A Study of the Function of the Fool on the Early Modern Stage in Three Plays by William Shakespeare

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Appearing in many of Shakespeare's plays, the clown or fool figure is one of the most intriguing stage characters in the Shakespearean oeuvre and continues to capture the interest of modern-day critics and contemporary audiences. Although unique to each play, the character of the Shakespearean fool can generally be divided into two categories: the clown and the jester. The term 'clown' didn't emerge until the sixteenth century, and it was formerly intended to designate an ignorant and fairly uneducated individual whose purpose in a performance or theatrical piece was to evoke laughter and entertain the audience with his stupidity. Similarly, the courtly fool or jester would use quick wit and pointed satire to accompany his low comedy.

The history of the courtly fool or jester in England dates back to the twelfth century, with these fools making early appearances in the courts of medieval aristocracy. By the time of Queen Elizabeth's reign, courtly fools were a prominent and popular feature of English society and were recognised as one of two types: either natural or artificial. As Gale Cengage argues, 'the former could include misshapen or mentally-deficient individuals, or those afflicted with dwarfism”. fools were often viewed almost as pets—though generally greatly loved by their masters—and do not appear in Shakespeare's writing. The artificial fool, on the contrary, possessed a verbal wit and talent for intellectual humour. Into this category, experts place Shakespeare's intellectual or 'wiser-fools,' notably Feste of Twelfth Night, and King Lear's unnamed 'Fool'.

The character of the fool was often played by the same actor in the original productions during the late 16th century. Several scholars have examined the significance of specific Elizabethan actors at the time who were believed to have initially enacted the roles Shakespeare wrote. Predominant among these is the comedic actor Robert Armin, for whom numerous critics have suggested Shakespeare created the witty, even thoughtful, fool roles of Feste (from Twelfth Night), and the Fool (from King Lear). Queen Elizabeth I, however, was a great admirer of another popular actor who portrayed fools: Richard Tarlton, the most famous clown of his era, whose performances are “thought to have influenced Shakespeare’s creation of the character Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. However, although portrayed the same actors in different adaptations, these fools fulfil different functions and have very different attitudes in the various plays.

In this essay, I intend to develop an argument which looks at how fools are different in their functions in the three following plays: King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night. For instance, a figure such as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream is typically classified as a clown, with his main function being to act as a comedic figure and arouse the mirth of audiences. The jester fool, in contrast, was possessed of a verbal wit and talent for a more “intellectual” approach to his humour. For example, placed into this category are Shakespeare's intellectual or 'wise-fools,' remarkably King Lear’s unnamed Fool and Feste of Twelfth Night. While similar, Feste can be classified as more of an ironic commentator, while Lear's fool rather serves as a conscience and an advocate.

A Wise Fool in the Tragedy King Lear

Firstly, the Fool in King Lear provides a voice that cannot be expressed by the main characters in the play. The Fool in this tragedy is ironic: not only is he the voice of reason, but he both ridicules the King while showing total loyalty and affection simultaneously. The Fool can reasonably be considered the most human of the characters in the play, bringing poignant yet insightful humour into a play classified as a tragedy.

The Fool is King Lear's closest confidante; he is the king's dependable and honest advocate, but he is also ready to point out the King's faults at any time, like no other character in the play can. Shakespeare humanises the Fool, giving him innocent and childlike qualities that constrain Lear to worry about his health and imply that the Fool seeks shelter when he insists on staying with Lear during the tempest in Act III, Scene I. It is during this Act that the Fool disappears from the play and Lear doesn’t seem to notice; this disappearance can be interpreted as his death. The Fool was the only person that Lear could communicate with; for example, Lear trusts and confides in the Fool that “[he] did [Cordelia] wrong” (1, 5, 24) and that he fears insanity, “o let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!” (1, 5, 45). As Edward Berry has argued: “It is the Fool in King Lear who stretches these paradoxes (natural child) to the breaking point, thinking the part of a knave and act”. We see this when the Fool does not give Lear any respite in this scene, reminding Lear of the mistakes he has made, until Lear finally begins to realise that his foolishness has placed him in a precarious position.

The Fool, despite the connotations of his name suggesting otherwise, is a serious character. Lear speaks to him, and he replies, in prose. While in other Shakespearean plays characters of lower class speak prose while higher status characters speak in verse to highlight the hierarchy and social division, in King Lear verse is used to represent deception, while prose can be seen as representing honesty. For example, in Act I, Scene I, Goneril and Regan use verse to praise Lear, yet once he leaves, their true opinions and feelings about him are revealed. When Lear is talking to the Fool, he uses prose, showing that not only is he comfortable with the Fool and doesn’t feel the need to assert his noble status, but also that he trusts the Fool enough to be honest with him.

