a witty fool

Happy New Year! And we’re back.

So, I’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare over Christmas. I like Shakespeare a lot, for two main reasons:

1) The sonnets are fucking stunning

2) His comedians (not comedies – comedians) are brilliant.

Take the Fool in Timon of Athens. Admittedly it’s a bit of a weird play, but it’s one of my favourites because it’s about philosophers, and also because it’s not like a normal tragedy – it’s so well written (apparently with help from Thomas Middleton) that you have to take a kind of sadistic amusement in Timon’s stupid downfall.

Anyway, the Fool in it is awesome. It’s no accident that he appears with Apemantus (who is clearly the smartest person in the thing – despite having ‘apeman’ in his name).

Why such an awesome fool? His banter is just spectacular: it’s cutting and insightful and self-deprecating at the same time, like perfectly judged heckle put-downs. But given the chance he’s also got things to say. Like in this bit:

Are you three usurers’ men?

Ay, fool.

I think no usurer but has a fool to his servant. My mistress is one, and I am her fool. When men come to borrow of your masters, they approach sadly and go away merry; but they enter my mistress’ house merrily and go away sadly. The reason of this?

I could render one.

Do it then, that we may account thee a whoremaster and a knave; which notwithstanding, thou shalt be no less esteemed.

What is a whoremaster, fool?

A fool in good clothes, and something like thee. ‘Tis a spirit. Sometime it appears like a lord; sometime like a lawyer; sometime like a philosopher, with two stones more than his artificial one. He is very often like a knight; and, generally, in all shapes that man goes up and down in from fourscore to thirteen, this spirit walks in.

Thou art not altogether a fool.

Nor thou altogether a wise man. As much foolery as I have, so much wit thou lack’st.

That answer might have become Apemantus.

How good is that? Bonus points if you spotted the bollock gag. But mainly, this is funny because the fool is actually saying something quite wise about money-lenders and about men’s attitudes to women that gets there 400-odd years ahead of all our pathetic ‘hey, women can really mess with our heads, what’s the deal with that?’ stand-up.

But the thing I love most about Shakespeare’s clowns is that whatever the situation is, they are never the arsehole. (And as the philosopher Kent Valentine says, “there’s an arsehole in every situation – and if you’re looking around and you don’t know who the arsehole is, guess what – it’s you!”) But in Shakespeare, the clown is never the arsehole.

It’s worth asking why this is. Possibly it’s that, from the point of view of a satirist, they can stand above the situation they are commenting on and so are able to make a better judgment of it. Possibly it’s the tendency we’ve had for so long (that exists right up to the present day with Jon Stewart et al.) not to trust people who are too serious in comparison with the joker, who seems to have nothing to gain but laughs – which makes them more trustworthy.

Or possibly it’s just that Shakespeare wrote a lot of his ‘Fool’ roles for his mate Bob to play and he wanted to make him look cool and witty.

But whatever it was that made Shakespeare make his comedians smart and his arseholes overly serious, it’s always left a pretty profound impression on me. I’ve been an arsehole plenty of times, but (I hope, since I’ve got out of my teens at least) not on the scale that Shakespeare’s real arseholes – like Romeo or Lear or Polixenes or even Malvolio – are.* And I hope that’s from not taking myself too seriously.

What Shakespeare’s fools teach us is that life is funny, and if you demand to be taken seriously in that context, then the only place you can go from there is tragedy, humiliation or madness. But if you’re ‘just’ a clown, you’re free to say what really needs saying.

It’s interesting, too, how many arsey things comedians are permitted, even encouraged, to get away with in comedy clubs. I remember somebody or other – I forget who but I think it might have been John Gordillo – saying that comedy audiences don’t pay to see somebody be nice; they pay to see somebody call a cunt a cunt. Which I like immensely. Clowns are given the green light to say things which are more arseholey than a real arsehole would ever say, because we all know that they are saying it from a position in which they are not expecting to be taken seriously.

“Better a witty fool than a foolish wit,” says Feste, famously, in Twelfth Night. I don’t like Twelfth Night that much, but it’s a line that’s stuck with me; it’s something I only wish Gordon Brown could learn from Boris Johnson; and it’s certainly something worth remembering for everyone else who’s playing this Big Game Of Not Being The Arsehole we call ‘humanity’…

*I know what you’re thinking – should Hamlet be in this list? No, of course not. He’s a comedian. But that’s for another time…


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