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Motley to the View: The Shakespearean Performance of Folly.

    I like to fool--oh, you know, you like to be mischievous... What
   do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had
   writing it? The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats
   of association.
                             --Robert Frost 

The London theatre company Shakespeare joined around 1590 included a gifted clown, Will Kemp. It would be several years before Will Shakespeare became as renowned as Will Kemp. Jesters, zanies, and harlequins graced and disgraced stages, festivals and rituals, royal courts and great houses, from time immemorial. Thus, for any aspiring playwright, clowns were a natural resource. Shakespeare loved clowns and featured Kemp prominently.

What did Shakespeare's audiences enjoy when Kemp the Clown appeared? Kemp's clowning was pure performance, the triumph of style over substance. Audiences knew him and anticipated his arrival. Clowns like Kemp had a special relationship with spectators. They might have seen him before the show, as he mustered a crowd and collected tickets. A flamboyant figure, costumed conspicuously, in an ass-eared cap and bells and a multicolored tunic called motley, he carried a prop, perhaps a mirror, a marotte, or bauble. He would have arrived to titters, laughter, and applause. Now what's he going to do, audience members wondered, with those full-blown ox bladders on the end of a fool-stick?

Kemp's forte was calculated buffoonery. He was a dexterous dancer pretending to be a klutz, like Charlie Chaplin. Once Kemp performed a "Nine Days' Wonder," "jigging" a hundred miles from London to Norwich. He talked to himself in his handheld mirror or addressed the facsimile of his head on the end of his bauble. He botched language, bent his body like a pretzel, and took pratfalls. Holding the stage solo, he spoke directly to the audience. Clowns like Kemp improvise, or seem to, and might veer on outrageous tangents, to the chagrin of the author: "And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them," counsels Hamlet, "for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too." A flagrant show-off, Kemp constantly broke boundaries and invaded the audience. He presumed their sympathy, winked in complicity, as if they were all one until our play is done. Kemp's antics might or might not have had much to do with the rest of the play, "though, in the mean time, some necessary question of the play be then to be considered: that's villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it," as the drama-loving Prince of Denmark complains. Irresponsible and outrageous, clowns can't stand still and won't shut up.

Shakespeare's first audiences probably appreciated the clown's shenanigans more than the playwright's artistry. The showstopper in Two Gentlemen of Verona is Kemp as Launce, bitching about his dog, Crab, "the sourest-natured dog that lives: my mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity, yet did not this cruelhearted cur shed one tear: he is a stone, a very pebble stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog: a Jew would have wept to have seen our parting; why, my grandam, having no eyes, look you, wept herself blind at my parting." Well, you had to be there, for Shakespeare's script merely precipitated Kemp's bawdy slapstick. Clowning is all style, its full effects available only in performance, though there's a price to be paid for the clown's premium on performance. When Launce simply disappears, unremarked and unlamented, nobody minds because the clown is a pretend person, a diverting performer. Ephemeral and gratuitous, Launce scarcely connects with the other characters in the play, not even Crab. Like the joker in the pack, conventional clowns have temporary impact but ultimately don't count.

Launce's scene typifies the nature and limits of clowning. Kemp provoked laughter by appearing ridiculous and confounded. The word play on shoes and soles, the innuendo involving stones, holes, staffs and wands, all are well-worn gags and grist for the mill. Puns connect unrelated things and dismantle meanings. Launce can barely distinguish himself from Crab. "Nay, I'll show you the manner of it. This shoe is my father: no, this left shoe is my father: no, no, this left shoe is my mother: nay, that cannot be so neither: yes, it is so, it is so, it hath the worser sole. This shoe, with the hole in it, is my mother, and this my father; a vengeance on't! there 'tis: now, sit, this staff is my sister, for, look you, she is as white as a lily and as small as a wand: this hat is Nan, our maid: I am the dog: no, the dog is himself, and I am the dog--Oh! the dog is me, and I am myself; ay, so, so," et cetera, et cetera. If Launce cannot identify himself, what can he do? It doesn't matter; he will create something out of nothing. The clown's show is the triumph of style: "Nay, I'll show you the manner of it."

Will Kemp's celebrity fueled Shakespeare's fascination with clowns and fools. Shakespeare regularly borrowed plots and very frequently invented humorous characters not found in his sources. He seized any opportunity to create out of thin air robust clowns and vital fools, a host of characters gulled, deceived, conned, or conning. In another very early play, Comedy of Errors, adapted from Plautus's Roman farce about long-separated identical twins, Shakespeare doubled the trouble and multiplied the fun with two sets of twins: clowns both named Dromio serve masters each called Antipholus. Implausible? No matter, never mind! Clowns exist to perform ridiculously, outrageously. In Comedy of Errors fools are everywhere, identified by a colorful list of nicknames and synonyms: mome, malt-horse, capon, coxcomb, idiot, patch, sot, ape, ass, et al. Several scenes are patently conceived as clowns' routines, where one character is straight man to the impudent clown. Antipholus says that his slave Dromio "lightens my humor with his merry jests." "Sportive humor" is the jester's job, to cheer up the boss with merriment, tricks, and bawdry; E. Dromio offers a fart joke. Held to "neither rhyme nor reason," the Dromio twins are obliged only to be festive, responsible for irresponsibility.

