Shakespearean fool

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"King Lear and the Fool in the Storm" by William Dyce

The Shakespearean fool is a recurring character type in the works of William Shakespeare.

Shakespearean fools are usually clever peasants or commoners that use their wits to outdo people of higher social standing. In this sense, they are very similar to the real fools, and jesters of the time, but their characteristics are greatly heightened for theatrical effect. They are largely heterogeneous.[1] The "groundlings" (theatre-goers that were too poor to pay for seats and thus stood in the front by the stage) that frequented the Globe Theatre were more likely to be drawn to these Shakespearian fools. However they were also favoured by the nobility. Most notably, Queen Elizabeth I was a great admirer of the popular fool, Richard Tarlton. For the Bard himself, however, actor Robert Armin may have proved vital to the cultivation of the fool character in his plays.[2]

The Fool[edit]

The fool was not a new character on stage. Indeed, a tradition had developed from Roman times through to Medieval times where fools entertained a varied public. The fool perhaps reached its pre Shakespearian heights as the court jester in aristocratic courts across Europe. The jester was a dynamic and changing part of entertaining aristocratic households and the entertainment they provided varied greatly: songs, music, storytelling, medieval satire, physical comedy and to a lesser extent juggling and acrobatics. Shakespeare both borrowed from the new motif of the jester and contributed to its rethinking. Whereas the jester of the royal courts often regaled his audience with various skills aimed to amuse; Shakespeare's fool, in sync with Shakespeare's revolutionary ideas about theatre, began to depart from a simple way of representation. Like other characters, the fool began to speak outside of the narrow confines of exemplary morality, to address themes of love, psychic turmoil, and all of the innumerable themes that arise in Shakespeare, and indeed, modern theatre.

Shakespeare appears to have had objections to the older tradition of fools, as represented by William Kempe.[citation needed] Hamlet contains a famous complaint at improvisational clowning (Act 3, Scene 2). Perhaps central to the Bard's redrawing of the fool was the actor Robert Armin:

... Shakespeare created a whole series of domestic fools for [Armin]. [His] greatest roles, Touchstone in "As You Like It,"(1599), Feste in "Twelfth Night,"(1600), and (the) fool in "King Lear,"(1605); helped Shakespeare resolve the tension between thematic material and the traditional entertainment role of the fool. Armin became a counter-point to the themes of the play and the power relationships between the theatre and the role of the fool--he manipulates the extra dimension between play and reality to interact with the audience all the while using the themes of the play as his source material. Shakespeare began to write well-developed sub-plots expressly for Armin's talents. A balance between the order of the play and the carnevalized inversion factor of festive energy was achieved.

Armin was a major intellectual influence on Shakespeare's fools. He was attuned to the intellectual tradition of the Renaissance fool yet intellectual enough to understand the power of the medieval tradition. Armin's fool is a stage presence rather than a solo artist. His major skills were mime and mimicry; even his improvisational material had to be reworked and rehearsed. His greatest asset was as a foil to the other stage actors. Armin offered the audience an idiosyncratic response to the idiosyncrasies of each spectator.[3]

Dramatic function[edit]

'That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.'
Isaac Asimov, Guide to Shakespeare.[4]

Some have argued that the clowning in Shakespeare's plays may have been intended as "an emotional vacation from the more serious business of the main action".[5] Clowning scenes in Shakespeare's tragedies mostly appear straight after a truly horrific scene: The Gravediggers in Hamlet after Ophelia's suicide; The Porter in Macbeth just after the murder of the King; and as Cleopatra prepares herself for death in Antony and Cleopatra. Nevertheless, it is argued that Shakespeare's clowning goes beyond just 'comic relief', instead making the horrific or deeply complex scenes more understandable and "true to the realities of living, then and now"[6] by shifting the focus from the fictional world to the audience's reality and thereby conveying "more effectively the theme of the dramas".[7]

Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret - Hamlet and the Gravediggers

List of Shakespearean fools[edit]

Fools described[edit]

Trinculo is considered to be a jester, but as he is only seen with the Stephano and Caliban, he does not have the stage time to act out the qualifications of a traditional fool. At the end of the play, however, it is revealed that he works for both Stephano and the King of Naples. He is a domestic buffoon, and is outfitted accordingly.

