Role of fools/jesters In Shakespeare’s Plays
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The fools or jesters were a common sight in the courts at and before the time of Shakespeare and they had the right to speak where everyone else had to remain silent. The jesters in Shakespeare’s plays were placed in order to entertain the audience as well as give advice to the king too. They acted like a fool but their advices showed that they were not exactly foolish and at times even pointed out the wrong decisions of the king. The jesters deliberately acted simplicity and in eccentric manner just to entertain the audience. They were placed in the plays mainly for recreation purpose and to divert the audience for some time from the main theme of the play. The most important right allotted to these jesters was the freedom of speech at any time specially when the king had to be stopped from making some incorrect decisions. They could make the king aware of the fact and situation where all the other people in the court had no right to speak on such matters. Shakespeare used to portray the fools as jesters whose main work was to amuse the king or the queen.
They were not only added in the comedies but the tragedies of Shakespeare also had jesters and their entry in the play used to be sudden that the audience enjoyed that too. When added in tragedies they were a comic relief to the audience and a simple diversion from the main tense situation. The nature of the comedy differs from a fool to a jester at times. Shakespeare used these fools as jesters who used to taunt or satirize the Page 2 main characters as well as amuse the king or queen. The Shakespearean fools had recurring entrance in his plays and were not exactly fools but were quite clever and used their wits to surpass people of higher social standards. They were similar to fools but their characterization was heightened for theatrical purposes and was heterogeneous. History says that audience was even drawn towards the theatre because of these fools in Shakespeare’s plays. The fools that were quite famous were Touchstone in ‘As You Like It’, Feste in ‘Twelfth Night’, Yorick and The Gravediggers in ‘Hamlet’ and many more. Even the costumes worn by these jesters were typical and rather standardized like they wore ragged or patchwork coat, had bells along the skirt and on the elbows.
They wore closed breeches with hose and both the legs of their pants were of different colors. A hood, which used to be monk like covered the shoulders and some part of the chest and was positioned as a cape. The hood was animal themed like donkey’s ear or head of a rooster and the crest worn was also animal themed. The actors had props like small stick decorated with a doll head or a puppet in the end and they used to hold it in their hand. All these things were just typical of the jesters of Shakespearean plays. If we consider Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ we find that many critics are of the view that it has quite minimal plot and also action is limited but its characterization and energetic prose is appreciated by all. It seems the play was written merely for entertainment and all the confusion and love entangles in the forest of Arden has made it one of the most performed plays of Shakespeare. Touchstone is said to be one of Shakespeare’s most important additions in this play. He is described as an intellectual Page 3 fool and he is regarded as a new figure in English drama.
Touchstone has a significant role and is seen dramatically functioning and is like a connection between the audience and action onstage. Critics are of the opinion that Touchstones main purpose was to ‘lift the audience to a higher level’ because he is a ‘wise fool’. His ‘riddle-dissolving riddles’ make the audience realize and acknowledge their own contradictory thoughts and at the same time realize how foolish humans they are in true sense. Touchstone belongs to the duke’s brother and is a domestic fool and is one of the so- called ‘allowed fools’. The people of this category were often punished with a whip at that time and it is seen in the play also that he is threatened with a whip. His dress is also mentioned particularly and he is dressed in a typical multicolored outfit, bauble and has a donkey’s ears on his hood. In Shakespeare’s ‘ Twelfth Night’, Feste is considered as the jester but it is felt that he combines with some other characters wit silly actions. The fools and the clowns in this play combine humor and wit so that the comedy moves on in an interesting way.
The fools and clowns are differentiated not only by their behavior or act but they are dressed or portrayed in such a way that audience gets an idea of what they are. In ‘Twelfth Night’ Feste’s role is significant and is a humble clown employed by Olivia’s father. He is a licensed fool of the household. He is not seen making profound remarks but he seems to be the wisest among all the characters of the play. As he is the licensed fool he is mainly there to speak the truth and this is where the humor lies that is in his truthfulness. Once when Olivia is seen mourning, he proves Olivia to be the fool to mourn for a soul that is Page 4 in heaven. “CLOWN: Good madonna, why mourn’st thou? OLIVIA: Good Fool, for my brother’s death. CLOWN: I think his soul is in hell, madonna. OLIVIA: I know his soul is in heaven, fool. CLOWN: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen. Then more humor is added when Feste dresses up like Sir Topaz and makes a visit with Maria and Sir Toby to the imprisoned Malvolio. Here he abuses Malvolio who is unaware that he is Feste as he is disguised as Sir Topaz and calls him ‘lunatic’ and ‘satan’.
