fashion of the Latin saeculum, referring to an age or a generation, rather than to the domain of the eternal" (7).

8 John Holloway, The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963), 22.

9 Herbert Weisinger, Tragedy and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall (East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1953), 228.

10 Ibid., 226. In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), Northrop Frye states that "The hero of tragedy ultimately includes the audience who form the substance of the hero . . . who participate in a ritual act of suffering in which the suffering is not real but the awareness of it is" (118).

11 Kolve, Play Called Corpus Christi, 200.

12 Ibid.

13 Sir Philip Sidney, An Apologie for Poetry, in English Literary Criticism: The Renaissance, ed. O. B. Hardison, Jr. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 139. Subsequent citations from this work will be given in the text.

14 Quoted from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974). All further citations and quotations of Shakespeare's plays come from this edition.

15 Enid Welsford, The Fool: His Social and Literary History (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), 68-69.

16 Harvey Cox, The Feast of Fools (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 140.

17 Cited from David Bevington, ed., Medieval Drama (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1975), 542. Kolve discusses the convergence of laughter and the image of Christ in Play Called Corpus Christi, 181.

18The York Cycle of Mystery Plays: A Complete Version, ed. J. S. Purvis (London: S.P.C.K., 1957), 245. See Kolve, Play Called Corpus Christi, 184.

19 In King Lear, Cordelia exemplifies this selfless, Christlike love by risking her life to save the father who rejected her. Her death brings to Lear's lips the cry, "and my poor fool is hang'd!" (5.3.306). Although Lear uses the word "fool" as a term of endearment, it suggests the loyal jester who suffered with the King on the heath. And if indeed Lear's fool and Cordelia were played by the same actor in Shakespeare's day, as Sir John Gielgud believed, the relationship between folly and sacrifice becomes still more highly charged. In The Masks of King Lear (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972), 318, Marvin Rosenberg emphasizes the visual and verbal imagery linking Cordelia and the fool: "Lear's tenderness with Cordelia recalls Lear's sheltering of Fool, his cross-grained love of both. . . . The two are joined by motif as well as character design: Lear's fool is someone who loves him, stays with him, pities him, suffers with him—who has been 'fooled' into holding on to his downhill wheel." While Cordelia serves as an emblem of Christian sacrifice, she does not perform the role of scapegoat in the pattern of the tragedy. It is Lear, wearing the coxcomb for ignoble reasons, who must perform this task. Referring to the "resurrection pattern" of King Lear, Northrop Frye says that "in the tragedy of isolation the hero becomes a scapegoat, a person excluded from his society and thereby left to face the full weight of absurdity and anguish that isolated man feels in nature" (Fools of Time, 118).

20The Dance of Death by Hans Holbein the Younger: A Complete Facsimile of the Original 1538 Edition of "Les Simulachres & Historiees Faces de la Mort" (New York: Dover Publications, 1971), 26. My appreciation also extends to the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

21 Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 21. Weimann sees the connection between the idea of Utopia and topsy-turvydom as significant: "As early as the Roman Saturnalia such topsy-turvydom was associated with a Utopian dream of the Golden Age. The festive abolition of inequality and the playful exchange of roles between masters and servants defined the 'democratic character' of the Saturnalia, which ostensibly served to 'preserve the memory of the original state of nature where every man was equal.'" The sense of topsy-turvy inversion that pervades the comic-tragic moment of Shakespeare's tragedies hints at just such a return to equality and peace. Death, the great equalizer, ironically bears the seeds of a Utopian dream.

22 C. L. Barber recognizes the interplay of abusive wit and high-spirited mirth as essential components of Shakespeare's early comedies. Stressing Shakespeare's affinity to Aristophanes, Barber refers to The Origins of Attic Comedy in which F. M. Cornford suggests "that invocation and abuse were the basic gestures of nature worship behind Aristophanes' union of poetry and railing." Through these "two gestures," the early comedies, explains Barber, move us "through release to clarification": "The clarification achieved by the festive comedies is concomitant to the release they dramatize: a heightened awareness of the relation between man and 'nature'—the nature celebrated on holiday"; Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), 7, 8. More pointed than Barber in his remarks on the destructive-recreative power of folk humor is Mikhail Bakhtin in his introduction to Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 52-53. For Bakhtin the grotesque image that emerges from carnival suggests ambivalence: the image encompasses "simutaneously the two poles of becoming: that which is receding and dying, and that which is being born: they show two bodies in one, the budding and the division of the living cell. . . . Old age is pregnant, death is gestation, all that is limited, narrowly characterized, and completed is thrust into the lower stratum of the body for recasting and a new birth." Also see Peter Burke's Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 201.