Comedy of Errors demonstrates the playwright's inchoate sense of fools and fooling as ways to enrich and complicate his material. Characters who endure suffering and loss, whose experiences are anything but risible, suggest Shakespeare's impatience with pure farce and preference for impure complexities. Regularly dulce but only accidentally utile, they are not quizzical commentators, "touchstones," or shrewd observers who test and assess the perspective of others. Contributing the occasional tu quoque, clowns entangle their interlocutors in contradictions and expose their follies: those who think themselves wise are revealed to be fools. With alacrity the young Shakespeare discovered the potential of fools to provide more than slapstick humor and entertaining hey nonny nonny, yet his first clowns have the deficiencies of their virtues. Clowns have restricted capacity and efficacy. They do not challenge conventional wisdom, or catalyze more complex understanding or deeper revelation of self. Clowning is comparatively circumscribed, neither profoundly threatening nor potentially enlightening.

In later plays, fools disrupt more seriously and provoke more strongly. Eventually, Shakespeare's fools multiply doubts about basic identity--their own or anyone else's--by flouting singularity. The fool fragments our perceptions, confusing our conceptions of reality by introducing radically different, even diametrically opposed perspectives. Is it a duck or is it a rabbit? Fools plump for both views simultaneously, providing a double take, or humorous two-step. The fundamental form of doubling is the pun, and jests generally involve calculated ambiguity, confusing planes of reference or switching meanings. As in the children's game of handy-dandy, now you see it, now you don't!

Both the potential and limits of Shakespeare's early clowns are evident when Comedy of Errors concludes. In the movement toward clarification, as errors are corrected, the clowning Dromio twins play less significant roles. In Act 5, there are fewer puns to split words and compound meanings and no more fool's play to multiply selves or divide bodies. No longer catalyzing strange reactions or disseminating disorder, the clowns become emblems of unity in diversity, or identity in multiplicity: "We came into the world like brother and brother, / And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another." And yet it is only with apparent strain that the closing couplet figures identity in duality. The unusual "fourteeners" don't quite scan or mesh, as if struggling to encompass and control too much. Even now, rejoicing, confusion illuminated, identities revealed, truths affirmed, it's not easy to make a wrap, nor to identify self definitively. Brother and brother, hand in hand, somebody has to go first. And who is who? "That's a question" like priority, says Dromio. "How shall we try it?" As comprehensively as Comedy of Errors strives to resolve confusion, correct errors, and affirm identities, its closure is only partial. Doubts remain, questions linger. In the hands of more enterprising fools, these merely teasing questions and entertaining divertissements become urgent issues, jocoserious jests.

Gradually Shakespeare expanded the clown's role to develop dramatic possibilities and explore the mysteries of folly. Naturally, the clowns continued to make fun and entertain everyone, but they also played seriously with perspectives by reflecting on their own performance and the nature of perception and assessment. Though the terms clown and fool were often synonymous in contemporary usage, Shakespearean theater introduces a distinction between the buffoonish, rustic clown and the sophisticated, clever fool. More consciously than clowns, fools represent representation. They perform as if their lives depended on it. Barthes said that the Eiffel Tower attracts meaning the way a lightning rod attracts thunderbolts. Shakespeare's fools attract meaning, not to collect or display it, but to disseminate it.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Kemp plays Bottom, who capers cluelessly and stumbles on the time of his life. Here he awakes, as if still rehearsing:
    When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer: my next is,
"Most fair
   Pyramus." ... God's my life, stolen hence, and left me
asleep! I have had
   a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say
   dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this
   Methought I was--there is no man can tell what. Methought I was--and
   methought I had,--but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to
   what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man
   not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to
conceive, nor
   his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to
   a ballad of this dream: it shall be called Bottom's Dream,
because it
   hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play,
   the duke: peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it
   her death. 

Disoriented but undaunted, oblivious, Bottom struts grandly: someone else must notice the star's cue. He tramples logic, mixes senses, and pontificates obtusely: "The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen ..." His confusion of bodily parts is deliciously bawdy: "his hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive ..." Blithely goofy, Bottom becomes strangely moved, uplifted: "God's my life!" Even his absurd "When my cue comes, call me" heeds a calling, as if some revelation is at hand. Sure enough and incongruously, Bottom echoes First Corinthians: "But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for him that love him."

