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fools and jesters

fools and jesters. Laughter-makers were employed at court in the classical world and in many ancient monarchies. They had various functions—to entertain, to prick solemnity, to defuse awkward situations. They were often allowed considerable licence, though pertness had its dangers. Some were genuinely foolish ( John Stultum = ‘Stupid’) but were tolerated on the principle that there are truths that only madmen know. The heyday of the court fool seems to have been late medieval and early modern, and the jester's costume—green and yellow patchwork garments, cap, bells, and stick—was introduced in the 15th cent. Most fools had their own specialities—singing, dancing, juggling, tumbling, or mimicry. Many of the royal fools are known to us. Martinet of Gascony served Edward I; John Scogan was at Edward IV's court and a jest-book attributed to him came out as late as 1570; Will Somers, said to be a good mimic, served Henry VIII, who also took over Wolsey's fool, Patch; Jeffrey Hudson, dwarf and fool to Charles I, turned cavalry leader during the civil wars. Great noblemen and ecclesiastics also had their fools. Patison, More's fool, was painted by Holbein with his master; the priory of Worcester kept a fool and the prior went in person to order his costume.

Few fools are to be found in the 18th cent. Court life became more dignified and ceremonious; taste changed and buffoonery went out of fashion; the great teeming households full of servants and retainers gave way to a more private existence; card-playing and conversation left little room for full-time jesters; 18th-cent. polite society no longer found dwarfs or little men funny in themselves. Shakespeare's fools—Touchstone and Lear's fool—have a more complex role, singing and diverting, but also acting as chorus on events. Their laughter is often shot through with melancholy and Olivia's clown brings down the curtain in Twelfth Night with ‘the rain it raineth every day’.

J. A. Cannon

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