Usually, the Shakespearean fool is separate from the other characters and the resolution of the play, manifested in the absence of any sort of romantic pairing or true friendship between the fool and any other character. However, the Fool refers to King Lear as “nuncle”, a contraction of 'mine' and 'uncle', instantly suggesting a paternal relationship between the Fool and the King. Moreover, the frequent indecent, childish jokes the Fool tells and the way he exhibits fear further his role as a child. This view has been endorsed by Robert Peake who has argued that 'the Fool's close paternal association with those around him as protectors makes the fool-child into a kind of son'. However, while it is true that many of the Fool's jokes are of a childish nature, certain examples are not reflective of normative filial-paternal discourse. For example, in Act I, Scene IV, the Fool takes leaves and closes the act with the lines, 'She that's a maid now and laughs at my departure, / shall not be a maid long, unless things be cut/ shorter'. Here his wit and childish sense of humour are presented through the use of a bawdy and sexual comment. Nevertheless, this close relationship could explain how the Fool can get away with talking to Lear in a way that would get others in trouble. For instance, the Fool calls Lear a fool: “thou would’st make a good fool” (1, 5, 38) and “that’s a wise man and a fool” (3, 2, 43). He also calls Lear brainless: “If a man’s brains were in’s heels, were ‘t not in danger of kibes?” (1, 5, 9). He ironically comments on Lear’s foolishness, and tries to avert his madness with his own jokes. James Calderwood argues that the Fool’s function is to tell “subversive truths to a court society foolish enough to think its own truths are the truth”. With this observation, Calderwood captures the essence of the fool, stating how he is the ultimate voice of reason and truth in the play. Thus, the Fool can be considered as “the ‘outsider-within’, living at the borders of accepted reality, issuing alternative reports on ‘what is’ ”.

Despite the often riddling nature of the Fool’s jokes and underlying wit, what he has to say to Lear and the audience is, on the whole, clear as well as paradoxical. As a Fool, his function is to see what is ridiculous in the supposedly sane behaviour of his supposed superiors; his role of a fool gives him a certain level of 'permission' to say what ordinary advisors and counsellors of a King would not dare to utter. However, we realise that the Fool has no intention of following his own advice. He will not forsake Lear when his fortunes are heading lower and lower, as a supposedly wise person would do. “But I will tarry; the Fool will stay, / and let the wise man fly” (2, 4, 88-89). Even though Lear hardly notices these odd admonishments of the Fool, the audience does hear them indeed, and recognise, that they are given in a thoroughly paradoxical sense.

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The Fool disappears from the play in Act III, Scene VI when Cordelia returns to England. Many critics have stressed the significance of the reason that the Fool isn't in the play at that moment; it's perhaps because it was common for the actor that played the Fool to also play the character of Cordelia, leading to the thought that Shakespeare could have considered Cordelia to be the Fool in disguise. This has led some critics to speculate that Cordelia the Fool could have been played by the same male actor since in Shakespeare’s day all female roles were played by males. Some people have taken Lear’s “my poor fool is hang’d” (5, 3, 369) as a close reference to this factor. It is not incorrect to consider this, since both Cordelia and the Fool parallel each other in certain ways: both of them see right through the praises of Regan and Goneril, and they both solemnly love Lear; the Fool’s association with Cordelia is indicated by the fact that he has been pining away since she left. “If the doubling theory is true, he transforms into Cordelia, representing what Lear now needs more than the truth – love”.

However, the Fool is, unquestionably, not Cordelia. Lear, the scene after banishing the daughter who had been his favourite, is looking for his Fool, who has entertained him. It’s safe to say that knowing the two people simultaneously and separately impedes any possibility that the Fool and Cordelia are the same person, and that she never really leaves. In addition to this, the reunion of father and daughter would lose its sentimentality. In fact, according to Calderwood, 'the Fool’s report, which yields a world of undifferentiated foolishness, tells the truth, but tells it slant and incomplete”, so if the same actor doubled as Cordelia and Fool, then we may see the characters respectively embodying part of the truth.

