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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Embracing the Folly: Fools and Useful Jesters

 
"Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, 
it shines everywhere."

—William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (3.1.39-40)

It's April 1? I believe April Fool's Day is the perfect time to delve into the history of the role and the profession of the fool and the special kind of entertainment the comic provided. The root of the word fool is from the Latin follis, which means "bag of wind" or "that which contains air or breath." The "bag of wind" is an appropriate image for citing some foolish history.

Fools have actually been very utilitarian. The Encyclopedia Brittanica provides this general definition of a fool:

"Fool: also called jester, a comic entertainer whose madness or imbecility, real or pretended, made him a source of amusement and gave him license to abuse and poke fun at even the most exalted of his patrons." 

Comedic actors during the height of the Roman Empire are viewed as being a direct precursor to the jester of medieval times. Though not professionals employed by emperors, the comic actor most likely laid the basis for jesters in later periods, both in his comedic development and in his choice of wardrobe.

In large, Roman comedic actors had bad reputations and their morals challenged even the decadence of Roman society. Their performances could be lewd, highly sexual and offensive, and they sometimes even appeared naked on stage and engaged in sexual acts. They did often play parts that allowed them to be highly critical of the political status quo. Is it any wonder they became targets of Roman politicians? As the actors fled persecution, they served to spread their craft over a larger swath of Europe, possibly leading to the growth of the jester in later years.

("History of the Medieval Jester." hubpages.com. May 1, 2012)

In truth, the character of a fool is nearly universal. He crops up in every court in medieval and Renaissance Europe, in China, India, Japan, Russia, America and Africa. China has the longest, richest, and most thoroughly documented history of court jesters. From Twisty Pole and Baldy Chunyu to Moving Bucket and Newly Polished Mirror, it boasts perhaps more of the brightest stars than any other country, spanning a far wider segment of time. The jester's decline began with the rise of the stage actor as the Chinese theater became fully established during the Yuan dynasty.

(Beatrice K. Otto. Fools Are Everywhere. 2001)

In the Middle Ages, jesters became well-paid attendants of Europe’s Royal Courts kept by a person of royal or noble rank for amusement: the jester was known as the court fool. A state-sponsored mischief maker, the jester's most recognized duty was to provide entertainment at court functions. The fool was referred to by many names: trickster, buffoon, jack-pudding, and wearer of the motley. They entertained the court with a wide variety of skills which could include songs, music, storytelling, acrobatics, juggling, and magic.

Royal jesters could move up the social ladder. Although some scholars such as David Carlyon have cast doubt on the "daring political jester," most contend that the jocular attendants were prized for their outsider’s humorous take on life. One, Will Somers, used to have rhyming contests with his master, Henry VIII, and after his death had several works written about him.

In some cases, Royal Courts used to consult with the jesters to make strategies for battles. One such case is mentioned in the book Fools are Everywhere, which was written by Beatrice Otto and was published in 2001. According to the book, in 1386, the Duke of Austria, Lepold the Pious, planned to attack Switzerland. Before beginning the war, he asked his personal jester about his opinion to attack the Swiss. - See more at: http://www.thefinertimes.com/Middle-Ages/jesters-in-the-middle-ages.html#sthash.muzYhjy5.dpuf
And, believe it or not, in some cases, royal courts used to consult with jesters to make strategies for battles. One such case is mentioned in the book Fools are Everywhere, which was written by Beatrice Otto and was published in 2001. According to the book, in 1386, the Duke of Austria, Lepold the Pious, planned to attack Switzerland. Before beginning the war, he asked his personal jester, Jenny von Stockachabout, about his opinion to attack the Swiss. Here is the jester's reply and the outcome:

"He (von Stockachabout) reportedly answered the Duke bluntly and said, “You fools, you’re all debating how to get into the country, but none of you have thought how you’re going to get out again.” The duke of Austria ignored his jester and began the war. However, the result of this war wasn’t good for Austria as the army suffered badly and a full brigade of knights passed out from thirst and heat and couldn’t make to the battlefield."

(Simon Newman. "Jesters in the Middle Ages." www.thefinertimes.com)

The name of personal jester of the Duke of Austria was Jenny von Stockach. He reportedly answered the Duke bluntly and said, “You fools, you’re all debating how to get into the country, but none of you have thought how you’re going to get out again.” The duke of Austria ignored his jester and began the war. However, the result of this war wasn’t good for Austria as the army suffered badly and a full brigade of knight passed out from thirst and heat and couldn’t make to the battlefield. - See more at: http://www.thefinertimes.com/Middle-Ages/jesters-in-the-middle-ages.html#sthash.muzYhjy5.dpuf

Jesters in the Middle Ages

- See more at: http://www.thefinertimes.com/Middle-Ages/jesters-in-the-middle-ages.html#sthash.muzYhjy5.dpuf
The Bard and Foolish Behavior 

And, as fiction often exposes reality, William Shakespeare employed the fool as comic relief in many of his plays. For instance, when Shakespeare’s King Lear was brooding alone in the woods, the only company he wanted was his amusing fool. Yet, the aptly named "Fool" in King Lear is more than just a funny, brutally honest guy; he's also loyal.

In this play, the closeness between king and fool facilitates a transposition of their roles, where the king, both perpetrator and victim of folly, becomes the fool, while the fool becomes a monarch in wisdom.

