Shakespeare Saturday: The Fool

Hi there, fellow Cacti! I’m writing to you via the WordPress app while backstage at a performance that has absolutely nothing to do with Shakespeare…
But fear not! I have thought long and hard about what subject to delve into today and have landed upon the Fool. Yes, that deceptively simple-minded, recurring archetype of unexpected wisdom found in Shakespeare’s tragedies; the Fool has always been harumphed at despite his ability to deliver truth where our main characters can’t seem to see it.
It’s a rather excellent use of the stage, for the plays in which the Shakespearean Fool is featured do not typically utilize a chorus to depart information across the fourth wall. However, the Fool has no problem talking directly to the audience, supplying a comedic departure from the action as well as pertinent observations about the characters and the action of the play. The greatest of Shakespeare’s fools are successful because they possess incredible wit; more so than our great heroes who are too busy drowning in their own hamartia to pay them any mind.
The Fool was a pretty familiar character by the time Shakespeare was writing his plays – having been born of the jesters of the middle ages. BUT Shakespeare extended the use of the archetype by including the characteristics of the fool into characters who have since been labeled “clowns”. These “clowns” perform the same function as the fools in Willy’s tragedies though they do so from a place that is more rooted in reality. For instance, Mercutio – of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – is a beloved character who has been classified as a clown for his use of wordplay and blatant mockery of the play’s main themes. (Btw R&J does make use of a chorus, but it’s not a typical device in the Bard’s tragedies).
While the clowns serve much the same purpose as “the Fool” they are camouflaged as characters who just happen to shoot their mouths off at the appropriate moment; providing levity where the audience has been met with drama, drama, and more drama.
Let’s take a closer look at the Fool in King Lear. This is one of Shakespeare’s characters that is literally a fool. Shakespeare’s got a few of these; characters like Clown in Othello and Fool in Timon of Athens. I adore Lear’s jester in particular because the audience is well aware of what’s actually going on with Lear’s daughters so the Fool turns his observations directly to Lear. The Fool fearlessly speaks the truth yet the class division between nobility and their inferiors is apparent in Lear’s inability to recognize the Fool’s wisdom. The Fool plays commentator throughout the action of the play and it is through his eyes that we see the ideology of good overcoming evil is an illusion , as is the belief that the world we live in follows any kind of rational order of existence. It is as a result of this understanding that he accompanies Lear on his descent into madness as a sort of caretaker; the only character capable of caring for the mad king.
So anyway… To sum this all up: The Shakespearean Fool is so much more than a cursory glance would suggest. In his very absurdity the Fool is often the character who possesses the foresight to prevent further tragedy (even if that foresight is wrapped in layers of sarcasm).
That’s all from me. I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Shakespeare Saturday and learned a little something.


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.

-The Fool

King Lear Act II scene iv


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