The Clown in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Nick Bottom provides a lot of the physical comedy in A Midsummer Night's Dream — in fact his own name appears to be constructed as an amusement for the audience. This is especially true today, where for modern-day English speakers, the connotations of the word 'bottom' include 'buttocks' and, vulgarly, 'arse', or 'bum'. Consequently, modern-day audiences may think that the surname 'Bottom' for such a character was not a coincidence: the words 'buttocks,' 'arse,' or 'bum' were in Shakespeare's mind when he came up with the surname 'Bottom'. However, the Oxford English Dictionary declares that the word 'bottom', in the sense of 'posterior', dates only from the late eighteenth century. In fact, Professor Holland states that 'no one has yet proved convincingly that the word 'bottom' could at this date refer to a person's behind; if it could, then the transformation into an ass (arse) would seem almost a literalizing of Bottom's name”. However, Sutherland argues this claim, stating that 'it would be unwise to underestimate Shakespeare's associative talents, particularly where the human body is concerned'. After all, 'Bottom', in those days, could surely refer to the base of anything, so an association with 'buttocks' seems natural enough and acceptable.

The character of Bottom is said to have been inspired by one of Shakespeare's favourite actors, Richard Tarlton. His role involves lots of dancing, singing, and laughter. From the outset, Bottom is presented as bold and outgoing: he is confident in his ability to play any, even all, the roles in 'Pyramus and Thisbe.' For example, he states that ' If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes. I will move storms' (1, 2, 24-25). As the audience realises, this confidence is misplaced, and Bottom is little more than a swaggering fool — indeed, an ass, as Puck's prank makes later on in the play makes obvious. Bottom's use of exaggerated language also adds to his comic appeal. For example, he exclaims that if he would be given the role of Thisbe, he would speak her lines in a 'monstrous little voice,' an obviously contradictory and rather ironic statement, considering the fact that, in the following Act, he will turn into a monster himself. He then would 'aggravate' his voice if he played the lion's role so that the ladies in the audience would not be frightened. Therefore, through Bottom's word choices that show his silliness, his main function is adding comedic elements to the play.

Although Bottom can be classified as a traditional Shakespearean clown since he is the main source of comedy in the play, his character is also used to draw the audience's attention to deeper and rather serious themes, such as the correlation between reality and imagination. In preparing for the performance of 'Pyramus and Thisbe,' Bottom continuously draws his other actors' attention back to the question of the audience's gullibility: will they realise that the lion is not real but rather an actor, or will the ladies be shocked when Pyramus kills himself? To solve the latter problem, Bottom urges Quince to write a prologue, telling that Pyramus is not really dead, and that Pyramus is simply Bottom the weaver. In this case, Bottom directs the audience's attention on the complexity of altering reality and perception; his solution hints to his belief that the players' acting will be too convincing, that they will fully realise the goal of theatre. Similarly, to keep the women from being scared of the lion, he suggests the actor playing the lion show half of his face to show that he's, in fact, a man, not an animal. This belief in the power of theatre extends to his solutions for bringing moonshine and a wall into the play. In creating a wall for the play, he thinks that covering a man with plaster will sufficiently convince the audience.

The humour surrounding Bottom usually arises from the fact that he is completely oblivious of his own ridiculousness; the majority of his speeches are over-the-top and overdramatic, and he thinks that the others take him as seriously as he does himself. This foolish feeling of self-importance reaches its peak after Puck transforms Bottom’s head into one of an ass in Act III, Scene I. When Titania, who’s under the effects of a love potion, falls in love with the now ass-headed Bottom, he is certain that the devotion of the magical, beautiful fairy queen is nothing out of the ordinary and that all of her feelings of affection are his proper due. His complete unawareness of the fact that his head has been transformed into one of an ass parallels his incapability to grasp the absurdity of the idea that Titania could fall in love with him, adding to the humour of the play.

A Sombre Fool in the Problematic Comedy Twelfth Night

While the Fool in King Lear is surpassing in such a bleak and desolate tragedy and Bottom provides humour in a beguiling comedy, Twelfth Night is generically a very different play compared to the other two. Twelfth Night is considered one of Shakespeare's most famous comedies; however, it is perhaps ironic how the fool, Feste, is rather sombre, suggesting that the designation of comedy is not altogether unproblematic. Shakespeare presents Feste as a wise, well-drawn, cunning, and versatile. The function of his character in Twelfth Night is to reflect on the actions and emotions of the others by allowing himself at keep a certain distance from the other characters and not becoming emotionally connected and involved in the plots of the play. Feste conveys subtly his messages and thoughts through his songs to the audience about the other characters in the play. He also can somewhat be referred to as the narrator of the play because of his comments on actions that occur within the play and various foreshadowing events.

