The professional Fools of medieval and Elizabethan eras were really the precursors to the modern Fool as we know her/him in society today: the stand-up comedian; social commentators like Colbert, Daily and Maher; Late night hosts like Conan, Fallon, Letterman and Leno.
These Fools, performing for us daily, become essential to our modern psyches. The commentators on our Time and Space. They are adept at and delight in exposing and drawing attention to our many and monumental foibles as a society and species.
Here come the jesters, one, two, three…
Stańczyk, Jan Matejko (1838–1893)
Three of the most well-known fools who represent the change from the medieval notion of fool to Elizabethan fool are Richard Tarleton, William Kemp and Robert Armin.
Richard Tarleton is recognized as the first of the professional fools. During his lifetime, he was able to interact with and be successful on all levels of Elizabethan society:
1) the popular culture,
2) the professional theatre, and
3) the English court.
Tarleton was the first rustic clown of the Saturnalian festivals to become a fool in the Queen’s court and eventually transfer his talents to the Elizabethan stage. During his career, his role as fool eventually merged with his personality to the extent that it became his public persona. He was an appreciated guest at many different kinds of social functions by all segments of society. His theatre activities as a clown were much the same as his role as rustic fool.
Tarleton’s clown can be regarded historically as a synthesis of the three types of medieval entertainer:
1) the professional minstrel,
2) the amateur lord of mis-rule, and
3) the role of “Vice” from the old morality plays.
His clowning came from a rediscovery of the fool qualities within the amateur mis-rule tradition, evolving from English countryside oral culture. At times the rustic clown that he portrayed is in response to the new urbanized London inhabitant who is involved in commercial life and lives in opposition to country life. Tarleton helped foster in Londoners a new sense of community, a sense of shared values and experience, all the while making them realize that they were active participants in the making of a new “modern” culture. He would draw an instinctual response from his audience as they would easily recognize his character, actions, and methods in connection with their own social, religious, and cultural traditions.
Will Kemp also merged his on and off stage persona to become a very successful fool who became influential as a social commentator and dilettante. Kemp is an example of the next stage in the transition from rustic country fool to the theatre construction, stage fool. Although the stage was not the focus of his dramatic talents, he excelled at:
1) table-side entertainment,
2) athletic English dancing(jig), and
3) the playing of traditional instruments.
Kemp was the consummate stand-up solo performer. He often imitated a natural fool and was notorious for his improvisations, especially in songs and poetry. At the end of a Theatre play, Kemp would engage the audience drawing them into a verbal jousting match. His quick-witted repartee was exactly what the audience had come to expect from the fool’s role in the mis-rule/inversionary tradition. In 1599 Kemp needed publicity and published a book of his experiences dancing from London to Norwich, his most famous publicity stunt. This stunt came about shortly after he had left the Chamberlain’s Men. Allegedly he had had a disgreement with the group’s dramatist, William Shakespeare, over his improvisations at the expense of the dramatic written material. He became a casualty of the changing dynamics between the social construct fool and emerging Elizabethan theatre, unable to adapt his comic role to the narrative’s dramatic structure.
Around 1600 the Ptolomeic world complete with a hierarchical cosmological order is no longer the organizing principle governing human social actions. The “modern” era begins to emerge in all cultural forms. In drama, acting style in Elizabethan Theatre began drifting toward a style and characterization based on notions of mimesis or representation–a superficial resemblance of one thing to another–and away from an acting style based on iconography or non-representational signaling. Stage actors began to communicate to an audience through a complex display of signs and actions rather than through being the sign itself, as fools were. This “new” acting style is the acting we consider to be the craft today. Rather than the representational characters of the morality plays, or the dancing, tumbling, and juggling of the carnival clown, actors become more and more responsible to the author’s written text. Robert Armin replacing William Kemp as “Shakespeare’s fool” is an example of this evolution.
When Armin joined the Chamberlains Men, the company’s playwright, William Shakespeare created a whole series of domestic fools for him. Armin’s greatest roles, Touchstone in “As You Like It,”(1599), Feste in “Twelfth Night,”(1600), and (the) fool in “King Lear,”(1605); helped Shakespeare resolve the tension between thematic material and the traditional entertainment role of the fool. Armin became a counter-point to the themes of the play and the power relationships between the theatre and the role of the fool–he manipulates the extra dimension between play and reality to interact with the audience all the while using the themes of the play as his source material. Shakespeare began to write well-developed sub-plots expressly for Armin’s talents. A balance between the order of the play and the carnevalized inversion factor of festive energy was achieved.
Armin was a major intellectual influence on Shakespeare’s fools. He was attuned to the intellectual tradition of the Renaissance fool yet intellectual enough to understand the power of the medieval tradition. Armin’s fool is a stage presence rather than a solo artist. His major skills were mime and mimicry; even his improvisational material had to be reworked and rehearsed. His greatest asset was as a foil to the other stage actors. Armin offered the audience an idiosyncratic response to the idiosyncracies of each spectator.
Eventually, Armin became a great biographer of fools. In 1600 he published Fool Upon Fooles or Six Sortes of Sottes, a work comprised of six sketches of natural fools. In another work, Nest of Ninnies, he categorized two kinds of fools:
1) naturals–mentally deranged or feeble-minded simpletons,
2) artificials–quick-witted allowed fools.
He was a master and pioneer in the study of exactly how natural fools behaved. He believed that he himself was a natural because of his deformed stature. His stage fools were based on observations of naturals rather than on the re-creation of an emblematic stage type. Armin’s fools cause the audience to reflect on what it is to be a part of the human condition; but, in a way that also establishes his characters as perpetual outsiders who reflect on but do not become a part of the dance of reconciliation at the end of the play.
~ History of The Fool