Fooling Around: The Court Jesters of Shakespeare

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Fooling Around:The Court Jesters of Shakespeare CHRIS WILEY
This paper was written for Dr. Nina Dulin-Mallory’s Senior Thesis & Presentation class.

Shakespeare is considered to be many things—including many people— but one thing that Shakespeare is not considered is a fool.Yet this would not be as great an insult as it sounds. Shakespeare wrote many “fools” into his plays, most of whom were treated respectfully. A few even had major roles in his works. Distinctions must be made within the category of fools, however: clowns, who turn farce into a precise science (think “pie in the face); dunces, who turn their lack of intelligence into a medium for humor; and finally the princes of fooling, the court jesters, who turn fooling into a respectable profession.The jester is the restrained clown, the educated dunce. He has earned a place near the king or queen and has earned an equally prestigious place in the literature of Shakespeare:Touchstone in AsYou Like It, Feste in Twelfth Night, and the Fool in King Lear. Many contribute to the appearance of Shakespeare’s court jesters. Touchstone, Feste, and Lear’s Fool are products of history, results of personal influences on Shakespeare, integral parts of their plays, and characters that deserve a closer look. Shakespeare was always apparently sensitive to history, whether in his own interpretations in his history plays or his tendency to take old, established stories and make them his own. Shakespeare then must have been aware of the jester in earlier incarnations.There was the comic chorus of ancient Greek plays, which commented on the foibles of human nature. Beatrice Otto, an authority on court jesters, found evidence of fourteenth-century Chinese plays that have conversations between jesters and their emperors (188). Closer to Shakespeare’s time, the medieval ages produced a great many morality plays, whose Vice characters—characters that represent the “vices” in human nature—speak and act as jesters. But the appearance of court jesters as court jesters on the English stage was rare until Shakespeare took up the pen himself. The court jesters portrayed in Shakespeare’s work are mostly based on the model of jesters in his own time. Elizabethan England was home to many interesting characters, including the court jester.The jester was a specialized fool, the clown to the crown, placed one step below the queen—literally, since he normally sat at the queen’s feet.Though some jesters were merely simple fools—singled out for their interesting physical abnormalities or bawdy humor

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CHRIS WILEY
that a king or queen found amusing—most court jesters were chosen for their wit and wiles.Those chosen jesters are an enigma in ways: valued for their jokes and silly nature, and yet they still had the ear of the queen. In many ways, the court jester was one of the few people allowed to speak frankly to a monarch without fear of punishment. Protected behind a mask of stupidity and charisma, the intelligent jester possessed a relationship with royalty that few others could rival. One person, before Shakespeare, helped establish the court jester as a character and did so through his stage and real-life portrayal of the jester. He was Richard Tarlton, actor and favorite jester of Queen Elizabeth. Though Tarlton may not be a familiar name today, he enjoyed much fame in Elizabethan England. Richard Tarlton served as Elizabeth’s favored jester from approximately 1579 to his death in 1588.Tarlton was known to speak out to the queen on occasion. In one instance, noted by Beatrice Otto,Tarlton told the queen that he believed she was falling too much under the sway of Walter Raleigh. For this insult,Tarlton received only a royal sulk (203).Thus, Shakespeare’s model of jesters speaking out to their respective monarchs has precedence.Tarlton’s jesterdom would provide Shakespeare a historically-accessible model for his jester characters. But Tarlton’s influence on Shakespeare was not...
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