Feste is not only a wise fool, a man in complete intellectual as well as emotional control of himself, but a man who has chosen the part of 'professional jester': he works throughout the play as a truth teller who reminds the other characters in the play that holiday doesn't last forever. It is indeed Feste who points out to the revellers that the future is indefinite, laughter is momentary, and youth “a stuff will not endure” (2, 3, 34-35). Feste’s depiction of man’s inescapable growth from a child’s holiday kingdom of irresponsibility and happiness into age, vice, disappointment, and death draws upon an old, moral tradition. It is simple pessimism is informed and sweetened, nevertheless, not only by the music to which it is set, but by the acceptance and tolerance of Feste himself. Exactly because of his detachment and anonymity in the play now finished, he can be trusted to speak not only for himself but for all mankind. Blakemore Evans has also stated that “like childhood happiness, all comedies come to an end - the great and consoling difference lies in the fact that one can, after all, as Feste points out, return to the theatre”. His argument is indeed true; nothing can be done about the harsh facts that Feste points out; they must simply be faced.

Another example of Feste’s control over himself and the manipulation of other characters is that “from here on in it will be Feste who dances attendance on the revelry, singing, matching with Viola, and being paid by almost everyone for his presence”. Feste is a clever fool, who uses sensible, and mature wit, and is conscious of his superiority to the characters who surround him. “He has little to do with the plot until the last act. His function is to indicate to the audience the foolishness of the main characters”. An example of this is Feste’s interchange with Mary in prison: he is undoubtedly hysterically laughing at what he has just been up to; “nay, I’m for all waters” (4, 2, 66) may have another meaning that he was just on the verge of losing control of himself. “He is ‘for all waters’ primarily in that he represents the fluidity of revelling celebration. And finally, when all is done, “The rain it raineth every day,” (5, 1, 415) and Feste reverts to gnomic utterance in a full and final seriousness. Water is rain that falls to us from Heaven. The world goes on.” Our revels now are ended, but the actors coagulate into humanity, in this case, “But that’s all one, our play is done/ And we’ll strive to please you every day”. As referred to with the Fool in King Lear, the iconic Shakespearean Fool is a ‘distancing tool’ that allows him to present a type of honesty and morality to his audience. As a character, he typically would be separate from the main action of the play, 'having a tendency not to focus but to dissolve events, and also act as the intermediary between the stage and the auditorium”. This doesn’t mean that the fool himself is a moral being but rather can function as a kind of mouthpiece for the writer by noticing and subsequently pointing out what the audience may acquire from this moral. This is a result of the distinct connection that the fool has with the play's audience; according to Robinson, he is one of the very few characters Shakespeare “allowed to break the fourth wall and speak directly to and interact with the viewer”. This is true because, while he is the jester, he actually speaks more truth than folly, an important distinction for both audience and characters. For instance, Feste demonstrates the qualities that the audience needs to see in his fellow characters in order to understand their motivations better. This catalytic activity is comparable to the one of the Fool in King Lear because while they have different roles in their respective plays, these two clowning characters reveal a certain level of transparency to the story. As Robinson argues, “the distance afforded these fools from both the audience and their fellow characters puts them in a sort intermediary world from which they comment”. While for Feste this is most apparent in the ease with which he moves through each household in Illyria, it could be argued that the Fool in King Lear ultimately does build a bond with his 'master', and a certain level of relationship is attained, whereas in Twelfth Night the Fool is in complete isolation from the characters.

Therefore, Feste plays an important function in Twelfth Night. His status as a fool in an aristocratic household provides him with the single and unique position of being able to sincerely comment on everybody and everything around him. This requires that he be both involved in the action as well as at a distance from it in order to properly observe; for example, his lack of a sexual partner is a type of freedom which enables him to focus entirely on his clowning. Moreover, it also presents a certain level of ambiguity within his character. Who would Feste attract and be attracted to? The ability to observe the play and the lack of a partner provide Feste with a unique perspective on the play, one which only he is capable of viewing.


In conclusion, what Shakespeare does, uniquely and remarkably, is to take a traditional, conventional and comedic character and transforms it into a richer, extraordinary, plural vehicle for exploring in all its myriad forms. However, it is ironic that the clown, Feste, in the comedy Twelfth Night is a sombre character and the Fool in King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are comedic. Shakespeare is no stranger to irony, and these three great plays are no exception. Their behaviours are, therefore, shaped not only by their different roles but by the genres of the plays which condition their function. In other words, a fool in a comedy fulfils a qualitatively different role from one in a tragedy. The ironic, off-beat humour of Lear’s fool cannot triumph – the play is too dark – he must disappear. Bottom’s physicality, on the other hand, is being celebrated right through to the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Feste in Twelfth Night, in contrast, pulls at the expectations of genre – he ends the play but in a darkly sardonic and foreboding manner. Thus are the roles of the fools shaped by the generic expectations and manipulations of the plays.

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