chapter  13
16 Pages

Marcello Magni: Stephen Purcell


Elizabethan clown and fool roles have often been seen as a sort of concession to popular taste: an unfortunate necessity which poetic drama just about managed to accommodate. Philip Sidney’s Apologie for Poetry famously decried plays which ‘thrust in clowns by head and shoulders, to play a part in majestical matters’, and this set the tone for a great deal of theatrical criticism which followed: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, suggested in 1818 that Macbeth’s Porter sequence was probably ‘written for the mob by some other hand, perhaps with Shakespeare’s consent’ (1907: 377), while in 1910, Ronald Bayne argued in the Cambridge History of English Literature that the Elizabethan clown ‘was a discordant and incalculable element in the play, and hindered the development of artistic drama’ (1910: 313-14). More recently, however, critics have begun to reassess the role played by clowns

in Shakespeare’s plays. In his influential study Shakespeare’s Clown, David Wiles takes issue with ‘an established critical discourse which isolates a game from a play, sport from theatre, clown acts from deep or significant art’ (1987: 167). Analysing Shakespeare’s clown and fool roles within their historical contexts, with detailed reference to the actors who played them, Wiles makes the case for an understanding of the Shakespearean clown as ‘game-maker’, arguing that ‘the clown performed with, and not to, an audience constructed as equals’ (1987: 179). A similar understanding of clowning as ‘game’ is what underpins the work of one

of the most prolific performers of Shakespeare’s clown and fool roles in Britain today. Marcello Magni’s first question on approaching such a role is simply, ‘What’s the game that Shakespeare is creating?’ Thus, for example, when he played Launcelot Gobbo at Shakespeare’s Globe in 1998, the game in his scene with RalphWatson’s Old Gobbo became ‘trying to make my father totally mad in trying to find where I was’:

How I can make it difficult for him to find me? How can I make my voice come from all different directions? How can I confuse him? How can I make the development of my play become bigger and bigger, wilder and wilder, nastier and nastier?