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Shakespeare’s Fools

April 1, 2014

The first of April has been a time for playing tricks on one another since it reached England in the 17th century – Shakespeare may have even convinced his friends to go on ridiculous errands, seeking non-existent objects such as pigeon's milk!

This year’s April Fool’s Day is not only a time for playing tricks, but it marks the start of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday month. We begin our celebrations by taking a look at how Shakespeare used and portrayed fools in his plays, so discover with us which character represents Shakespeare’s first “wise fool”, what fools wore on stage, and more…

“[The fool] can speak for the author or, more subtly, express a dissentient point of view which increases the complexity of the portrayal. The fool can act as a kind of safety-valve for the audience, expressing their feelings and mediating between them and the action.”

  • In Shakespeare’s England the fool often wore a multi-coloured patchwork costume on stage, which was called the ‘motley’, as described in an editorial note to line 139 in this free scene from King Lear.
     
  • In As You Like It Touchstone is referred to as a ‘natural’ (an idiot), the opposite of a “wise” fool, there to simply amuse the audience. However, it becomes clear that the opposite is true! Alan Brissenden (editor of The Oxford Shakespeare: As You Like It) describes Touchstone as, in fact, the first of Shakespeare's wise fools, who are “allowed to say what they like, who are intended to tell home truths, to cut people down to size”.
     
  • You may think that Hamlet is a serious character, musing on whether the question is “To be or not to be”, but George Richard Hibbard, editor of The Oxford Shakespeare to Hamlet, describes him as “a variation on the court jester, the bitter fool, telling the truth about the King, the Queen, and the courtiers, especially Polonius, and doing it to their faces”
     
  • Did you know that the employment of court and domestic fools in England died out in the late 17th century?

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