Philosophy with Attitude

Jan A. Nielsen
Humanities 480H Final Paper
14 May 1993 To Play the Fool

Every age -- and every stage -- has need of humour; that is part of being human. Just as necessary is the truth; it is something humanity has always craved, in whatever form that can be found. William Shakespeare's audience was fortunate: it could count on finding both of those at once, in the character of the Fool. Though he appears in many of Shakespeare's plays, he has not always been so well-received -- at least not by the critics. However, the audience that Shakespeare wrote for, the people of London, be they of high or low class, great learning or none at all, could no doubt far better appreciate this character than any of today's critics. His diction -- slang, style, and syntax -- all tie in intimately with the lives of the Globe theatre audience; no matter what period the plays to be discussed herein were set, the language was always authentic London. And though speech patterns have changed greatly in the nearly three-hundred years that separate us from Shakespeare (idioms that were common tongue to his audience, for example, are incomprehensible to us), the character of the Fool retains its nearly-universal appeal. It has been said that if Shakespeare were alive today, he would write soap operas; I am more inclined to believe that he would favor situation comedies, or even made-for-tv movies. Shakespeare wrote for the common man, and the Fool is a direct manifestation of that practice.

More than that, his character is of utmost necessity in the plays in which he appears: what human could bear the horrible despair that befalls Shakespeare's tragic heroes without a counterpoint of humour; and how could his comedy be considered comic, without a Fool to liven things up? And as Leslie Hotson observes: "For Shakespeare's audience it is plain that Lear's Fool... was far from cutting any outlandish figure, or bringing in an atmosphere of romance or long-ago. He belonged to the contemporary scene, and his introduction by Shakespeare into tragedy was therefore a step towards realism..." {Hotson, Shakespeare's Motley; New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1952. Page 100}

The point [wave bauble here] is that the Fool was not the superfluous character that some have made him out to be. His personality and wit, and his truth, contribute both greatly and quite necessarily to the structure and content of both the comedy and the tragedy of William Shakespeare. His uses therein will be considered in three tragedies -- "King Lear," "Othello," and "Antony and Cleopatra" -- and two comedies -- "As You Like It," and "Twelfth Night."

The Fool of "King Lear" makes his first entrance shortly after Lear dismisses his ex-cherished daughter Cordelia. One might suppose that this maintains the level of truth in the play: Cordelia, too, dared to speak it, and was banished for it; but the Fool is licensed for truth: although he is in the guise of an idiot, he alone now perceives reality as it ought to be, and he alone can present it to the King without too much fear of undue reprisal. His satire is at once a melange of rhymes and the foolery that one would expect of him, and a bitter commentary on the world around him. For example, when he learns than the ex-Earl of Kent has once again pledged his service to the man who had only recently banished him, he cannot keep silent. Rather, he promotes Kent from the unrecognized fool that he is being to one of some stature, tossing him the coxcomb property that marks him a fool, saying, "An thou canst not smile as the wind sits, thou'lt catch cold shortly... If thou follow [Lear], thou must needs wear my coxcomb." {S

hakespeare, William: King Lear, ed. Russell Fraser; New York, NY: New American Library, 1963. Act I, scene iv, lines 102-106} The intent of this passage is to warn Kent that the wind is shifting, no longer blowing in the direction that Lear wishes it to; and that since Lear is on the way down, only a fool would indeed follow him -- others would "catch cold." And if not the Fool, who could else be so blatant in warning Kent against the alliance he has just formed, or in advising Lear of his mistakes? All others who speak the truth are gone -- even Kent has become deceitful, in disguising himself this way.

However, though the Fool always speaks the truth, he is not always believed, as in the following exchange:

Fool: ...Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?

Lear: Why, no, boy. Nothing can be made out of nothing.

Fool: [To Kent] Prithee tell him, so much the rent of his land comes to; he will not believe a Fool. {Lear, act I, scene iv, lines 133-139}

Even so, Lear knows that the Fool cannot lie, if only by his decree: when the Fool proposes that he be taught to do so, Lear effectively forbids it -- "An you lie, sirrah, we'll have you whipped." He MUST tell the truth, because no one else can; he is "all-licensed," according to Goneril -- and it is absolutely necessary that he be so.