This is clowning with a difference. It is more evocative than Launce's buffoonery or Dromio's knockabout. Bottom is a vivid, distinct, memorable character. He's a great clown to whom something happens. Bottom seems touched, gloriously foolish, garbling scripture, struggling to fathom and articulate his "most rare vision." This clown is an individual responding to an experience that "hath no bottom." Catalyzed, an illiterate mechanical has a startling instinct, to make art: "I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream." Bumptious Bottom glimpses, as it were, the sublime: "God's my life ... a most rare vision ... to make it the more gracious ..." Ludicrously, unmistakably, Bottom hits the hammer on the head. Intuiting that dreams and visions are past the wit of man, Bottom speaks in tongues. As it is written, so it shall be: the last shall be first. Humorously yet movingly, fortuitously and in spite of himself, this patched fool produces a most rare vision, quick as any lightning.

Bottom's shining moment foreshadows the spectacular manifestations of comic characters played by Kemp's successor, Robert Armin. Kemp's clowns metamorphose into Armin's fools, displaying richer interiority and figuring more substantially. The jester's performance moves from the margins to the center of Shakespeare's drama, developing, as Hamlet urges, "some necessary question of the play." Contriving confusion and cultivating illusions, fools may reflect cogently and speculate skeptically. Armin's fools--Feste in Twelfth Night, Touchstone in As You Like It, Lavache in All's Well That Ends Well, Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing--carry out Shakespeare's equivocal explorations of folly and wisdom; some become both the object and the source of mockery. They manufacture what Feste terms "Misprision in the highest degree!" (Misprision: "the mistaking of one thing for another; a misunderstanding; a mistake" [OED].) The performance of folly is a deliberate project, aware of its purposes and effects.

When Touchstone arrives in the forest of Arden, he remarks sardonically, "the more fool I." Even the jester's casual jokes make more than one kind of sense. Touchstone is indeed "the more fool" than he was at court or than Kemp's clowns ever were. His attitudes are more complex. He responds acutely to what he sees and hears. To parody amorous hokum or court folderol, as he does skillfully, Touchstone must be a canny listener and imaginative observer. He is able to enter and appreciate the viewpoints he mocks. Touchstone shows an impressive range of styles.

Where Launce blathered and Bottom blundered, Touchstone discourses; instead of malapropisms, he crafts puns. The fooling of Touchstone--and other shrewd fools, such as Feste and Falstaff--is more verbal than physical. Fools like Feste shrewdly "dally nicely with words" and--Viola adds aptly--"may quickly make them wanton." Like the pickpurse Autolycus, that "snapper-up of unconsiered trifles" in Winter's Tale, fools shamelessly filch material from many sources. (The playwright might see this as a venial offense.) In Falstaff's "damnable iteration," anything is ripe for pilfer, from casual chitchat to learned references. Fools plunder and parody giddily. Their hyperbolic impersonations are themselves virtuoso performances. The language of fooling feature double talk, strained conceits, blarney, specious erudition, choplogic, and rigmarole. To be a "corrupter of words," fools like Feste are adroit rhetoricians and canny literary critics--high calling indeed!

The rhetoric of folly stresses fission and fusion, as individual words split and merge. The pun is mightier than the word! Juxtaposing words with similar sounds and disparate meanings, Falstaff mocks the Hostess as "neither fish nor flesh; a man knows not where to have her." Taking the bait, Mistress Quickly indignantly proclaims that "thou or any man knows where to have me, thou knave, thou!" Falstaff's jest demonstrates foolish fission. Beginning with a single, simple word, have, he builds comic confusion and bifurcates individuality, "neither fish nor flesh." The Hostess falls victim because she is literal and single-minded, outfoxed by Falstaff's cunning ambidexterity. Double trouble for the auditor doubles the fun for the punster. In the fool's utterances, words invariably split, suggest incongruities that somehow come together. With puns, fools discredit singularity and generate multiplicity. No category or ordinary distinction is safe. Wit and judgment, proclaims Tristram Shandy, are inseparable, like farting and hiccupping. No Shakespearean fool says it better! Fools love amphibology, the rhetorical term for ambiguity, or a "figure of sence uncertain," according to Shakespeare's contemporary Puttenham. Fools fatten on paradox, oxymoron, aporia, defined by Puttenham as a manner of speaking to "make doubt of things when by a plaine manner of speech wee might affirme or deny him."

The linguistic resources of Shakespeare's fools are enriched far beyond the ken of a clown. They make and multiply meanings with portmanteau words such as foolosophy, the inspired coinage of Thomas Chaloner, who translated Erasmus's Praise of Folly. Shakespeare's great fools are occasional foolosophers. They bring topsy-turvy and play handy-dandy, leaping giddily between planes of reference, pitting one thing against another; the more far-fetched, the better. The fool's project is irresponsible, to confound meaning and value, to bewilder spectators no matter how often we reverse ourselves. Fools juggle apples and oranges, and sometimes get egg on the face.

