“It was never about bright clothes, eccentric hats and slippers with bells on them. Shakespeare’s fools were the stand-ups of their day and liked to expose the vain, mock the pompous and deliver a few home truths - however uncomfortable that might be for those on the receiving end.
“Shakespearean fools, like stand-ups today, had a licence to say almost anything,” says Dr Oliver Double, who teaches drama at the University of Kent and specialises in comedy. “It was an exalted position.”
He doesn’t use just one type of fool, he uses different characters for different jobs.
There are the knowing, wise fools. Professionals, they are employed by royalty and nobility to entertain. They are smarter than those in positions of authority and used by Shakespeare to mock them, reveal the truth of a situation and provide social commentary.
Then there are the natural fools, who simply lack any grey matter and common sense. As well as providing some slapstick, they are also used to inadvertently reveal some home truths.
“They [the fools] are these strange characters that show up and make witty observations and very often become very central to the action,” says Dr Jacquelyn Bessell, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute.
“They do share a sort of capacity to stir things up, to say things that other characters in their social bracket couldn’t possibly get away with saying. In that respect, they’re a really useful vehicle driving your moral and argumentative point home if you’re a dramatist. They deflate pompous, socially superior characters. They’re able to criticise kings.”
So smart and articulate or stupid and foolish, who are the closest modern equivalents of Shakespeare’s fools and comic characters?”