Fools have always captured my imagination. They hold an authentic and innate position in human history. From Jesters to Shakespeare to Saturnalia to Stand-up the Fool may always be found presenting our folly and pretensions to us lest we forget who we are; lest we forget to laugh at ourselves. S/he permeates all aspects of life.
Artists have long depicted the Fool in literature, fine art and music… Do you know how many songs there are with ‘fool’ in the title? Oodles, cats and kittens. Oodles. And I’m going to play a bunch of ’em for you, too. I sure hope you dig it.
The Fool is a complex character and makes more appearances in our society, holds more sway, than we might initially suspect…
Keying Up—the Court Jester (1875) William Merritt Chase
The world of traditional man had more mysteries, contingencies, and surprises than the world of rational man. In traditional pagan systems celebrations and holidays were a colorful and illustrative
demonstration of a pre-civilized state-of-mind.
Traditional forms often dealt with transitional periods in the life of the countryside: old year/new year, Lent, Mid-Summer, marriage feasts, funerals, initiation rites and holidays. Traditional fools played erratic games with these primary foundations of human experience and expressed how the society either managed or mismanaged meaning in both everyday and heightened experience.
“Fools” emerged in medieval England in the13thC. The rigid social hierarchies of medieval society relied on these reality maintenance constructs which were closely related to traditional inversionary re-enactments of mis-rule to create a sense of release for and in the population. Although, ultimately the role was meant to re-affirm the hierarchy and strictness of the medeival system. “Fools” became a construct whose unique position in the community’s power structure demonstrated the reality of secularized opportunism, relativism, and immoralism. The “fool” wore a subtextual connotation of evil, pretending stupidity, often opposing the figure of the wise or holy man in a culture’s structure. In the moral/philosophical dimension, s/he is the negative inversionary counter-point to virtue and wisdom.
As “Vice,” a character in medieval morality and mumming plays, the fool was a fundamental part of the rustic tradition of the English countryside. In that tradition, he is a central character in both English culture and theatre, one who never allows the audience to forget the interactive nature of either their reality or the theatre reality, an activity which always requires their full attention and involvement. “Vice” has the task of assuring the audience that no boundaries exist between the world of the play and the world of reality. S/He is the link between the exotic imagination of the play and the immediate world of the audience. Whose duties included improvising with the audience and sweeping aside the confines of the script in order to establish verisimilitude and an easy transformation between English oral and written traditions. When Shakespeare began his career, the “Vice” figure had been transformed by theatrical and societal norms into a recognized anarchist who made aberration obvious by carrying release to absurd extremes.
“Fools” enact the raw material of a culture, ceremoniously demonstrating and articulating what becomes of a society if it forsakes the “burden” of tradition. Folly, the philosophy of the fool, is a ritualized outlet for repressed sentiments. The fool displays a folly which is just as important as rationalized wisdom, a construct of magical quality and ambiguity which accurately counter-balances the rationalism of both medieval and renaissance systems. The fool commonly conducts an interaction between themselves and a person who society defines as wise by acting stupid and cunning at the same time, an interaction which would always end in the fool winning in this uneven matching of wits. The fool constantly questions our perceptions of wisdom and truth and their relationship to everyday experience. S/he readily applies metaphysical abstractions to attack the routine taken-for-granted aspects of the daily rituals of the audience, becoming an important conduit for determining meaning and clarifying abstractions which rule our lives. The fool lifts the veil of authority, devoid of decorum constantly making silly remarks, acting irreverently, unmasking the unpleasant aspects of power. S/he gives us the opportunity to humorously look at our own values and judgements as the powerful socio-cultural structures of power pull, push, and shape our identity. The social significance of the fool cannot be underestimated, it is perhaps the surest sign that a society has attained cultural maturity because the construct allows the society to reflect on and laugh at its own complex power relations.
The traditional fool: in their reversal role, by their revitalization of traditional values and meanings, in their individualism and lack of stern principles, is being typically modern despite their lack of respect for rationality. But, rather than being a rebellious political figure the fool is grounded in traditional societies to remind people of their acceptance and need for their everyday life structures — s/he is a reality maintenance construct. Fools do not possess values, norms, and meanings of their own worldview; they attach themselves to existing worldviews and turn them upside-down, inside-out or backwards. Presently, their folly can only exist derivative of and parasitical to the predominant worldview of reason. A fool performs his act, creating an awe-inspiring relevance for the audience; joking, dancing, or juggling; establishing meanings and values in daily social life; and, perverting pieces of common-sense knowledge. Yet, the role must maintain its marginality, losing its own rebellious power by coming too near to the center of power, his/her role being a symbolic reminder of the hollowness of human pretentions in relation to religious and moral infallibility.
~ History of the Fool