Whereas Shakespeare's early clowns are often outside the action or tangential, a fool like Touchstone is an active participant. He is also engaged in the folly he spoofs. Grounded and realistic, his only illusion is that he has no illusions. Touchstone is "a material fool" in several senses. He targets romantic love and naturally comes a cropper, driven by carnal appetites to wed an illiterate girl oblivious to his cherished wit. Yet humiliation enables this fool for love to become his own best subject, wise enough to regard himself humorously: "We that are true lovers run into strange capers; but as all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly." Touchstone delivers a seriocomic apothegm drawn from his piecemeal gospel of folly and his experience.

The issue highlighted by Touchstone is not whether an attitude is genuine or contrived, an emotion sincere or disingenuous, but whether the performance is well-feigned, the artifice compelling. Touchstone suggests that one feigns even when one is most fain. Is it possible that Touchstone believes in something after all, however evanescent and elusive? As You Like It largely confirms Touchstone's punning jest, by dramatizing the potential value of fooling and celebrating the virtue of artifice. In this play, style, not sincerity, truly is the touchstone. Without that artifice we call style, feelings (however ardent) are inadequate or unavailing. Hence Rosalind's elaboration of "counterfeit," a cognate for deception and performance. Rosalind is disguised as a boy pretending to be "herself." Her many-minded, sustained fooling raises the question: without a "well-counterfeited" role does anyone have a character? Perhaps to lack a guise is to want a self. This theatricality, sympathetic to the imaginary of fooling, favoring artifice over essence, style over substance, pervades As You Like It. Touchstone's emphasis on the contingency of feeling and the validity of fooling is partially valid (at least).

In As You Like It, perhaps the apotheosis of fooling, the fool strides forth and stands for nothing--nothing but the enactment of a hypothetical, the pleasure of "performance and prowess and feats of association" that Frost mischievously advocates. More so than the parti-colored clown, the motley fool is complexly divided as well as divisive. He is simultaneously actor and role, spectator and spectacle, observer and observed: "But that's all one, our play is done," says Feste, ending Twelfth Night. Fools insist that we are all actors, perpetually playing, and spectators, ever observing--if not as you like it, willynilly, what you will. Clowns like Launce are on their own and speak to us directly. The fool more often addresses two audiences, within and without the fiction. In the fooling of Touchstone and Falstaff and Feste, the border between real and imaginary is wide open. While Feste stresses the make-believe nature of the show--"our play is done"--under pressure from the fool the dichotomy between play and real dissolves. Feste and Touchstone are laureates of liminality, eluding categories, entertaining mutually incompatible possibilities.

Gaily unselfconscious, innocent of introspection, Shakespearean fools are paradoxically highly self-reflexive performers. That jester's mirror encourages speculation (speculum, mirror). His marotte, perhaps decorated with a miniature self-image, figures his duality, depicting and mocking the fool "himself." These props, like much foolish flapdoodle, rupture the illusion of verisimilitude and reinforce the blatant performativity. Presuming (in Santayana's formulation) "the world is contingency and absurdity incarnate, the oddest of possibilities masquerading momentarily as fact," the fool is disinclined to settle the hash. He has bigger fish to fry, exposing and performing follies. Beguiled into believing we are in on the trick, we are taken in and fooled. Fooling enmeshes everyone, especially those foolish enough to believe they are free of folly. If you think Falstaff or Touchstone or Bottom is serious, you're deluded; and if you think he is just fooling, you're fooling yourself. Fools hoodwink us and mock their audience's complicity, like Jaques chanting ducdame, drawing fools into the circle. In the whirligig of time, the game is never over, even when the fool demonstrates, You too. You're another.

Shakespeare's evolution from basic clowning to sophisticated fooling is crystallized in Jaques's encounter with Touchstone. The comedy has moved light years from the burlesque of Launce and his dog Crab or the muddled doubles in Comedy of Errors. Perspective becomes crucial; no longer is what you see what you get. Fooling reverberates, compounded complexly. It begins but never quite ends with a particular point of view. Notably, we don't see Touchstone's meeting with Jaques; rather, we hear Jaques' excited account: "A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' the forest, / A motley fool; a miserable world!" The "motley fool" Jaques depicts is the familiar dispenser of platitudes and paradoxes, supercilious nonsense, and bawdry quibbles on whores and venereal disease: "from hour to hour, we rot and rot." But Jaques fails to recognize that Touchstone's half-baked puddleglummery deftly parodies Jaques himself. Shakespeare juxtaposes versions of folly by constructing a fun house hall of mirrors that offers and withdraws a fixed vantage point: thus fooling becomes dialectical.

