Essay: Fools, Falsity & the Four Tragedies – An Essay on the Tragic Fool

The Gravedigger in Hamletthe Fool in King Lear, the Porter in Macbeth, all RSC

‘By logic and tradition’, writes critic Julian Markels, the ‘fool belongs to comedy’[1]; and yet, one finds a fool-of-sorts – clown or companion, gravedigger or gatekeeper – in four of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello. The Early Modern fool likely ‘came down from the Morality plays’[2] as a distant, and altogether more comic, descendent of the Medieval Vice. And, as critics have noted, even when relegated to the practical role of court jester, and thus ‘confined […] to what was set down for him’[3], the fool ‘often disturbed the dramatic unity of the piece’[4]. This study, utilising the views of critics who have endeavoured to identify this elusive figure, will aim to theorise the role Shakespeare’s tragic fools are truly playing.

To begin elucidating the fool and his part in Shakespearean tragedy, one turns to the most divisive identifier: the distinction, or lack thereof, between the fool and the clown. Whilst early twentieth-century Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley argues that ‘the theatrical fool or clown […] need not [be] distinguish[ed]’[5] from one another, contemporary critic David Wiles counters that there is a ‘clear distinction between “fool” and “clown”’ in ‘playhouse terminology’[6]. In his discussion, Wiles cites two sources to evidence ‘playhouse terminology’. The first is ‘Henslowe’s inventory’[7], a record of money and goods ‘lent’[8] to and ‘payd’[9] by a playhouse in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth century, in which ‘’the fool’ was a type of role identified by an iconographic costume […] requir[ing] a ‘fool’s coat, cap and bauble’[10] as opposed to the ‘hose and jerkin’[11] of the clown. The second source are the stage directions in the play texts, in which Wiles notes that ‘in Shakespearean dialogue generally, the word ‘fool’ is used with enormous freedom [but] the word ‘clown’ is never found outside stage directions’[12], with ‘Shakespearean stage directions introduc[ing] the term ‘fool’ only for the wearer of the cockscomb in Lear[13], who enters urging Kent to ‘take [his] coxcomb’[14]. Thus, from Wiles’s reasoning, one identifies costume as a decisive identifier of the Shakespearean fool. And yet, not only are his sources unsound, with the records’ commercial focus cheapening their value as evidence of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, as well as the unreliability of stage directions in texts that don’t exist as one definitive edition, Wiles’ descriptors classify only the Fool in Lear as a tragic fool.

Yet, Lear’s Fool’s witticisms in Act I, Scene IV that centre around ‘lying’ (King Lear, l.4.175) are too closely echoed by the wit of Hamlet’s gravedigger’s ‘lie in[…]’[15] in Ophelia’s grave, Macbeth’s gatekeeper’s intoxicated talk of ‘equivocator[s]’[16] at ‘Hell Gate’ (Macbeth, II.2.2) and Othello’s so-called clown’s ‘lie in [his] own throat’[17], to class only the former as a fool and dismiss the others as mere clowns. Therefore, one looks to identifiers other than costume to differentiate the fool from the clown, and critic Leila Vieira de Jesus suggests that the wordplay is a fundamental differentiator. She characterises ‘clowns [as] fools who depend on visual foolery to achieve laughter’[18], with the implication that ‘”fool” is the most proper term to talk about […] characters using language’[19] to achieve laughter, and this would classify such a character in all four tragedies as a fool.

Firstly, Shakespeare achieves linguistic foolery for both Hamlet’s Gravedigger and Othello’s Clown by playing on a similar pun. The Gravedigger’s quick-witted comebacks to Hamlet’s questioning ‘whose grave […] this [is]’ (Hamlet, V.1.117-8) play on the multiple meanings of lie. The line ‘for my part, I do not lie in’t, yet it is mine’ (Hamlet, V.1.123) could mean that the Gravedigger isn’t buried, isn’t deceiving, or isn’t lying down, and the comedy derives from outwitting the hero who only recognises the middle meaning in his reply: ‘thou dost lie in’t, to be in’t and say tis thine. ‘Tis for the dead, and not for the quick: therefore thou liest’ (Hamlet, V.1.124-6). The first meaning is missed as Hamlet asserts the grave is ‘not for the quick’ (Hamlet, V.1.125), and thus unless Shakespeare is suggesting the Gravedigger is dead, they cannot be buried and ‘liest’ in death, and his first line confirms a failure to see the latter meaning as the Gravedigger ‘lie[s] in’t’ (Hamlet, V.1.124) because they ‘say tis thine’ (Hamlet, V.1.124, my emphasis), not because it is.