Who else can Lear trust?

More than simply telling the truth, however, the Fool is being natural, far more than Lear or his daughters. The Elizabethan practice of "begging a man for a fool" -- that is, to ask the King for the wardship of "an Ideot or naturall Fool" -- was common amongst the gentry; in taking the wardship of such persons, extra income in the form of the unlucky character's estate could be gained, and so much the better if he was amusing as well -- if he could really be a fool like the Fool. The act was also seen as an act of charity: "It were an holy use of them, if we kept them as spectacles of Gods mercy to us, with whom it hath pleased God to deale more mercifully in this behalfe." Indeed, Leslie Hotson proposes that Lear's treatment of the Fool points to his "fundamental charity," and that the Fool's presence in later acts is "a continual reminder of God's mercy to him in the past, and a 'spectacle of humility,'" though the Fool does seem slightly less than humble at times. {Hotson, page 99}

However, the Fool in "Lear" does not strike one as being a truly "natural" fool, as a man born insane or mentally retarded; rather, his banter and rhymes are quite clever, and the mind that invents them must be keen and sharp. His assumption of the Fool's role is more motivated by some strange love for the King; he alone stands by Lear with the truth, and though his jabs are sometimes cruel (for example, "If thou wert my Fool, Nuncle, I'd have thee beaten for being old before thy time... Thou shouldst not have been old till though hadst been wise." {Lear, act I, scene v, lines 41-45}), they are also rather pitiful at times, and I cannot help but hear some of his lines spoken with genuine pathos -- "I had rather be any kind o' thing than a Fool, and yet I would not be thee, Nuncle..." {Lear, act I, scene iv, lines 189-191}. Here is a man who must tell the truth, and may not be believed because of the motley that he wears -- how could a Fool know better than a King? In normal society, he would not, but Lear has turned things upside-down, and now the Fool is wise and the King is nothing. The Fool must be included; else who would be the wise man?

Of course, a little comic relief now and then is certainly a good crowd-pleaser, and that is the Fool's second function. Shakespeare's audience at the time was not a select flock of upper-class critics; it was a melange of society's ordinaires. And in a story as tragic as "King Lear" is... well, imagine a contemporary television audience faced with two hours of unceasing sorrow and depression and murder and insanity... and remember that Shakespeare's audience couldn't change the channel, or get up for a Kleenex during the commercials. They were stuck there for as long as the play went, and if things started to get too bad, I wouldn't doubt that those on the floor would stoop to vegetable tossing and whatnot, and what promising playwright wants that? Shakespeare was appealing to the people he knew best when he included comedy in his tragedy; the bawdy jokes and visual humor that one finds in "Lear" is but an inclusion of sympathy for the audience -- cases in point being the Fool's use of his bauble or scepter (representative of, most often, a penis); and, unrelated to this Fool, the scene in which Gloucester "leaps" to his "death" off a huge, high "Cliff" -- when in fact he is merely being humored by Edgar. Stage gags like this, far from detracting from the drama, enhance it by allowing the audience to feel again; sorrow unbroken produces only numbness, whereas if it is spaced with lighter elements, one is permitted to take a breath before metaphorically screaming again.

This same technique is used in "Othello," one of Shakespeare's darkest works. Act three opens with the Clown and a few musicians; their sole purpose seems to be comic relief. The musicians are playing wind instruments, which quickly become the butt of the Clown's jokes, many of them of a decidedly sexual, or at the very least, bawdy nature:

Musician : Whereby hangs a tale (tail), sir?

