by Briana Gonzalez
If you find William Shakespeare’s work a tad stuffy, or if you feel overburdened by the near inescapable crowd of theatre scholars who can’t stop crowing about his literary genius — then friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!
The thing that your average English teacher might’ve forgotten to impart on you? Shakespeare’s plays weren’t meant to be read, they were meant to be performed. As much as artifice and fancy rhyming characterize the work of ole Billy Shakes, he was writing for the masses’ entertainment. If we were to modernize William Shakespeare, he wouldn’t be writing poetry today — he’d probably be working for CW.
This means Shakespeare’s plays are absolutely littered with comedy and jokes (some very lewd ones, actually). In fact, there’s few characters that Elizabethan audiences enjoyed more than the jester or “fool” archetype. Shakespearean fools are often, but not always, royal jesters for nobles or royalty. As well as being comic relief, Shakespeare’s fool characters were known for being quite complex. Clever and sometimes vaguely omniscient, the fool was able to make the audience cry with laughter, while also highlighting the play’s more serious themes.
Best of all, historically, professional fools were literally licensed to say whatever they wanted, so long as it was true and in the interest of comedy: which means that they laid down some of the best smack talk served to rich folks ever.
Let’s take a look at some of my personal favorite moments from five of The Bard’s fools:
1. When King Lear’s Fool called Lear a big baby
In King Lear, Lear bequeaths equal halves of his kingdom to his eldest two daughters, who publicly kiss up to him for favorite kid points. (“No, I love Daddy more!”) Out of respect, his third daughter refuses to do the same, resulting in her exile. This backfires enormously, because as soon as they have his power and wealth, the eldest daughters then begin a game of “No, you take Daddy”. Lear’s fool finds this enormously amusing; he comments that Lear’s daughters are now acting like mothers to him. He calls it like he sees it, and says what essentially amounts to, “you might as well have let them spank your bottom.”
[…] e'er since thou mad'st thy
daughters thy mothers. For when thou gav'st them
the rod, and put'st down thine own breeches…
This interaction is especially funny because blocking often calls for the Fool to be sitting on Lear’s knee, sassy as can be, as he delivers this line.
2. When Falstaff pretends to be deaf to get out of talking to a cop
John Falstaff is perhaps one of the best loved characters in Shakespearean canon, and appears in not one but four of his plays. A boastful and cowardly knight, Falstaff spends most of his time hanging out with criminals, getting into trouble, and leading princes astray. His misadventures and shenanigans are numerous, but the one of the most ridiculous is when he tries to avoid being convicted for robbery by The Lord Chief Justice in Henry IV, Part 2:
CHIEF JUSTICE, to Servant
What’s he that goes there?
Falstaff, an ’t please your Lordship.
He that was in question for the robbery?
Sir John Falstaff!
Boy, tell him I am deaf.
You must speak louder. My master is deaf.
I am sure he is, to the hearing of
The Lord Chief Justice, as you can see, is not having it.
3. When Feste flipped the script on his lady, Olivia, with this sick burn
Feste, Countess Olivia’s personal jester, is widely regarded as the wisest figure in The Twelfth Night — which isn’t actually all that difficult, given all the identity confusion and accidental marriages taking place. In the play’s opening, Olivia is mourning the deaths of her father and brother, and declares that she shall not laugh, be in the company of men, or accept any courtship proposals for seven years. (Someone ought to tell her that you don’t need to take a year for each of the stages of grief.) Feste gives Olivia a strong dose of reality by mocking her for her irrational and self-destructive behavior:
Take the Fool away.
Do you not hear, fellows? Take away the Lady.
Oof! Someone call the fire department…
4. When Puck treated the events of A Midsummer Night’s Dream like his own personal reality TV show
Shakespeare’s most famous comedy just wouldn’t be complete without Robin Goodfellow, a.k.a. Puck, a mischievous trickster fairy, and jester to the Fairy King himself, Oberon. Puck operates as a narrator and the catalyst of the play’s chaos. When King Oberon takes pity on one of the human lovers, Helena, who has been rejected, he sends Puck to administer a love potion to the object of her affections, Demetrius. By mistake, Puck gives the potion to the wrong man — Lysander, the fiancé of Hermia, Helena’s best friend. (Confused, yet?) This puts all of the lovers at odds, creating a complicated love square. Instead of correcting his mistake, Puck eagerly suggests that he and the king sit back and watch all the drama unfold:
Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover's fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
Get the popcorn ready!
5. When Shakespeare used the character Touchstone to poke fun at himself
Touchstone is perhaps one of the most unabashed fools that Shakespeare has ever written, and the character is certainly put to good use. In As You Like It, Touchstone not only possesses good humor, he also has a realistic, borderline cynical outlook on the world, particularly in regards to love. He demonstrates the latter when he attempts to woo a simple goatherd, Audrey, using poetry. It backfires, because Audrey has no idea what poetry is and asks whether it is an honest trade. Touchstone responds that poets are big, fat liars, and that their poems are chock full of mistruths:
No, truly, for the truest poetry is the most feigning, and lovers are given to poetry, and what they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do feign.
Here, the Bard, being a poet himself, provides not only an insightful truth, but a warning to the ladies...
Do you have any favorite Shakespeare shenanigans? Leave your soliloquy in the comments down below, my good fellow!
About the Author: I'm Briana Gonzalez, word nerd and card-carrying theatre kid. Writing is just a more accessible form of talking, so it's no wonder I can't stop doing it. Check out my lit blog on Instagram @what_that_book_do!