“Let me play the fool:
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,
And let my liver rather heat with wine
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.”
(Gratiano, Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 1)
Shakespeare was not only a gifted playwright and poet, but he was also a shrewd businessman. His language and poetry are unequaled by any other English writer; but the hoi polloi filling the standing areas and the cheap seats wanted comedy and a bit with a dog. So….[drum roll]…enter the clowns and fools that populate virtually every one of his most popular plays, from the comedies to the tragedies.
Will Kemp was one of the original partners in Shakespeare’s acting company and many parts were written specifically for Kemp’s broad comic talents. His bawdy jigs and sexual double entendres kept the audiences – including the full range from peasant to aristocrat – in an uproar. Two of Kemp’s most famous roles – Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing – are classic comic interpretations of the Italian commedia dell’arte clowns from whom Shakespeare drew his inspiration.
Bottom is a “low” character or “zanni,” a simple weaver in the city of Athens where the Midsummer takes place. He has just enough intelligence to get into trouble. Bottom fancies himself a gifted performer and when he and his fellow bumpkins begin rehearsing a play to be performed for the Duke’s wedding, he’s so confident in his abilities that he wants to play all the roles. He over-acts to great comic effect but Kemp really hits his stride when Bottom is magically transformed into an ass and falls in love with Titania, the beautiful faerie queen. She, too, has been put under a magic spell and the love scenes between the two take full advantage of the romantic possibilities between an actor wearing a donkey’s head, braying and scratching, and the lovely actress (well, in Shakespeare’s time, when no women were allowed to perform, Titania would have been a lovely actor as well) dressed as the most exotic royalty of the forest kingdom.
As Dogberry in Much Ado (shameless promotion alert: this will be one of the Piknik Theatre productions to be performed outdoors in the Botanic Park this summer), Kemp takes on the “capitano” role as a pretentious but cowardly constable of the night watch. He invents every excuse to avoid doing his job protecting the public while butchering the English language with malapropisms. By accident, his security detail of comic buffoons manages to uncover a diabolical plot that had destroyed the marriage of Claudio and Hero. Dogberry is so shocked that the evil doers call him an “ass” that he wants everybody to know that he has been “writ down as an ass” during the interrogation. Of course, it only added to the humor that in Midsummer – produced prior to Much Ado – the actor Kemp had, in fact, been playing an ass.
Robert Armin succeeded Will Kemp as the designated comedian in Shakespeare’s acting troupe. While Kemp had been the classic clown, Armin became the witty fool, having fun at the expense of the royal characters and acting as the comic foil, poking holes in the pompous behavior of others. Fools were nothing new to the Elizabethans. They were licensed, in fact, and hired by the nobility to both entertain and engage in the proverbial battle of wits with the royal household members. A good Fool could juggle objects and the ire of his betters to the entertainment of all.
Whereas the clownish Kemp characters were bawds and buffoons, well-paired with his broad physical comedic style, Armin’s Fool used clever word play to convey concepts that often had far deeper meanings. Two of the most renowned Fools’ roles are Feste, in Twelfth Night and the Fool, in King Lear. Feste teases his mistress the Countess Olivia for continuing to mourn her brother’s untimely death:
FESTE: Good madonna, why mournest thou?
OLIVIA: Good fool, for my brother’s death.
FESTE: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
OLIVIA: I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
FESTE: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen
The self-righteous and puritanical Malvolio is an even bigger target for Feste’s sharp wit. Malvolio bears the weight of a practical joke whereby he is tricked into believing that Olivia is in love with him. His affected behavior in demonstrating his passion has such marks of madness that he is imprisoned in the dark until he regains his wits. Feste arrives to torment the hapless Malvolio:
FESTE: Master Malvolio?
MALVOLIO: Ay, good fool.
FESTE: Alas, sir, how fell you besides your five wits?
MALVOLIO: Fool, there was never a man so notoriously abused: I am as well in my wits, fool, as thou art.
FESTE: But as well? then you are mad indeed, if you be no better in your wits than a fool.
In the final scene, when the joke is revealed and the forlorn and disheveled Malvolio is at last released, Feste adds one more barb by mocking Malvolio’s pretentious claim to Olivia’s affections: “Why, ‘some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrown upon them,’ and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.”
In the opening scene of King Lear, the king offers to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters based on who can present the best case for his generosity. By inviting false flattery, Lear becomes his own worst enemy and ultimately pays the price for his foolhardiness, which his Fool – played by Armin – continually throws in his face:
LEAR: Dost thou call me fool, boy?
FOOL: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.
LEAR: An you lie, sirrah, we’ll have you whipped.
FOOL: I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are:they’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lthave me whipped for lying; and sometimes I amwhipped for holding my peace. I had rather be anykind o’ thing than a fool: and yet I would not bethee, nuncle; thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides,and left nothing i’ the middle.
The Fool plays upon the conscience of the king and represents the Elizabethan sensibility of common sense and reason that only a foolish and weak ruler gives up the throne voluntarily. Eventually, Lear recognizes his mistake and spends the remainder of the play seeking to find redemption. It is the character of the Fool who paradoxically plays the wise man, speaking truth and provoking Lear to action. But whereas, Twelfth Night, Much Ado, and Midsummer are comedies where all’s well that ends well, King Lear is a tragedy, and the dying Lear is left holding his lifeless daughter – the one who was too loving to play into his silly game in Act 1.
Two very different actors, playing their comic roles in two very different ways, while still managing to win the favor and applause of the audience. Whichever you chose to play this past April Fool’s Day, I hope you enjoyed the bus ride with your fellow bozos.
[acknowledgement to Shakespeare After All, written by Marjorie Garber]