Both Jaques and Touchstone are intruders in Arden, skeptics, orators, and moralists, both intelligent, spirited, amusing figures, regarded respectfully but warily by everyone else. Each performs showily, regularly entertaining and occasionally illuminating their auditors. Though Jaques and Touchstone are apt commentators, neither is unimpeachable. They reject idealism and idealization, mock love and lovers, and remain foolishly misguided. They are both sources and critics of folly:
                           When I did hear
        The motley fool thus moral on the time,
        My lungs began to crow like chanticleer,
        That fools should be so deep-contemplative,
        And I did laugh sans intermission
        An hour by his dial. O noble fool!
        A worthy fool! Motley's the only wear. 

Mesmerized by his double, Jaques only partially discerns Touchstone's perspicuity and totally disregards his own foolishness. "O that I were a fool!" he proclaims in an amusing subjunctive contrary to fact, "I am ambitious for a motley coat." He conceives himself as a wise man playing the fool and misperceives Touchstone's ironic mockery. Their felicitous encounter is thus a parable of fooling. When Jaques says, "give me leave to prove a fool," he reveals himself a fool and speaks for all of us. Touchstone exposes Jaques's delusions, coolly decapitates him--and leaves his head precariously in place.

In complicating the distinction between fooling and being fooled, Shakespeare raises the stakes and heightens the implications of fooling. Ingratiating but expendable clowns like Launce morph into highwire performers, rankling and threatening authorities. Traditionally, jesters enjoy license: "there is no slander in an allowed fool." Still called "innocents" in Elizabethan England, fools were associated with children: "out of the mouths of babes and fools." Fools might say anything, however disrespectful or irreverent, vile or disturbing. They abuse heroes, mock their betters, and insult monarchs with reckless abandon. Yet they are licensed provisionally and subject to punishment: "Take heed, sirrah: the whip," warns Lear. Clowns as well as fools take some pretty good hits; Dromio is incessantly slapped and pummeled. His resilience is typical. Chaplin said that the clown "always returns again. So in a way he is a spirit, not real. And because he is always returning, that gives comfort. We know he cannot die, and that's the best thing about him." With extraordinary durability, clowns bounce back from falls, drubbings, and humiliations. You can't keep a good clown down.

Shakespeare's fools often reach further or higher than his clowns. His mature fools have greater scope than fledgling clowns like the Dromios and Launces. As they flirt with chaos, their proximity to peril, skirting the abyss, gives these fools an aura of sanctity, a hint of divine impunity, like a saint touching lepers. Though Bottom has a glimpse of glory, when "Falstaff riseth up" from supposed death, he enacts a comic resurrection. Playing possum to escape a fearsome warrior, Falstaff hears Prince Hal bid him farewell. Left to himself, Falstaff indignantly rejects the honor of being embalmed:
    Embowelled! if thou embowel me today, I'll give you leave to
   me and eat me too tomorrow. 'Sblood, 'twas time to
counterfeit, or
   that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too. Counterfeit?
   I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die, is to be a counterfeit; for he
   is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man: but
   to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no
   counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed. The
   better part of valour is discretion; in the which better part I
   have saved my life. 'Zounds ... 

Very much alive, Falstaff's vigorous self-assertion is inspired fooling. Blasphemously, he transforms the embalming ritual into cannibalization. "Eat me too tomorrow" evokes the communicant eating the body and blood of Christ. Then there is the Falstaffian twist, degradation turned into exaltation. The exclamations 'Sblood and 'Zounds (His blood, His wounds) reinforce the resurrection motif, culminating in "the true and perfect image of life indeed." Falstaff brazenly remakes himself from an emboweled corpse into the Saviour. A boisterous clown like Bottom gets lucky with an ensorcelled goddess, while the "great fool" Falstaff, as if blessed by supernatural or magical forces, wields potent powers. Both have access to a neverland beyond the mundane world. But Falstaff can make it happen. In imagination and through language, Falstaff moves nimbly between real and fantastic, sublime and ridiculous. Plucked into fairyland and returned to his ordinary self, Bottom demonstrates, willy-nilly, that the ass might be first. Asserting his will, Falstaff stages a comic redemption, at once self-dramatizing and self-mocking.

Deliberately exploiting ambiguities and sowing confusion, fools like Falstaff or Feste challenge assumptions; nothing is sacred or authentic, reliable or guaranteed--neither honor nor love, nor any verity. Falstaff raises foolish equivocation to a higher level, as if seeing matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter, as Robert Frost once characterized poetry. Bottom's peep of what "eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen" is expanded and expounded by Falstaff. He is the ludicrous apostle of folly.