Clown: Marry, sir, by many a wind instrument that I know."

referring, according to the textual notes, to elements of the male anatomy. {Shakespeare, William: "Othello," ed. Norman Sanders; Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Act III, scene i, lines 9-10} This sort of humor could appeal only to one's lower senses, like the sort of repartee one sees so often in twentieth-century situation-comedies, which, as far as I can tell, are aimed only at the commonfolk of America. Yet "Othello" itself is an extremely disturbing work; it needs, therefore, all the more humor to relieve the audience of its tension -- that of Act III in particular, for it introduces the workings of several of Iago's plots against Othello. Even Iago engages in some measure of Foolery; his rhymes in Act II, scene i are nearly as ribald as those of Lear's fool -- but for an entirely different purpose: he seeks to ruin Desdemona's reputation, leading her seemingly astray with his quick tongue. Once again, the foolery is wise, and certainly necessary to the plot.

The Clown appears one last time at the beginning of Act III, scene iv. This section appears at first glance to be somewhat inconsequential, a mere exchange of a few clever puns -- for the clown is, in this case, no simple fool -- but in fact this gives the audience a glimpse of what's to come: Desdemona is seeking Cassio to speak to him about his possible promotion, but this will be twisted to appear as though they were having an affair, a deceit that will later kill her. The clown once again shows his usefulness: though he is but the rogue of the court, he can keep secrets; and he will do Desdemona's bidding. Who else amongst this cast of liars and saboteurs could be trusted to do so?

In a play as similar to "King Lear" as "Othello" is, one would expect similar characters. There is palace intrigue, lies abounding, love lost through madness, and a fair dose of insanity -- but the fools of the two plays are quite different. Lear's Fool is with him most of the time, while the Clown of "Othello" appears only twice. This may be accounted for by the observations made above -- that the caretaking of a fool is a Christian duty, and since Othello is a Moor, Shakespeare's audience would not expect there to be a place in his life for such a duty. In addition, "Othello" was placed chronologically before "Lear," leaving the possibility that the role of the fool in tragedy -- played by Robert Armin in all of the dramas to be examined here -- had not yet been made concrete. Even so, some comedy was necessary to ward off the overwhelming tragedy of "Othello," and so some was included.

A clown appears briefly in "Antony and Cleopatra" as well; his one function is to bring to Cleopatra the 'worm' that will kill her. Why the Clown? Once again, he is a trusted friend of the court (that being Antony and Cleopatra); she says of him, "What poor an instrument May do a noble deed! He brings me liberty." {Shakespeare, William: "Antony and Cleopatra," ed. Maynard Mack; Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1960. Act V, scene ii, lines 237-238} Even he speaks entirely the truth, as he tries gently to talk Cleopatra out of suicide; the humor lies in their numerous farewells -- or at least hers:

Cleopatra: Get thee hence, farewell.

Clown: I wish you all the joy of the worm.

Cleo: Farewell.

Clown: You must think this, look you, that the worm will do his kind.

Cleo: Ay, ay; farewell.

Clown: Look you, the worm is not to be trusted but in the keeping of wise people: for indeed there is no goodness in the worm.

Cleo: Take thou no care, it shall be heeded." {lines 257-267} and so forth. Although several anatomical jokes could no doubt be constructed from this worm, the asp that will poison Cleopatra, I cannot imagine them on such a solemn occasion as this; even a fool has some tact.

Is the Clown necessary to "Antony and Cleopatra"? I see his role as being similar to that of the Clown in "Othello": he is there because the court can trust no one else. Yes, there are attendants in the court who could no doubt fill the same niche of advisor and confidant, but this Clown has the rustic's immunity to severe punishment. He may also be a "natural" fool: at his entrance the Guardsman calls him a "rural fellow," {A&BC, line 233} meaning either that he lives in the country, or simply has the manner of a countryman; either way, he would seem a fool to those accustomed to the civility of the court -- or the Londoners who came to see this performance at the Globe.