The Fool, though deploring his own status, declares a greater contempt for the king's:
"I had rather be any kind o'thing than a fool,
yet I would not be thee, nuncle;
I am a fool, thou art nothing."
      (I. iv.)
The Fool deals at the king for his folly in abdicating his crown and for his lack of just appreciation of his youngest daughter. The Fool could be judged to be hard-hearted, malicious, if it were not for his motive. He serves to strengthen the theme of the suffering of good. With the increasing misfortunes of the old king, the tone of the Fool changes, and he shows sympathy that sweetens his bitterness for his old master

In the fearful night on the heath he still plays the fool only to meet the humor of the king in the usual way; for the rest he is all anxiety for his unhappy lord. He "labours to outjest his [the king's] heartstruck injuries." (Act III, Scene 1) Quite a revelation to a supposedly foolish mind.

Other famous Shakespearean jesters include Touchstone in As You Like It, The Fool in King Lear, and Trinculo in The Tempest.

The Royal Shakespeare Company provides historical context for the role of the fool:

"In ancient times, courts employed fools and by the Middle Ages the jester was a familiar figure. In Renaissance times, aristocratic households in Britain employed licensed fools or jesters, who sometimes dressed as other servants were dressed, but generally wore a motley (i.e. parti-coloured) coat, hood with ass's (i.e. donkey) ears or a red-flannel coxcomb and bells. 

"Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558–1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her. Excessive behaviour, however, could lead to a fool being whipped, as Lear threatens to whip his fool." 



From the Mouths of Fools

It is believed the fool could get away with telling the hardest truths just because he was a foolish character. Speaking in jest, he could use parables that were both puzzling and honest. Because he could not be held responsible for what he said, the fool could comment on difficult, controversial issues. As the lowliest member of the court, the jester could be the monarch's most useful adviser.

In the Middle Ages, people held the belief that joking could help shield one from misfortune, and audiences still understand the truth of the bonding agent afforded in sharing deep laughter. The idea that laughter aids recovery, long considered evident in Eastern philosophies, steadily gained acceptance in Western medicine so much that it became considered mainstream.

Since jesters came from a wide range of backgrounds -- from peasant farms and monasteries to universities -- they cannot be defined simply as poor, souls with mental deformities, but history documents that quite a few had physical deformities and learned to wring laughs from what otherwise would have been an unfortunate situation.

While most court jesters were men, a few famous women fought convention and broke into the field. Their title: a “jestress." One such was La jardinaire who served Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, in 1543. Mathurine la Folle, another jestress, earned 1200 livres from the French court in the early 1600s.


Two Camps of Fools

As for political significance, not all fools were licensed for their craft. Two camps of fools existed: those of the "licensed" (artificial) fool type and those of the "natural" fool type. Whereas the licensed fool was given leeway by permission of the court, the natural fool was seen as innately nit-witted, moronic, or mad. Both were excused, to some extent, for their behavior, the first by decree and the second because he "couldn't help it," the "natural" fool "touched" by God.

Poor nutrition and inadequate medical care produced a much larger number of such "natural" people than inhabit most modern societies, and some of them were lucky, or clever, enough to make a living from their simplicity. It was after all a society that found madness (mental illness) entertaining.

Natural or licensed, some jesters subsisted by performing in the marketplace or town square, showcasing their art on a simple stage they “built,” such as a decorative carpet thrown on the ground, or a circle drawn with a stick in a village square. These resourceful jesters would gather an audience with clever attention-grabbing techniques (“Come see me leap from the bell tower…while sipping an ale!”) and after enough curious bystanders gathered, they’d begin their show, which steadily climbed to a climax, at which point they would solicit donations from the crowd.


According to many accounts, the tradition of court jesters came to an end in Britain when Charles I was overthrown in the Civil War. As a Puritan Christian republic, England under the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had no place for such things as jesters. English theater also suffered and a good many actors and entertainers relocated to Ireland.

In France and Italy, traveling groups of jesters performed plays featuring stylized characters in a form of theatre called the commedia dell'arte. A version of this passed into British folk tradition in the forma of a puppet show Punch and Judy. In France the tradition of the court jester ended with the French Revolution.

So, not only has the fool served us well with amusement, but also the jester laid the "funny" groundwork for familiar characters such as the notorious class clown and the humorous, social commentator known as the standup comic and the talk show host. People love to laugh about serious matters, and they prefer their fools to have plenty of leeway in both the content and the tone of their humor. Long live the king and longer live the fool! April Fool's day is not just about celebrating with timely tricks; it's also about acknowledging our basic freedoms, liberties, and the healing power of laughter.


And lest we forget, fools are always close to our hearts because we so often play the part ourselves. I thought you might enjoy some hit songs about fools. Here are a few that remind us of various "foolish" themes:

Click on the address to access videos.

"Fool on the Hill" by the Beatles
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDtK7xUIDxk

"Tears of a Clown" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaMX0Cs5Bc4

"Foolish Heart" by Steve Perry
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9iTAYYAybI

"Send in the Clowns" by Judy Collins
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZql7ThhaHY

"Cathy's Clown" by the Everly Brothers
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMAp9qjwmQQ



An engraving of Will Sommers, court jester to King Henry VIII

The Stratford Jester, a sculpture by James Butler in Stratford, England


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