Playing the Fool in Shakespeare’s Company

alt Consider Rowan Atkinson. Specifically, consider Mr Bean and Edmund Blackadder. These two British TV roles, and the differences between them, are a useful way of thinking about another type of role: that of the Shakespearean Fool.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays contain at least one character who can be identified as a Fool - a clownish figure, sometimes incidental to the plot, sometimes pivotal to the action, who provides comic relief and commentary on the situation around him. The Fool was not unique to Shakespeare - plenty of early modern dramas had similar characters, based on the English court tradition of the Court Fool or Jester. But Shakespeare is unique in presenting two radically different types of Fool in his playwriting career. Robert Armin defined them as ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ fools, and the split maps fairly well onto Rowan Atkinson’s career.

First, we have the ‘natural’ fool, or the Mr. Bean type. This type of Fool is characterised by slapstick comedy, limited intellect, and a large, clownish stage presence. Examples include Falstaff in the Henry IV plays, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. They feature most prominently in the earlier part of Shakespeare’s career, i.e. plays written before 1600, and are associated with the actor William Kemp. Kemp was an accomplished dancer and physical comedian, and a principal shareholder in the Chamberlain’s Men (Shakespeare’s company) before leaving the company in 1600.

Kemp was replaced by Robert Armin, who pioneered the ‘artificial’ fool, or the Blackadder type. Where Kemp was a large, athletic performer, Armin was a diminutive, often melancholic stage presence, and Shakespeare’s writing shifted in response. The ‘artificial’ Fool is characterised by verbal humour involving riddling speeches and witty aphorisms, frequently mocking the more high-flown characters around him. Where the ‘natural’ Fool is designed to be laughed at, the ‘artificial’ Fool laughs at others, and invites the audience to join him. Armin probably debuted in As You Like It, and other famous ‘artificial’ Fools include Feste in Twelfth Night and the Fool in King Lear.

The nature of the two types is summed up neatly by Touchstone: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

PHOTO/ SPakhrin

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