He wittingly confuses him and makes him a fool. He does all these just because throughout the play Malvolio used to spoil intentionally everyone’s fun and joy. He is the worst nightmare for Feste in the play and in the end he is triumphed over by Feste. In the whole play, Feste is just named as fool but he really seems to be quite sensible and practical above all the other characters of it. There are other fools too like Maria and Sir Toby and it is felt that the humor and comedy of the play is actually controlled by them. The fools create all the confusion through humor but all gets worked out making ‘Twelfth Night’ one of the best comedies of Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, Yorick was the court jester who is deceased and the gravedigger exhumes his skull in Act 5, Scene 1. Yorick usually appears like a skull in Page 5 the play but there are scattered scenes in which he is real human too. Yorick is said to be, ‘ a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy’ and when he is dead it seems that things in this life are inconsequential and also that death is unavoidable. The scene of Hamlet meditating upon the skull of Yorick has made a lot of later artist to depict this idea in their creations.
When Yorick was alive he was the king’s jester and used to become a horse for young hamlet to ride on. ‘Hamlet’ has become Shakespeare’s signature play with longest role for male or female with a simple theme of murder and revenge. Apart from these things it has been the most played and studied among all of Shakespeare’s plays. Jesters can be looked back in the history and they were in real life too during the European middle ages. They had political significance too because where no one else was allowed to talk he could speak the truth and make the king aware of any wrong decision that he was to take or had taken already. Shakespeare’s jesters were not actually fools but were witty and wise enough to understand even more than the so-called wise men. Shakespeare’s jesters behaved like a stupid fellow and act in a witty manner so that the audience is entertained and they sometimes look like the real fools or jesters but actually their characteristics are heightened to out do the people of higher standards. It was studied that most part of the audience used to visit the play just because if these jesters. So it can be said that they were crowd-driving characters too.
The appearance of jesters was mainly in Shakespearean comedy and was much more appreciated in it but the fools in the tragedies were also portrayed to divert the audience Page 6 from the main theme. This helped to ease the tension of the theme and the plot and audience were relieved for quite some time. Light moments added to the tragedies with the help of these jesters also inspired the future artists and jesters or fools started to add in the plot so that the audience liked the idea. Shakespeare’s fools had some common features and were dressed in a typical way so that as soon as they entered the stage an atmosphere was created automatically. The entry of these fools used to be all of a sudden and usually when the plot got serious. Their entry was not always short but had recurring entry into the stage. The fools are seen juggling unnecessarily or walking off the edge of a cliff or any other high place. Jester is also symbolic of common sense and honesty and it is seen in Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ in which the fool even points out the king’s folly taking the advantage of his freedom of speech. He is seen advising the king many times and also uses mocking and sarcastic way of speech in order to point out the shortcomings of the king.
It is seen most of the times that wisely things strike the fool before anyone else and the advice that he gives to the king cannot be called as an advice from a fool. The jester in ‘Twelfth Night’ is Feste and is in Olivia’s household. He moves between Olivia and Orsino’s homes and makes jokes, sings most of the time. His name itself is Latin based and means ‘to play a joke on somebody’. Along with the characters like fools or jesters, Shakespeare also uses the word fool and folly in his plays. In ‘Twelfth Night’ the word fool or its variants are used eighty times in the play. These all seem to show that its importance was also felt and there were more than one fool and one of them was the main one who had quite a Page 7 significant role in the play. They used mocking and sarcastic language and played even practical jokes on other characters. Shakespeare used simple plots for his plays but his characters played a major role to highlight the story. The fools in his plays also had significant role and entered the stage catching the attention of the audience completely.
The comedies of Shakespeare portrayed the fools in a very sarcastic way but the fools or jesters in tragedies not only had a high degree of common sense but were very loyal and their honesty lead them to speak the truth even if were threatened to be punished. Critics were of the opinion that the fools were placed ‘ to evade reality or rather realize a dream’ and said that ‘ it is natural that the fool should be a prominent and attractive figure and make an important contribution to the action’. Feste in ‘ Twelfth Night is more a comic truth rather than a fool but he is termed as a fool even if he behaves much more wiser than others.So it is seen that Shakespeare used the fools in his plays in order to attract the attention of the audience. Their honesty would have been the most remarkable thing because of which they would speak the truth and were not afraid of any kind of punishment. They were very much loyal to the king and the members of their household and could do anything for their safety and benefits.
The fools also marked out the tricks of some people who used to be against the king or the duke. Page 8 So the fools were just to distract the audience and were not actually fools in the real sense in Shakespeare’s plays. It has been seen that Shakespeare’s most of the comedies as well as tragedies too were a great success due to these characters termed as fools or jesters. Even the modern critics find the point to be much more interesting and like to work on the use and importance of fools in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare also u some of the earlier sources in order to write his plays and considering the social atmosphere created the plot and characters of his plays. He even uses the skull of a jester after his death in ‘Hamlet’ and creates a light environment in the play.
1. http://www.field-of-themes.com/shakespeare/essays/Etwlefth.htm 2. http://www.enotes.com/shakespearean-criticism/like-vol-46 3. http://www.csulb.edu/~lkermode/engl363/hamletnortonintro.htm 4. http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sources/1henryivsources.html 5. http://hudsonshakespeare.org/Shakespeare%20Library/Main%20Pages/main_hamlet.htm 6. http://hudsonshakespeare.org/Shakespeare%20Library/Character%20Directory/CD_henry61.htm