History of the Fool


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 (Christmas, Easter, Epiphany). 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. He is the link between the exotic imagination of the play and the immediate world of the audience. His 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 himself 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 his reversal role, by his revitalization of traditional values and meanings, in his individualism and lack of stern principles, in his easily switched loyalties, is being typically modern despite his 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--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.


There are two kinds of fool:

1) the natural fool -- a physically challenged or retarded person; and

2) the artificial fool -- a witty entertainer and social critic.

The artificial fool looks to the natural fool for inspiration, but is truly a seasoned performer who lives through the use of his/her wit and any other trick which encourages the audience to relate. The movement from the coarse, naive, raucous, Medieval, natural fool to the refined, court, Elizabethan, artificial fool is probably the best indication of the change between the construct's place in the Medieval age to the Renaissance. Instead of being the medieval emblematic construction " fool," the Elizabethan fool represents free speech and an un-jaundiced view of a new social fabric. The two types of "fool" represent the age-old dichotomy between what "is," (Nature--the natural or congenital fool ) and what "seems," (Art--the artificial fool or artful jester).

There were fools or some such similar social construct in all European nations in both Medieval and Elizabethan times. By the15thC the fool had become a profession and an institution which had to understand and manipulate power relations in order to maintain a livelihood. By the end of the 16thC the fool was assimilated into public theatre performances and the term becomes associated with the "clown/fool" figure of Elizabethan drama. Elizabethan Theatre itself at this point is in transition toward the modern concept of theater as a leisure activity and industry and away from the medieval concept of drama as part of the inversionary carnevalesque mode of life and understanding. Drama begins to exist as a historical process, within the confines of theatre, rather than as a religious or moral cathartic. By 1620 the fool role all but completely disappears into the theatre.

The clown performed with, not to, the Elizabethan audience, his relationship to them (and us) is interactive and competitive. He constantly draws us from our position as viewer of the drama to our position in life around us--all the while recognizing and playing with the conventions of the enactment. We are constantly allowed to view his split personality as emblematic persona on stage and an actor playing a role to reinforce our own double -persona. The role of the clown in the theatre directly imitates the role of the fool in society. The clown exists in the social dimension as a negative pole in relation to urbanity and status. He possesses a unique knowledge of life's inequities and transience; an idealist embittered by experience.

The clown projects two levels of character simultaneously--the pretentious idiot on the surface harboring the common man beneath who rejects all pretentions. In medieval drama, the role of the clown at one time had equal status with the scripted material, but as the role and theatre evolved each facet had to adapt to the needs of the other. The clown served many purposes, as arbiter of information he would "act out" or explain the drama even if its ideas were beyond the comprehension of the audience. In early Elizabethan drama the clown would be allowed to interrupt the script at any time. Later, this relationship evolved into the program being done first, and then the clown using the stage to entertain the audience in whatever manner fitted the talents of the actor--he would improvise, dance, juggle, and/or rhyme, all the while maintaining a running commentary with the audience. This traditional re-enactment of mis-rule which at first was the heart of the dramatic structure during inversionary festivals became swallowed by the needs of narrative theatrical composition. The oldest scripted theatre work for a clown appeared in 1578, but by 1590 all scripts which contained a clown role designated it as clown, because everyone in the audience knew what to expect from the stage role. What was originally a pejorative term "clown" had merged with the colloquial one "fool" to refer to the resident clown/fool of a professional theatre company.



Three of the most well-known fools who represent the change from the medieval notion 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.