What do Shakespeare and Disney have in common? Okay, all you pranksters, April Fool’s Day has passed. But it’s true that nearly every work by Shakespeare and Disney features a fool as an important character. Why?
In history, court jesters were recruited because of their witty foolishness. In literature, the fool became an archetypal character. The fool may be the wisest person in the room. It got me thinking how important fools are to great literature.
Although the fool injects levity into a situation, he or she (in Disney tales, the fool can even be an “it”, like a fish or a carpet) is often the truth teller. Presenting a ridiculous wardrobe and irreverent garbling – sometimes intentional, sometimes not — the fool can often say what others dare not. The fool may appear to be ridiculous or an idiot but represents liberation from the shackles of cultural rules and expectations.
French Renaissance writer François Rabelais’s description of Panurge, a recurring main character in several of his novels, encompasses many of a jester’s characteristics: “Irreverent, libertine, self-indulgent, witty, clever, roguish, he is the fool as court jester, the fool as companion, the fool as goad to the wise and challenge to the virtuous, the fool as critic of the world.”
Shakespeare populated even his heavy dramas, with fools. As Isaac Asimov comments in his Guide to Shakespeare, “That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.” Some of Shakespeare’s fools include: Feste (Twelfth Night, or What You Will); Touchstone (As You Like It); The Gravediggers (Hamlet); Nick Bottom (who becomes an actual ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream); The Fool (King Lear); Trinculo (The Tempest); and Falstaff (The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV).
The fool, in one form or another, has existed throughout the history of global literature. The Bible had its Wise Fool. Literature from Ancient Rome and China had their court jesters. Russia’s Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story titled Ivan the Fool.
In contemporary literature, the fool often has a mental or emotional condition that sets him or her apart from the norm but those differences make them endearing as well as honest. Familiar examples include: John Steinbeck’s Lenny (Of Mice and Men); Jerzy Kosinski’s Chance, the gardener (Being There); Winston Groom’s title character in Forrest Gump; and J.K. Rowling’s Luna Lovegood (the Harry Potter series).
In early literature, the fool always played a supporting role. In contemporary literature, the fool is often elevated to a main character. Either way, the fool is a ubiquitous presence in both classic and contemporary storytelling. The fool possesses some characteristic that evokes laughter, even as he (or she) enlightens. As Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
Ah, if only the fools we meet in real life would be more like the fools we meet in literature!