The Evolution of Shakespeare's Fools in Three Plays

by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor

1792 engraving of Touchstone with Rosalind and Celia. (Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Shakespeare Fun Fact

Shakespeare used the word "fool" approximately 423 times in the lines of his plays, while "clown" is used 19 times.

Shakespeare is often viewed as the paragon of Elizabethan theatre on the strength of his characters. Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear—all are considered among the greatest roles in English literature. This standard applies not just to his dramatic roles; the comic characters of Shakespeare offer many memorable performances throughout the works. The most complex of those characters are the fools. While the fool is an archetype nearly as old as the hero, Shakespeare took this standard trope and adapted it to suit a variety of situations.

But first, we have to establish the distinction between the fool and the merely foolish. At the beginning of his career, Shakespeare wrote clowns. It took time —and a pair of key players—to develop his characters into the more nuanced fools that distinguish his work.

Clowns and Fools

Shakespeare's comic characters generally fall somewhere along the twin axes of clown to fool, natural to artificial. The archetypal clown is a character who is laughed at for a lack of wits and a facile ineptitude with language. In contrast, the clown's counterpart of the fool readily engages in verbal sparring mixed with the occasional cynical barb that offers an editorial commentary on the proceedings.

The difference between natural and artificial is a bit more foreign to contemporary audiences, but is a concept the Elizabethans would have innately understood. The first category is best summed up as those with an affliction (whether it be mental or physical), who were seen as sometimes speaking with divine direction, and their words could just as equally be interpreted as prophecy as they could be regarded as nonsense. At the opposite end of this spectrum, the artificial, lay the "wise fool," who would deliberately affect a simplistic or eccentric manner that belied his cutting words.

Shakespeare's Two Jesters

Much as Shakespeare relied on the talents of Richard Burbage to bring to life his greatest dramatic roles, so too would he rely on two of his company compatriots to inspire some of his most enduring comic roles. Shakespeare began his career writing for Will Kempe, one of the original shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Kempe was lauded in his day for his physical comedy and quick wit. Kempe would entertain audiences in such roles as Falstaff, Bottom, and Dogberry. But for unknown reasons, Kempe left the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1599. Perhaps it was a falling out; critics have pointed to Hamlet's speeches to the players (particularly "Let those that play your clowns" and "Speak the speech, I pray you") as veiled rebukes of Kempe.

Kempe's role in the company would be supplanted with the arrival of a new shareholder, Robert Armin. In contrast to Kempe, Armin was a much more muted comic presence, at once playful and philosophical, and possessed of a fine singing voice. As Shakespeare's writing matured over the course of his career, so too did the roles for his principal comic. The low-comedy clown character evolved into the high-comedy fool. Armin would bring this evolution to life in three seminal roles discussed below.

As You Like It (Touchstone)

Touchstone is listed among the characters as "a court jester," which gives us an immediate clue as to Shakespeare's intentions with his portrayal. Historically, jesters were legitimate officials at court, and—more importantly—through their humor, one of the few people with the license to speak truth to power in the course of their jokes and antics. Shakespeare then proceeds to disguise his true intent by having Celia describe him as a "natural" and to have him appear at first to be the mere clown ("Nay, I shall ne'er be 'ware of mine own wit till I break my shins against it").

By the time the audience has reached the fifth act, however, we have seen, as Rosalind describes, the fool who "speakest wiser than thou art 'ware of" and of whom Duke Senior says Touchstone "uses his folly like a stalking horse and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit." Touchstone has impressed Jacques so much that the courtier exclaims, "O that I were a fool!/I am ambitious for a motley coat." Touchstone does not mistake one word for another and judiciously chooses the ones he does use; he avoids puns and instead waxes philosophical. More importantly, he has none of the bitter undercurrent of Shakespeare's later fools. Touchstone embodies the purely comical fool.

Twelfth Night (Feste)

Feste is also described as a clown (and servant to Olivia). In truth, he serves as a kind of observer—and frequent critic—of those around him. Feste appears for the first time onstage as mysterious; he has been absent from Olivia's household but refuses to say where he's been. He then gets the better of Olivia ("Take away the fool, gentlemen") and Malvolio ("he will not pass his word for two pence that you are no fool"). To Viola, he proclaims "I am indeed not [Olivia's] fool, but her corrupter of words." Viola, in turn, recognizes that "This fellow is wise enough to play the fool;/And to do that well craves a kind of wit."

Beneath the glib exterior, however, lurks a slightly darker wellspring of thought. When Feste sings "Youth's a stuff will not endure," it's not hard to feel a tinge of melancholy. Feste later sings "Come away, come away, death/And in sad cypress let me be laid," then tells Orsino "Pleasure will be paid, one time or another." And it is up to each production of the play to determine just how cruel Feste is to Malvolio when the steward is locked away, but his admission of being Sir Topas, recalling Malvolio's words and ending with "thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges" is anything but contrite. The play closes with Feste alone on stage singing "For the rain it raineth every day."

It seems curiously fitting that Feste comes from nowhere and fades with the stage lights into the end of this story. To the last he is exactly a "barren fool" balanced between the light and dark of his world, and like a trickster god, he lets neither the characters around him nor the audience see beyond a character he portrays. At once both gleeful and glum, Feste embodies a more world-weary fool.

King Lear (Fool)

The fruition of Shakespeare's tinkering with the archetype is realized in the Fool of King Lear. This fool is also among the most confounding of Shakespeare's characters. Lear calls him boy, yet he has overwhelmingly been played by grown men in contemporary theater. He is a jester, yet from the outset is called a "bitter fool" by Lear. He is among Lear's most devoted attendants, yet disappears from the story entirely before the end of Act III. And while he is with Lear, he unflinchingly prods the erstwhile king to accept the reality of his situation.

Consider the Fool's response to Lear when the king asks if he is being called a fool: "All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with." Later, when Lear asks, "Who is it that can tell me who I am," the Fool replies simply, "Lear's shadow." And before the first act has ended, he tells Lear "If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I'd have thee beaten for being old before thy time.... Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise."

Such stern words have their impact on Lear throughout the play, creating glimpses of fleeting reflection in the proud king. Here is no mere clown; the Fool is the equivalent of a one-man Greek chorus. But when Lear is at the height of his madness, it seems too much for even the Fool to bear. Once Lear has succumbed, the Fool has no more reason to continue in his service. He departs the stage with the cryptic line, "I'll go to bed at noon," never to be seen again. Lear's reason—both actual and metaphorical—leaves with him. Thus, the Fool embodies most tragicomic figure of Shakespeare's fools.


Complete Works of Shakespeare 5th ed. (Bevington, 2009), Essential Shakespeare Handbook (Dunton-Downer and Riding, 2004), Kings and Queens of England (Williams, 2008), NTC's Dictionary of Shakespeare (Clark, 1996), Jesters and Fools (Internet Shakespeare Editions, 2011) Shakespeare's Clowns and Fools (enotes, 2015), Shakespeare’s clowns and fools (OUP Blog, 2016), Shakespeare's fools (British Library/Rasmussen & DeJong, 2016)