Launce and Speed
Speed is a clever and witty servant, while Launce is simple and pastoral. There is no mention of specific dress, or any indications of the two being a domestic fool or jester.

Feste is a hired and domestic fool for Olivia. He is referred to as "an allowed fool," "a set fool," and "the jester, that the Lady Olivia's father took much delight in." Feste claims that he wears "not motley" in his brain, so even though he dresses the part of the fool, he is not an idiot, and can see through the other characters. There is no other mention of his dress, other than what can be deduced from this quote.

Pompey – Measure for Measure
While this clown is the employee of a brothel, he can still be considered a domestic fool.

This clown is referred to as a "fool" in Act V, scene ii, but the word in this context simply refers to a silly man. He is not simple enough to be considered a natural fool, and not witty enough to be considered an artificial one. He is rather just a man from the country.

Launcelot Gobbo
Nowhere in the play does Gobbo do anything that qualifies him as an official fool or jester. Still, he is considered as such, perhaps because he is called a "patch" and a fool, and also because of his (and his father's) malapropisms ("This is the very defect of the matter sir," "Tears exhibit my tongue"). It is possible that these terms refer rather to the idea of the clown. Either way, Gobbo is proof that Shakespeare did not necessarily constantly discriminate in his qualifications of clowns, fools, and jesters.

Touchstone is a domestic fool belonging to the duke's brother Frederick, and is a natural fool ("Fortune makes Nature's natural the cutter-off of Nature's wit", "hath sent this natural for our whetstone"). Accordingly, he is often threatened with a whip, a method of punishment often used on people of this category.

He is a domestic fool, similar to Touchstone. He is considered by modern terms one of Shakespeare's least funny clowns, as his speech is bitter and his wit dark.

Clown – The Winter's Tale
He is simply a country booby.

The Fool – King Lear
The Royal Shakespeare Company writes of the Fool:

There is no contemporary parallel for the role of Fool in the court of kings. As Shakespeare conceives it, the Fool is a servant and subject to punishment ('Take heed, sirrah – the whip ' 1:4:104) and yet Lear's relationship with his fool is one of friendship and dependency. The Fool acts as a commentator on events and is one of the characters (Kent being the other) who is fearless in speaking the truth. The Fool provides wit in this bleak play and unlike some of Shakespeare's clowns who seem unfunny to us today because their topical jokes no longer make sense, the Fool in King Lear ridicules Lear's actions and situation in such a way that audiences understand the point of his jokes. His 'mental eye' is the most acute in the beginning of the play: he sees Lear's daughters for what they are and has the foresight to see that Lear's decision will prove disastrous.[4]

Writes Jan Kott, in Shakespeare Our Contemporary,

The Fool does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good. Lear, insisting on his fictitious majesty, seems ridiculous to him. All the more ridiculous because he does not see how ridiculous he is. But the Fool does not desert his ridiculous, degraded king, and accompanies him on his way to madness. The Fool knows that the only true madness is to recognize this world as rational.


Motley's the only wear.”
— Shakespeare, As You Like It, ii. 7.

The costumes worn by Shakespearean fools were fairly standardized at the Globe Theatre. The actor wore a ragged or patchwork coat. There were often bells along the skirt and on the elbows. They wore closed breeches with tights, with each leg a different color. A monk-like hood, covering the entire head was positioned as a cape, covering the shoulders and part of the chest. This hood was decorated with animal body parts, such as donkey's ears or the neck and head of a rooster. The animal theme was continued in the crest worn as well.

The actor had props. Usually he carried a short stick decorated with the doll head of a fool or puppet on the end. This was an official bauble or scepter, which had a pouch filled with air, sand, or peas attached as well. He wore a long petticoat of different colors, made of expensive materials such as velvet trimmed with yellow.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The fools of Shakespeare: an ... - Frederick B. Warde - Google Boeken". Retrieved 2011-12-24. 
  2. ^ "History of the Fool". Retrieved 2011-12-24. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b [1][dead link]
  5. ^ Richard Levin, The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago/London, 1971) p.142
  6. ^ Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre, (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p.242
  7. ^

External links[edit]