Saturday, 15 September 2012

What Does it Take to be a Shakespearean Fool?

What is a Shakespearean fool? | The Gravediggers
from Hamlet
The fool or clown is a staple of Shakespearean drama, and although it may seem that a fool's only purpose is to provide humour, this is not always the case.

Clowns and fools are not a Shakespearean creation, they are a dramatic archetype, which has been used throughout the history of theatre. And although a key part of the fool's role is to provide laughter, he has always carried important social and political messages - this is certainly true of Shakespeare's fools.

What Does it Take to be a Fool?

The title 'fool' or 'clown' is a little misleading to our modern perception, because we tend to think of a clown as an idiot. If you called a modern day comedian a clown, while it may be technically true, he or she would probably be insulted, because the word carries certain connotations.

In Shakespeare's time, this was not the case. And so a fool or clown was, effectively, a comedian. A fool is not stupid. In fact, quite the reverse, the fool is often perceptive, witty and enjoys running linguistic rings around his 'betters'.

However, a Shakespearean fool or clown is always among the lower order, he is a commoner or a servant - sometimes serving as a professional clown, as is the case for Lear's fool, or Feste in Twelfth Night and Touchstone in As You Like It.

The Role of Fools in Shakespeare's Tragedies

Shakespeare's fools are a common sight in tragedies
as well as comedies | King Lear and his fool

You'd think, given that the principal role of a clown or fool is to provide laughter, that they would be exclusive to the comedies.

Not so. Many tragedies contain clowns, who provide comic relief or perhaps even heighten the tragedy. The fools of Shakespeare's tragedies are:

  • Gravediggers from Hamlet
  • Commoners from Julius Caesar
  • The Fool from King Lear
  • The Porter from Macbeth
  • Clown from Othello
  • Peter from Romeo and Juliet
  • A Fool from Timon of Athens
  • Thersites from Troilus and Cressida

Often, the fool or clown of a tragedy will have a set piece after a particularly tragic moment in the play, such as the Gravediggers who appear directly after Ophelia's suicide. And, as mentioned last week, the porter's "knocking at the gate" soliloquy, which follows Duncan's brutal murder.

While some people believe that these scenes serve as little more than light relief, others are convinced that the purpose of these scenes was to remind the audience that they are watching a play. The theory being that nudging an audience back to reality will allow them to apply the message of the play to their own lives - thereby increasing its impact.

The Role of Fools in Shakespeare's Comedies

And, similarly, in Shakespeare's comedies, the fool is not there just to make us laugh, but also to look more seriously at some of the issues raised within the play. 

Shakespeare's fools are clownish, but often have profound
pearls of wisdom, too | Alfred Molina as Touchstone
A clown's role is to entertain us and make us think. A good example of this would be Launcelot's examination of the 'sins of the father' theory, or Feste's mocking of grieving for a soul that is in heaven. 

In both instances, the fool is witty and playful, but at the same time gives us serious pause for thought.

The fools and clowns of Shakespeare's comedies are:

  • Lavanche from All's Well That Ends Well
  • Touchstone from As You Like it
  • The Dromio twins from The Comedy of Errors
  • Costard from Love's Labour's Lost
  • Pompey from Measure for Measure
  • Launcelot from The Merchant of Venice
  • Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Grumio from The Taming of The Shrew
  • Trinculo from The Tempest
  • Feste from Twelfth Night
  • Speed and Launce from The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • Clown from The Winter's Tale
Pragmatic and witty, a fool is an extremely
useful 'voice' | Ben Kingsley as Feste

Just like their tragically foolish counterparts, Shakespeare's comedy fools may appear, on the surface, to be vulgar and idiotic. 

And there are undeniably classic jester/clownish moments, such as the slapstick humour surrounding the Dromios and the mistakes perpetrated by Puck, both of which lead to silly and pure fun. 

You could say that Shakespeare's fools and clowns have a simplistic view of the world, but that's not to say that they are simple-minded, they just have a way of cutting through all of the crap and getting right to the heart of a subject. 

And it is this that makes them so invaluable to a playwright. 

Pragmatic, logical and witty, a fool is an extremely useful 'voice' within a play. And although, as I often say, it's difficult/impossible to glean Shakespeare's own views within the plays, I can't help but wonder whether his opinions (if voiced at all) are voiced by the clowns.

The great paradox, of course, is that there is absolutely nothing foolish about Shakespeare's fools.

For more information about Shakespeare and his plays, take a look at What's It All About Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.


  1. very useful this precise didactic exposure

    1. Thank you, Myra. Glad that you found it interesting and helpful.

    2. This article is simply excellent keep up the great work.

    3. That's very kind of you, thank you!

  2. Replies
    1. Not the most scholastic I've ever written. ; )

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.