Similarly, Othello’s Clown puns on Desdemona’s desire to ‘know […] where lieutenant Cassio lies’ (Othello, III.4.1), meaning ‘where [he] lodges’ (Othello, III.4.5), by responding as though asked if Cassio has deceived Desdemona, ‘I dare not say he lies anywhere’ (Othello, III.4.2), as ‘to say a solider [tells] lies’ (Othello, III.4.4), and mar his reputation, is to expect a ‘stabbing’ (Othello, III.4.4) in return. Again, comedy comes from outwitting the heroine, who can only ask in exasperation if ‘anything [can] be made of this?’ (Othello, III.4.10) before being bested again with another pun: ‘I know not where he lodges, and for me to devise a lodging and say he lies there, were to lie in mine own throat’ (Othello, III.4.11-13). Markels argues that ‘the fool’s part [in Othello] turns out fatally incommensurate with the size of the play, so insignificant that it seems to most producers hardly worth the trouble it takes to cast’[20], yet perhaps, as the similarities in linguistic foolery with Hamlet have shown, the Clown’s significance as a fool lies beyond the play itself, and instead speaks to the part the fool is playing in tragedy.

Whilst Markels doubts the ‘worth’ of the fool in Othello, A. C. Bradley dismisses him altogether from another tragedy, declaring: ‘there is no fool in the last of the pure tragedies, Macbeth.’[21] Yet, as previously explored, fools depend on language for their laughter, and Shakespeare again plays on the word ‘lie’ for the Porter’s foolery. Explaining to Macduff ‘the desire’ (Macbeth, II.2.30) drink ‘provokes’ (Macbeth, II.2.29), the Porter proclaims ‘drink […] an equivocator with lechery’ (Macbeth, II.2.31-2) by ‘giving him the lie’ (Macbeth, II.2.36). Coupled with drink ‘mak[ing] him stand to, and not stand to’ (Macbeth, II.2.34-5), an opposition is created between ‘stand’ and ‘lie’, and there is a suggestion that a crude pun is being made about drinking’s effect on an erection, with ‘lie’ possibly meaning the position of a flaccid penis, as well as untruth, as drink ‘takes away the performance’ (Macbeth, II.2.30), but leaves lecherous feelings. The comedy here derives not from the response of the hero or heroine, but from using wordplay to relieve tension with such absurdity and obscenity in the scene following King Duncan’s murder.

Therefore, these characters that use linguistic foolery in Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth can be identified as fools, but their language uncovers another identifier of the tragic fool: an association with truth and lies. All three of the aforementioned fools’ wordplay is dependent on lies, but Shakespeare portrays the Gravedigger and the Clown as those tasked with truth: ‘for [his] part’, the Gravedigger ‘do[es] not lie’ (Hamlet, V.1.123), and the Clown refuses to ‘devise a lodging and say [Cassio] lies there’ because that would require a ‘lie in [his] own throat’ (Othello, III.4.11-13).

However, it is Lear’s Fool who is most intimately tied to truth telling. Shakespeare seems to use a deliberately equivocal line, ‘if I speak like myself in this, let him be whipped that first finds it so’ (King Lear, I.4.156-7), to show that the Fool’s identifier is truth, but also to reflect the illusionary relationship between lies, truth and tragic fools. The Fool ‘speak[ing] like [him]self’ (King Lear, I.4.156) means to speak true, as one must ‘teach [a] fool to lie’ (King Lear, I.4.170-1), but this lends a double meaning to the line. On the one hand, if he speaks like a fool, whip those who find it foolish, and on the other, if he speaks true, whip those who find it truthful.