Falstaff facetiously denies his duality, toggling between extremes: "I am not a double man." Literally, he means that he is not a ghost, nor a two-headed monster, as he appears to be carrying the corpse of Hotspur. As usual, Falstaff prevaricates. He is always fooling, double, disingenuous, never more than when disingenuously avowing sincerity or piety. Amphibious, he tacitly divides himself ("in the which better part") through puns, paradoxes, and double entendres. Falstaff sits on a crapper, joking of redemption; dying, he babbles of green fields. Falstaff refines quibble to comic epiphany--"Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed"--and echoes or impersonates Saint Paul--"only the second person of the Blessed Trinity, the Son, is the perfect image and likeness of the Father." Scriptural allusion enables Falstaff to strut in borrowed robes, to magnify himself, and to mock authority. "Counterfeit" fool's play blurs illusion and reality, asserting and negating simultaneously. Rosalind also repeats that word counterfeit like a talisman. Yet, like Rosalind, Falstaff addresses the audience directly as if he were real. He separates himself from the mere characters on the stage, by stressing his fictivity. Falstaff is an actor's "counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man."

Falstaff's mingle-mangled foolosophy contends that it is the fallen Hotspur, not the cowardly sham, who is the counterfeit of life. "To die," he insists, is "to be a counterfeit; for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man: but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed." Surely Falstaff has a good point. But Falstaff's fooling also makes fun of itself. Any line between fantasy and reality, genuine and counterfeit, what is true and what is "perfect image," wavers. In the "Henriad," the fundamental difference between true and false is less "sure and certain" than the "real" king or "true Prince" recognizes. It would be nice if foolosophers like Falstaff and Touchstone illuminated the way of the world, or simply reversed the relationship of wisdom and folly. What seems wise or true or valuable or good is actually folly; what appears to be foolish is really a higher good or value. This would be the kind of revaluation Paul makes when he urges Christians to become "fools for Christ." To ignore or reject the things of this world is to seem foolish, but such "folly" is truly wisdom, argues Paul, preaching faith in God.

Fools like Falstaff don't bring us to firm ground, the way Paul's gospel of folly unmasks the illusions and reveals the reality. Falstaff is always fooling. If he had his druthers, the game would never end. Eager and able to play anything, fools are unable or unwilling to be anyone. They are plastic, not principled, performers not persons. It's understandable that Falstaff's sincerity is so often debated, his "feelings" open to question. Perhaps it is painful for us to accept that anyone as bright, engaging, and winning as Falstaff might not feel or believe or win much of anything. Fooling may be for better or worse, and fools don't mind which. No wonder authorities regulate and suppress fools. Before Shakespeare, the word fool was synonymous with vice. The harlequin of commedia dell'arte was originally a demon or Hellequin. The stock medieval figures of Vice and Clown overlapped, played by the same actor. Robert Armin, in his Nest of Ninnies, cites the fool as sinner. In Shakespeare's London, criminals were arrayed as fools, crowned with a fool's cap, seated backwards on a horse, arsy-versy.

The ancient connections between folly and vice, evident in the Hebrew Bible, inform Shakespeare's anatomy of folly. Shakespeare is rarely sentimental. His fools include lovable scamps and naughty imps. They also include potentially corrupt or dangerously depraved characters. Perennially beyond the pale, some Shakespearean fools approach the dark side and are plausibly regarded as sinister. Jester to the "king of shadows," Puck is perpetually mischievous and occasionally menacing. So is Feste, remorselessly tormenting Malvolio. In another scene where the jest curdles, Hal vituperates Falstaff as "that old white-bearded Satan."

Fools in Shakespeare retain a whiff of sulfur and have disturbing traits. Subversives, they utter the unspeakable, violate taboos, flout decency. Many fools are vulgar debunkers, like the "foul-mouthed and calumnious knave" Lavache in All's Well That Ends Well or the potty-mouthed Thersites in Troilus and Cressida. They revel in ribaldry and tout appetite. That's why they have names like Toby Belch or Bottom. Though fools belabor sex, they rarely have relations and never produce offspring. A fool with children is unthinkable. Falstaff's name suggests a defunct penis. "Is it not strange," muses Prince Hal, "that desire should so many years outlive performance?" Another ominous element common to fools, besides lewdness, is preoccupation with death. Like all jokers, fools make hay of mortality. But their affinity with death seems to go deeper, suggesting that mortality itself is the condition that inevitably turns life into folly. Medieval artists depicted death as a jester enjoying the last laugh. This is precisely what King Richard II discovers: "There keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits, / Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp." Overflowing with elan vital, the fool is a memento mori.

Shakespeare's anatomy of folly draws on traditional representations of the fool, complicates conventions--and invests extraordinary energy in fools, mixing critical interrogation and imaginative empathy. In Sonnet 110, Shakespeare's speaker is "a motley to the view," or a foolish spectacle. It's a telling self-characterization for the playwright who so adroitly disappears into his characters and "becomes" his roles. Like his fools, he has no "self," assumes various guises, and performs many styles; identity is a succession of performances, a concatenation of styles. Those motley patches randomly stitched together have always seemed emblematic. Later, Shakespearean motley is less a sign of clownish singularity and more a trope for what Lear calls "this great stage of fools." It is not only in comedies such as Twelfth Night and As You Like It that, as Jaques says, "folly is anatomized." In tragedy as well as comedy, "there the antic sits." While contemporaries like Philip Sidney contended that mingling kings and clowns was a violation of literary decorum, Shakespeare highlights the incongruities. Like his foolosophers Hamlet, Falstaff, and Rosalind, Shakespeare rarely regards any thing as one thing. Comedy and tragedy, clowns and kings, wisdom and folly are a little more than kin.