The clowns and fools of Shakespeare's comedies have something of a different role to play -- there the true wit can shine, unhindered by tragedy and sorrow. In "Twelfth Night," for example, Feste, Olivia's jester, has possibly more lines than any other character in the play, and all of them at least in some measure humorous. And Feste is certainly no "natural" fool; as Viola says (and could say of all Shakespeare's fools),

This fellow is wise enough to play the fool;
And do that well craves a kind of wit.
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 is eye. This is a practice As full of labour as a wise man's art.
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fallen, quite taint in their wit. {Shakespeare, William: "Twelfth Night," ed. M.M. Mahood Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1971. Act III, scene i, lines 58-67}

"Twelfth Night" is as cheerful as "King Lear" is doleful; Leslie Hotson calls it "that most spirited, gay, and graceful of courtly comedies." {Hotson, page 92)} It was written well before any of the tragedies dealt with above, but the role of the fool in comedy was quite well evolved; indeed, Hotson remarks as well that "his wit is courtly, his admirable fooling scholarly, his singing exquisite. The delight of wise foolery is his whole spring of being." {Hotson, pages 90-91} Feste is, in short, the life of this play; no longer need the fool fear being cut by overzealous critics, for this is his element. Says M.M. Mahood in his introduction to "Twelfth Night," "Everywhere in 'Twelfth Night' we find the topsyturvy inversions typical of the Feast of Fools, when folly reigned in the seat of wisdom in order to show up the foolishness of those who counted themselves wise... Much of the play sustains Blake's belief that if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise... This is the last of Shakespeare's happy comedies, and when he creates another Fool, it is to drive him out into the rain." {Pages 14-16}

It is obvious that the Fool in necessary in a comedy such as this; he personifies it, just as he personifies the topsyturviness of the world in "King Lear." Feste and Lear's Fool are quite similar (as well one might imagine, in that they were played by the same actor); I imagine they would do fairly well if they were to change places. Indeed, Feste's last song in act IV, scene ii seems rather a foreshadow to "King Lear": he sings,

I am gone, sir, ad anon, sir,
I'll be with you again.
In a trice, like to the old Vice,
Your need to sustain.
Who with dagger of lath, in his rage and his wrath,
Cries 'Ah ha!' to the devil;
Like a mad lad -- 'Pare thy nails, dad?
Adieu, goodman devil!'
{Night, act IV, scene ii, lines 121-129)}

Though three years separate the two plays, certain comparisons can be seen, such has the rage and the wrath -- the true madness of Lear and the feigned madness of Edgar -- and the allusion to one's father (really an allusion to "Henry V",where the line finishes, "...that everyone may pare his nails with a wooden dagger.") might forecast the treachery of Edmund, Goneril, and Regan.

Of course, the final song of "Twelfth Night" and a song that Lear's fool have are nearly identical, of which Welsford says, "Meaningless, illogical as it is, the old folk-rhyme, with its recurrent refrain and plaintive melody, conveys a suggestion of regret for youth, for the fading of romance into hard reality, where fools no longer lead the revels...":

"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,
With hey-ho, the wind and the rain;
'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day."
{"Twelfth Night," act V, scene i, lines 385-394} Compare to the Fool's song in "King Lear":

"He that has and a little tiny wit,
With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain;
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
Though the rain it raineth every day."
{"King Lear," act III, scene iii, lines 74-77}

All of them could definitely be applicable to "King Lear," especially the second verse of the "Twelfth Night," what with shutting the gate, though this time the knaves and thieves were inside... Of course, this is certainly not an original observation -- Enid Welsford says of it, "The next time we hear this refrain it will still be sung by a fool, but by a fool in bitter earnest, by a fool who stands with his master, a vagabond caught in a storm, outside gates which men have most effectually shut against him." {"The Fool: His Social and Literary History"; Gloucester, MA: Faber & Faber, Ltd. 1966. Page 255}

Touchstone, the fool/clown of "As You Like It," is also in many ways similar to Lear's Fool. His name, however, points to his importance in the play: "he serves as a touchstone or test of the quality of men and manners, and so helps to poise an otherwise somewhat kaleidoscopic play." {Welsford, page 251}

His first entrance is as a servant, sent to fetch Celia and Rosalind; but he is not without observations: "The more pity," he says, "that fools my not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly." to which Celia replies, "By my troth, thou sayest try; for since the little wit that fools have was silenced, the little foolery that wise men have makes a great show." {Shakespeare, William: "As You Like It," ed. M.R. Ridley; New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1958. Act I, scene ii, lines 81-85} And indeed it will; once again we have a banishment and clever disguises; it is when the two ladies are in disguise, in the forest of Arden away from court, that Touchstone has his next good conversation:

