chapter  2
24 Pages

Fools, clowns and jesters

Perhaps the most famous of all Shakespearean fool roles is that of the unnamed ‘boy’ in King Lear, where the double-act between the Fool and the King during the early part of the play allows Shakespeare to move swiftly between different dramatic registers in his exploration of rationality and madness, language and power. But the fool is a stock character of Shakespearean comedy: Feste, Touchstone and Lavatch are paid retainers, charged with the providing of entertainment to aristocratic households. We have seen how, in charivaris, feasts and festivals, certain kinds of laughter were related to specific times, places and social events. In this chapter I want to turn from places and events to people: those paid entertainers who lived by laughter in various social contexts during the late medieval and early modem period. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, because of what the reallife fools, clowns and jesters can show about traditions of popular (and aristocratic) comic entertainment which were inherited by the Elizabethan theatre. Secondly, because Shakespeare repeat­ edly shows specific interest in them as characters, incorporating the figure of the fool into several of his plays. And thirdly, because their changing functions show, once more, significant points of contact between the theatrical world and the world of everyday reality.