23 In poetry of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,death was often personified as knocking at its victim's door or gate. John Webster Spargo gives a detailed look at the relationship between knocking and death in his article, "The Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth: An Essay in Interpretation," in Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. James G. McManaway, Giles E. Dawson, and Edwin E. Willoughby (Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1948), 269-77. Two excellent articles deal with the porter scene's allusion to the harrowing of hell: Glynne Wickham's "Hell-Castle and Its Door-Keeper," Shakespeare Survey 19 (1970): 68-74, and John B. Harcourt's "I Pray You, Remember the Porter," Shakespeare Quarterly 12 (1961): 393-402. Wickham explains that "On the medieval stage hell was represented as a castle, more particularly as a dungeon or cesspit within a castle, one entrance to which was often depicted as a dragon's mouth. Its gate was guarded by a janitor or porter. Christ, after his crucifixion, but before his resurrection, came to the castle of hell to demand of Lucifer the release of the souls of the patriarchs and prophets. . . . Christ's arrival was signalled by a tremendous knocking at this gate and a blast of trumpets" (68-69). Frederic B. Tromly, in "Macbeth and His Porter," Shakespeare Quarterly 26 (1975): 151-56, takes still another look at the scene. He argues against Harcourt's view that the scene functions to isolate Macbeth. For Harcourt, the scene works to humanize the tyrant by forcing us to recognize him in the ordinary porter. While critics tend to read the scene as either drawing us into sympathy with Macbeth or isolating us from him, they do not acknowledge that the scene in fact does both. The porter is the master equivocator, moving us to both pity and contempt.

24The St. Albans Psalter, ed. G. Big, Studies of the Warburg Institute, no. 25 (London: Warburg Institute, University of London, 1960). My gratitude also goes to St. Godehard in Hildesheim, the owners of the manuscript.

25 Harcourt, "I Pray You," 395. I agree with Harcourt that the porter's reference to the petty sinners serves to "destroy the pseudoheroic illusion."

26 "Vado Mori" (British Museum, MS. Additional 37049, fol. 36r), reproduced in Douglas Gray's Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), pl. 10.

27 Roman Dyboski, ed., Songs, Carols, and Other Miscellaneous Poems, EETS, e.s., no. 101 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1907), 87-88.

28 Cited from Bevington, Medieval Drama, 456.

29Portrait of Sir Brian Tuke by Hans Holbein.Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Reproduced in Katalog der Gemalde-Sammlung der KGL. Alteren Pinakothek in Munchen (Verlag von F. Bruckmann, A.-G., 1908), 213. See also Frederick Parkes Weber, Aspects of Death and Correlated Aspects of Life in Art, Epigram, and Poetry: Contributions Towards an Anthology and an Iconography of the Subject, 4th ed. (College Park, Md: McGrath Publishing Co., 1971), 137, 796.

30 My treatment of the regenerative implications of the graveyard scene in Hamlet may be found in "Saturnalian Sacrifices: Comic-Tragic Blending in Shakespeare's Hamlet," Explorations in Renaissance Culture 12 (1986): 87-104.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 James's Court and Shakespeare's Plays." Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews XIX (1991): 219-37.

Argues that Shakespeare's fools, like their historical counterparts in the late-Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, were much less likely to disrupt social order than many critics have suggested.

Levin, Richard. "Elizabethan 'Clown' Subplots." Essays in Criticism: A Quarterly Journal of Literary Criticism XVI, No. 1 (January 1966): 84-91.

Builds upon Dean Frye's thesis (see above) by concentrating on the varied thematic functions of Shakespeare's clown subplots.

Mangan, Michael. "Fools, Clowns and Jesters," in A Preface to Shakespeare's Comedies: 1594-1603, Longman Group Limited, 1996, 50-73.

Focuses on the function of fools, jesters, and clowns in Shakespearean drama and Elizabethan society.

Maslen, Elizabeth. "Yorick's Place in Hamlet." Essays and Studies 36 (1983): 1-13.

Maintains that Hamlet's remembrance of Yorick the Fool in Hamlet figures as an opposing force to the prince's vision of his father's vengeful ghost.

Messenger, Ann P. "Shakespearean Fools—Alive and Well in Restoration Comedy." Wascana Review 12, No. 2 (Fall 1977): 77-87.

Sees resonances of Shakespeare's "wise fools" in the comedies of Congreve, Shadwell, Dryden, Etherege, and Wycherley.

Neill, Michael. "The Play of Perspective: Enobarbus as Choric Fool." In The Tragedy of Anthony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare, edited by Michael Neill, pp. 89-94. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Observes that Enobarbus's function in Anthony and Cleopatra is to provide commentary "close to that of the satiric clowns of earlier tragedies."

Ross, Lawrence J. "Shakespeare's 'Dull Clown' and Symbolic Music." Shakespeare Quarterly XVII, No. 2 (Spring 1966): 107-28.

Relates the Clown's two appearances in Othello to the play's motifs of love and "the music of universal harmony."

Somerset, J. A. B. "Shakespeare's Great Stage of Fools, 1599-1607." In Mirror up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G. R. Hibbard, edited by J. C. Gray, pp. 68-81. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Discusses the influence of actor Robert Armin on Shakespeare's clowns in his plays dating from 1599 to 1607.

Steele, Eugene. "Shakespeare, Goldoni, and the Clowns." Comparative Drama 11, No. 3 (Fall 1977): 209-26.

Examines Shakespeare's clowns in light of the extemporizing tradition of the Italian Commedia dell' Arte.

Videbæk, Bente A. The Stage Clown in Shakespeare's Theatre. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 215 p.

Extensive study of rustics, clowns, court jesters, and fools on Shakespeare's stage.

Wilcher, Robert. "The Fool and his Techniques in the Contemporary Theatre." Theatre Research International IV, No. 2 (February 1979): 117-33.

Explores the enduring influence of Shakespearean fools in modern theater.

Wiles, David. Shakespeare's Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 223 p.

Traces the history of the Elizabethan clown, particularly focusing on the characters enacted by William Kemp.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks


Shakespeare's Historicism: Visions and Revisions