Touchstone: all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly.
Rosalind: Thou speak'st wiser than thou art ware of.
Touchstone: Nay, I shall ne'er be ware of mine own wit, till I break my shins against it.
{AYLI, Act II, scene iv, lines 52-57}

If this is tied back to "King Lear," one may see the truth of his lines: the Fool's love for Lear was quite mortal, as we find him dead at the end, and indeed mortal in folly: he was, as he knew, a fool to stay with Lear. However, we see also the fool's limitations: he claims not to realize the humor in what he says -- at least until somewhat gives it back to him, as certainly Rosalind and Celia have been doing; this would seem to indicate that he is more a "natural" fool than is Lear's fool, in that his wit is by instinct and not thought.

Touchstone is not, however, the only court-fool we encounter: the banished duke has brought with him a clown, who sings, "Blow, blow, thou winter wind, Thou art not so unkind as man's ingratitude; Thy tooth is not so keen, Because thou art not seen, Although thy breath be rude. Hey-ho! sing hey-ho! unto the green holly: Most friendship is feigning, most loving, mere folly." {AYLI, Act II, scene vii, lines 173-180} Both the ingratitude and the winter wind hearken forward to Lear's stand on the heath, as well as the betrayal of friendship hinted at here. This fool's task, though, is simply to serve; Touchstone's is the foundation of comedy, as his reasoning match with the shepherd Corin in Act III will attest. But the Fool is not all reason; he finds himself a fool in love by Act III. Though it is hardly mortal in folly, some of his wit is quite sharp, as when he speaks with this new-found love of his -- to the commentary of Jaques, cynic extrordinaire; of the two of them, Welsford says,: "Touchstone is, as it were, the authorized commentator, but he has a rival in the person of that self-constituted critic of society, the melancholy Jaques... Both of them are equally ready to act as showmen, but in every other respect they are sharply contrasted... although Jaques and Touchstone stand side by side as showmen, their points of view are not equally valid; and it is the fool, not the cynic, who is the touchstone of the play." {Welsford, pages 251-252} Touchstone's final speech is a short discourse on arguments, after which a telling comment is made of him by Jaques: "Is this not a rare fellow, my lord? he's as good at anything, and yet a fool." Such is the state of all Shakespeare's fools: though they are clever, observant, comic, and natural, they can only be seen as fools; though they always speak the truth, they will never completely be believed; that is their own tragedy.

If they are nothing else, however, Shakespeare's fools are necessary to the plays they inhabit, as comic relief, as loyal friends, or as social barometers. To take cut them from tragedy simply because they seem not at first to fit is a tragedy in itself; their commentary can be more enlightening of that of even kings and nobles. We may see them as children, or "naturall ideots," but there is all the more reason to keep them: the audience needs them to keep its humanity, for laughter is that most human of attributes.


Hotson, Leslie "Shakespeare's Motley
New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1952

Shakespeare, William "Antony and Cleopatra," ed. Maynard Mack
Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1960

Shakespeare, William "As You Like It," ed. M.R. Ridley
New York, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1958

Shakespeare, William "King Lear," ed. Russell Fraser
New York, New York: New American Library, 1963

Shakespeare, William "Othello," ed. Norman Sanders
Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984

Shakespeare, William "Twelfth Night," ed. M.M. Mahood
Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1971

Welsford, Enid "The Fool: His Social and Literary History"
Gloucester, Massachusetts: Faber & Faber, Ltd. 1966

Willeford, William "The Fool and his Scepter"
Northwestern University Press, 1969

about me | baby crafts | education | grammar | guestbook | kids | links | livejournal | philosophy | read & play | stories | work | site map | home

All content, barring that which is otherwise attributed, is ©2007 to Jan Andrea. If you wish to use my content on another page, please email before doing so, even for content with the Creative Commons licenses. Text/images used elsewhere must be attributed to me. Be advised that I will pursue copyright violations.