Enter the fool as tragic hero. No jester could upstage the Clown Prince of Denmark. Hamlet dons "an antic disposition" and speculates astutely on deception and deceit, illusion and self-delusion. He ruthlessly exposes follies by staging jester's scenes, to trick and excoriate fools he despises: I'm a fool and you're another. Jaques and Touchstone were arranged to mirror one another and to dramatize the limits of self-reflection. In the tragedies, the fool's hall of mirrors reveals the self through a glass darkly. Hamlet's first line, distancing himself from King Claudius, is a jester's pun: "A little more than kin, and less than kind." It also suggests closer kinship with his "mighty opposite," Claudius, than Hamlet acknowledges. Hamlet's maniacal rhapsody about the corpse of Polonius is a grotesque fool's show. It probably indicates, as T. S. Eliot said, that Hamlet's "antic disposition" is less than madness, more than feigned. Weirdly conflating King Claudius and foolish Polonius, Hamlet links all three in a procession of fools or dance of death.

Hamlet also discovers, at least briefly, the consolations of foolosophy. Bantering in the graveyard with the Clown, he cavorts with death. In Yorick's skull, Hamlet, like King Richard, confronts "the antic ... Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp." But Hamlet's memory of Yorick is a picture of human warmth, play, and mirth. "That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once." Yorick is resurrected fondly, exuberantly: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio--a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times." Hamlet remembers being entertained and sustained by the fool, the way another prince, Hal, depicted another fallen fool, Falstaff: punning, jesting, and fooling unto the last.

Hamlet the tragic hero is also a great fool, a figure of many colors: now wry, acerbic, ironic, now self-dramatizing, playful, theatrical. He's addicted to puns and wordplay, anxious humor and bleak jests, inclined to the grotesque and weirdly enigmatic, as well as lyrical and mystical. In Hamlet's foolosophy are shining surfaces and obscure depths, multiple perspectives and contradictions. His quest for truth brings confusion. Hamlet seems to raise questions in utter seriousness--only to shift styles and alter attitudes, to interrogate and mock seriousness itself. The words play and act echo throughout his speeches.

"Folly is anatomized" in Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Othello, indeed, in every Shakespearean tragedy, especially in King Lear. Never has a jester been more central, compelling, or strange as Lear's Fool. Like Hamlet, this "sweet and bitter fool" is tender and ruthless, amusing and disturbing. Though some of his fooling counsels common sense, much of it is nonsense, with dollops of vulgarity, misogyny, and misanthropy. If clowns confuse, this Fool baffles. He makes hay of heartbreak and voices the unspeakable, like a fury harassing and harrying the King. Lear's Fool also illuminates this dark world with mysterious flashes, cryptic yet resonant, including paradoxes and riddles, Biblical travesties, inverted parables, and surrealistic images. The Fool's language is haunting. It has a magical quality, floating free like seeds that appear to germinate elsewhere.

More telling than what Lear's Fool means is how he means, or refuses to mean. One soliloquy, "This is a brave night to cool a courtesan," is so full of puzzling folderol that some editors consider it an interpolation. Lewd sarcasm and satiric allusion to venereal diseases jostle with utopian and biblical idiom: "I'll speak a prophecy." It's a topsy-turvy vision: "Then shall the realm of Albion / Come to great confusion." Perhaps the Fool parodies Lear's godlike declamations. By turns oracular and elliptical, the speech exaggerates the incongruities. What goes up must come down, says the fool; deflation is his mission. He flaunts his own outrageous presence with the self-regarding anachronism, "This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time." If this soliloquy is by someone other than Shakespeare, as some suggest, the forger was a skillful counterfeiter.