To elucidate this, critics often identify the fool as a ‘vehicle for [Shakespeare’s] profoundest reflections’[22] and ‘a mirror to reveal absolute truth’[23], but there exists an irony in that a reflection in a mirror is only the illusion of truth, and the same is true of theatre and real life. Therefore, if the tragic fool’s role is as a mirror, the second interpretation of Lear’s Fool’s line gains a delicate clarity: if an audience finds what an actor, fool or otherwise, says to be true, let them be whipped for finding it so and not seeing its falsity. Shakespeare can cast the Fool in this role because they are not needed to advance the plot, evidenced by Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth’s fools only appearing in one scene, and Lear’s Fool ‘leav[ing] the play when its other truth-speaker, Cordelia, re-enters it’[24], and so can act as an ‘intermediary between the stage and the auditorium’[25], reflection and real life, and tale-telling and truth. And, it’s an implication embedded in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy of all: the ‘purpose of playing […] was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature’ (Hamlet, III.2.21-3).

[1] Julian Markels, ‘Shakespeare’s Confluence of Tragedy and Comedy: Twelfth Night and King Lear’, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol.15:Issue2 (Spring, 1964), 74-88, p.76.
[2] A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1919 [1904]), p.310.
[3] A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, p.310.
[4] A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, p.310.
[5] A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, p.310.
[6] David Wiles, Shakespeare’s Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005 [1987]), p.69.
[7] David Wiles, Shakespeare’s Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse, p.69.
[8] Philip Henslowe, ‘Henslowe’s Diary’, ed. by R. A. Foakes, lecture handout week 3, p.3.
[9] Philip Henslowe, ‘Henslowe’s Diary’, ed. by R. A. Foakes, lecture handout week 3, p.3.
[10] David Wiles, Shakespeare’s Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse, p.69.
[11] David Wiles, Shakespeare’s Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse, p.69.
[12] David Wiles, Shakespeare’s Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse, p.69.
[13] David Wiles, Shakespeare’s Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse, p.69.
[14] William Shakespeare, ‘King Lear’ in The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works: Revised Edition, ed. by Richard Proudfoot, David Scott Kastan, Ann Thompson, H.R. Woudhuysen (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014), pp.633-69, p.641, I.4.96 & 100.
Subsequent references are taken from this edition and will be given in act, scene and line references preceded by ‘King Lear’ in parentheses in the body of the text.
[15] William Shakespeare, ‘Hamlet’ in The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works: Revised Edition, ed. by Richard Proudfoot, David Scott Kastan, Ann Thompson, H.R. Woudhuysen (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014), pp.291-332, p.326, V.I.123.
Subsequent references are taken from this edition and will be given in act, scene and line references preceded by ‘Hamlet’ in parentheses in the body of the text.
[16] Shakespeare, William, ‘Macbeth’ in The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works: Revised Edition, ed. by Richard Proudfoot, David Scott Kastan, Ann Thompson, H.R. Woudhuysen (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014), pp.773-99, p.782, II.2.8.
Subsequent references are taken from this edition and will be given in act, scene and line references preceded by ‘Macbeth’ in parentheses in the body of the text.
[17] Shakespeare, William, ‘Othello’ in The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works: Revised Edition, ed. by Richard Proudfoot, David Scott Kastan, Ann Thompson, H.R. Woudhuysen (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014), pp.941-77, p.963, III.4.13.
Subsequent references are taken from this edition and will be given in act, scene and line references preceded by ‘Othello’ in parentheses in the body of the text.
[18] Leila Vieira de Jesus, ‘A Study of Fools: Lear’s Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear and Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (masters dissertation, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, 2012), p.23.
[19] Leila Vieira de Jesus, ‘A Study of Fools: Lear’s Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear and Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, p.23.
[20] Julian Markels, ‘Shakespeare’s Confluence of Tragedy and Comedy: Twelfth Night and King Lear’, p.76.
[21] A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, p.311.
[22] Enid Welsford, The Fool: His Social and Literary History (New York: Doubleday, 1961 [1935]), p.273.
[23] Laura McGrath, ‘Shakespeare: The Tragic Fool, The Comic Fool, Or Both?’ (Christopher Newport University), p.3.
[24] Julian Markels, ‘Shakespeare’s Confluence of Tragedy and Comedy: Twelfth Night and King Lear’, p.76.
[25] Enid Welsford, The Fool: His Social and Literary History, p. xii.

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