Everybody Plays the Fool, But Which Kind?

A fool, according to The American Heritage Dictionary:

1. One who is deficient in judgment, sense, or understanding.

6. One who subverts convention or orthodoxy or varies from social conformity in order to reveal spiritual or moral truth.

This summer, I treated myself to several of BBC’s filmed productions of Shakespeare plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night.  I’ve chosen to look at these two today as they show a unique pattern in the world of Shakespeare. There are foolish fools (1), and then, paradoxically, there are wise fools (6).

The fool in Midsummer, Nick Bottom, clearly falls under the first definition of the above entry. Bottom– as his name suggests– is churlish, vulgar, and fond of drink. Plus, he gets turned into a donkey.

PMidsummer-9090_fs

We’re supposed to laugh at Nick and his misfortune. Why? Because he’s schadenfreudelicious.*

On the other side lies Feste, a lute-playing jester in Twelfth Night. Feste, who is just known as “Fool” in certain editions, often acts the playwright’s surrogate. He, like similar characters in other plays, almost exists outside of the play’s action. Feste is less of a player and more of a commentator, using bon mots in the middle of scenes and songs during transitions.

twelfth_night3_feste

Below is an example of Feste’s wit, in the form of a song called “O Mistress Mine”¹:

What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter.
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

Macabre? Yes. But it’s apt, and of course, a clear reflection of the author’s beliefs. We’re beautiful now, but a time will come when we’re… less beautiful. We better get our lovin’ in while we can, right?

Bottom is dense and Feste is clever. Two comic characters who have little in common other than their ability to entertain.

On second thought, they wouldn’t be so well known if they were just sources of entertainment. Feste’s wit and charm make him much more than a simpleton. Bottom is complex in that he has desires– love, success– but can’t achieve them due to being born unlucky. Isn’t that, in a sense, a little tragic?


The Bottom-Feste dichotomy doesn’t stop in the world of the Bard. Nor does it end in Elizabethan theatre, or stage art itself. Modern comedies include characters similar to both Bottom and Feste.

More on that another day– I don’t want to mar an article about Shakespeare with talk of “movies” and “popular culture.” That is for the proles!

In all seriousness, one of my passions is taking comedy, which is often seen as an inexplicable act, and trying to find what makes it work. I’m excited– and unsurprised– that a trope so common today was also popular four centuries ago. Stay tuned.

¹ Second verse.
*The adjectival form in German is actually Schadenfreudig.