Lear's Fool is persistently both shadow and substance. When Lear begins to lose his bearings and asks rhetorically, "Who is it can tell me who I am?" the Fool answers cruelly and aptly, "Lear's shadow." The mirroring and doubling of earlier fooling, such as Jaques encountering Touchstone, gain intimacy, urgency, and resonance. The Fool affects Lear profoundly. In this fool's-eye view of the play, Lear absorbs his Fool: "Change places, and handy-dandy." Their mysterious connection becomes unmistakable in the storm, especially when Lear tenderly addresses the fool as "my boy." Rather than expect the Fool to share his plight, now Lear notices and pities the Fool's plight: "The art of our necessities is strange, / That can make vile things precious." To an extent, but only to an extent, Lear's Fool is a reliable guide and beneficent force. At best, the Fool takes Lear only so far, part way. Much lies beyond the Fool's ken. Accordingly, he dwindles. Inside the hovel, Poor Tom takes over the discourse. The Fool utters only a few lines and then, like Launce dropping out of Two Gentlemen, suddenly, inexplicably, disappears: "And I'll go to bed at noon." The comparison to Launce underscores the vast differences. We notice and regret this Fool's absence. Perhaps Lear, having attended "the school of fools," has completed Foolosophy 101. During his agonizing meeting with blinded Gloucester on the heath, the King speaks the fool's idiom. Ultimately, in lunatic clarity, he seems to confuse Cordelia with the Fool himself. Lear discovers that reality is an illusion, a shadow show. Stripped of delusions, Lear comes to see everyone, especially himself, performing upon "this great stage of fools." To believe this foolosophy is to gaze into the abyss and want to look away. Is it any wonder than Lear's Fool disappears? Where the fool goes, no one can follow, for that way madness lies.

In Shakespeare's last plays, fooling and folly rarely have their original simplicity and untroubled appeal. Clowns in Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest, initially provide broadly amusing entertainment. When Caliban, caught in the storm, takes shelter and plays possum to hide from the shipwrecked stranger, Trinculo, "the folly of this island" looks like fun. Trinculo, the "pied ninny," or motley fool, also called a "jesting monkey," seeks refuge under Caliban's garment. Fools of a feather ... Enter Stephano, pickled on port, whose loud tomfoolery frightens Trinculo and Caliban, hidden under cover, two pairs of legs extended from opposite ends. Apparent comic relief now becomes burlesque regeneration, as Stephano invokes Christ raising Lazarus: "If thou beest Trinculo, come forth." The legs-first extraction of Trinculo resembles a breached birth. To the "two Neapolitans scaped," saved from drowning, it is a joyous recognition and revival. The scene includes plenty of the physical humor common to clowns. "Prithee do not turn me about," says Stephano to the jubilant Trinculo, "my stomach is not constant." They trade vulgar insults, sing "very scurvy" songs, and get royally drunk. Stephano asks his old mate, "How cam'st thou to be the siege [excrement] of this mooncalf? Can he vent [shit] Trinculos?" Stupidity and cupidity, drunkenness and dissipation, follies tried and true, abound. These fools have been given the stage to "be jocund" and make "merry," as Caliban says.

So far, so good. But these jokers plot murder and rape. Caliban gleefully urges Stephano to batter Prospero's skull and seize his daughter Miranda. The antics celebrate not a rebirth, but the birth of evil, more like sin than silliness. "The folly of this island" proves disturbing, persistent, and intractable. Antonio's usurpation of Prospero's dukedom, Sebastian's projected regicide, and Caliban's revenge are eerily similar. Ultimately and painfully, Prospero perceives the origins and implications of "the folly of this island" as the heart of darkness. For that understanding, the hero needs the fool, "this thing of darkness" he calls Caliban. When Prospero finally, grudgingly, "acknowledges" Caliban, he recognizes the jeering gargoyle, even in Arcadia, as well as that irremediable duality he shares with Caliban. Prospero is also an outcast who feels "cursed" and "needs must curse" his state. Torn, as he tells us, between fury and reason or vengeance and virtue, Prospero hangs between. To relinquish his magical powers is to confront his mortality. He knows that the best is past: "every third thought shall be my grave." Prospero does not go gentle into that good night. Partly reconciled, Prospero remains tormented and divided. He regrets that Caliban is "A devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick: on whom my pains, / Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost!"

Prospero intuits the constraints of life and the limits of his art. Friend, family, and foe are all fellow sinners: "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine." Within the hollow crown that rounds his mortal temples, there the antic sits. The hard reality for Prospero is that his losses are irreparable. Hence the elegiac tone of his valediction, "Our revels now are ended." He stresses the folly of trusting illusions, "melted into air, into thin air." His "dismayed" recognition is "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep." We are all fools, enacting a pageant of dubious purpose and tenuous value. Prospero imagines no afterlife, no providential design, only a "baseless fabric," a little life and long sleep. He is left with a rueful, compelling foolosophy, "my weakness: my old brain ... my infirmity." Prospero's masque, the lovely show he devised to celebrate his daughter's wedding, is finally "some vanity of mine art," illusory, precarious, and passing. Perhaps that is why Prospero is so fussy, like a playwright on opening night. His art is not grace. The only redemption it offers is figurative. Shadowlike, evidently not all there, folly sometimes seems to be all we have. In Prospero's ultimate vision, it is all performance, pure style--always folly and no joke. If Prospero ruefully realizes that his illusions and all performances are hollow, the reverse is also possible: because stagecraft is vacuous at the core, it intimates what brute fact itself can never say of itself. It speaks the unsayable.
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Title Annotation:Style as Performance/Performance as Style
Author:Bell, Robert H.
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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