Monday, 28 October 2013

The Fool in Shakespeare's tragedies

In preparation for this morning's (forecast) Great Storm I reread Act III scene ii of King Lear and was struck again by the strangeness of the Fool's role in the scene. It is the scene that starts with Lear's famous "Blow winds and crack your cheeks" speech and whilst the Fool in one sense plays his role as Lear's minder, he also interrupts the old King's rant with an apparently irrelevant little ditty about cod-pieces and lice:
"He that has a house to put his head in has a good head-piece.
The cod-piece that will house
  Before the head has any,
The head and he shall louse;
  So beggars marry many.
The man that makes his toe
  What he his heart should make,
Shall of a corn cry woe,
  And turn his sleep to wake.
For there was never yet fair woman but she made mouths in a glass."

Aside from the first and last lines this was presumably sung, and it is hard to imagine a more incongruous note for Shakespeare to strike whilst simultaneously evoking, through Lear's words alone, the power and majesty of the "oak-cleaving thunderbolts" and "all-shaking thunder" of the great tempest that threatens to overwhelm them. Later on in the scene, as Lear's thoughts turn to the various "undivulged crimes,/Unwhipp’d of justice" the Fool's digressions act more directly as a counterpoint to Lear's anger, but the issue of tone still remains: why does Shakespeare introduce elements of levity and humour at such moments of high drama?

Of course he has form in this. Think of the porter in Macbeth, immediately after the murder of Duncan, or of the gravediggers in Hamlet just after Ophelia's suicide. These are amongst the most difficult Shakespeare scenes for modern students to relate to, if for no other reason than that topical stand-up (which is effectively what these scenes are) generally does not date well, and we have to take the scholars' word for it that they would have been hilariously funny to a contemporary audience.

Yet even if we accept that the scenes were funny we are still left with the central question: why are they there? The Fool was obviously a big draw for Shakespeare's audiences and much has been written by many more learned than I about the Fool's sociological significance and historical context. I have nothing useful to add in that regard, but wanted to reflect a little purely on how the Fools' speeches work in the context of the great tragedies.

To some extent, the Fools provide a "way in" for contemporary audiences into the rarefied world of the kings depicted in the plays. The Fool is always the voice of the common people, and counterpoints the grandiosity of others. So when Lear reaches the apotheosis of his rage and strips off his clothes to stand naked in the storm, the Fool injects a note of common sense: " Prithee, nuncle, be contented; ’tis a naughty night to swim in," and when Lear is fulminating against the manifold iniquities of the world in the mad 'trial' of his (imaginary) daughters, the Fool repeatedly interjects with sayings like "He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath."

There is something deeper going on here too though. In some ways the Fools seem to provide Shakespeare with a means to step outside the world he has created for a time and reflect on the plays as constructs. This is done explicitly at the end of Twelfth Night of course, when Feste ends the play with a song, whose last verse is:
"A great while ago the world begun,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
    And we’ll strive to please you every day."
but (as so often) it is in Hamlet that Shakespeare pursues this idea to its conclusion. At a key point in a play that is concerned amongst other things with the nature of madness, this interchange occurs between Hamlet and the gravedigger:
 "Gravedigger: Of all the days i’ the year, I came to ’t that day that our last King Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.
  Hamlet:  How long is that since?
  Gravedigger:  Cannot you tell that? every fool can tell that; it was the very day that young Hamlet was born; he that is mad, and sent into England.
  Hamlet:   Ay, marry; why was he sent into England?
  Gravedigger:  Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits there; or, if he do not, ’tis no great matter there,
  Hamlet:   Why?
  Gravedigger:  ’Twill not be seen in him there; there the men are as mad as he."

What can this joke do but cause the (English) audience to reflect on the fact that they are watching a play?

Hamlet is of course full of this sort of thing (as I have argued in this post for instance) and it is a mark of the supreme confidence Shakespeare had in his ability that he chose to remind us of the 'fourth wall' so frequently, when tragedies are supposed to be dependent on the willing suspension of disbelief. However you don't even need specific lines to realise that this is part of what he was doing with the Fools in his tragedies. It seems pretty clear that the actor playing the Fool would have been a comic star in his own right and that the audience would have seen him as comedian first and character in the play a distant second. It is as if Bill Bailey or Eddie Izzard appeared in a serious drama and didn't play it straight, but launched into a stand-up routine. One can easily imagine the profound change in atmosphere whenever the Fool appeared on stage.

And that is the point. Why did Shakespeare want that change in atmosphere? Would it not utterly destroy the tension and drama he was otherwise trying to build up?

In Lear the situation is potentially even more puzzling as it has been suggested that the Fool and Cordelia were played by the same actor and that Lear's apparently incongruous concern for the Fool's fate ("and my poor fool is hanged") in the midst of grieving Cordelia's death by hanging points up this link. In a sense they play similar roles in undercutting Lear's pompous arrogance whilst simultaneously caring deeply for the "foolish fond old man" hidden beneath the bluster. Yet once again the issue is one of tone. Cordelia is a tragic and the Fool a comic figure, so why would Shakespeare choose (if indeed he did) to have them played by the same actor?

The key, I believe, is in the nature of human emotion. You see, whilst emotion is generally understood as something individual, personal and internalised it is also in a sense social, interpersonal and externalised. As well as hugely powerful effects on the individual who experiences them, strong emotions always have external and very public manifestations. Facial expressions are almost universally understood guides to emotional states (though those on the autistic spectrum for instance seem to find them hard to decode) and at the extremes emotions give rise to behaviours that seem designed to communicate them to others, providing strong visual and aural clues to make them socially understood. So at the extreme: sadness gives rise to tears and sobbing; amusement to smiling, then the full opening of the mouth, the doubling-up of the body and loud uncontrollable laughter; anger to redness in the face, the raising of the voice and roaring; and fear to the placing of the hands in front of the face, whimpering and finally screaming.

And all of these manifestations are to some degree infectious. When you are feeling prone to sadness there is nothing more likely to 'set your off' than the sound of someone else crying and anyone who has experienced the phenomenon of 'corpsing' knows how the same applies to audible laughter (just click here for the perfect example). It is as if these manifestations of emotion were specifically designed to spread the emotion: to transform it from an intra-persoanl to an inter-personal phenomenon.

And that, I believe, is the point and the reason for Shakespeare's introduction of Fools into moments of high drama. In his great tragedies he is dealing with strong but subtle and problematic emotions. King Lear is angry with his daughters but he is also regretful and bitter about his earlier misjudgments and beginning even to feel guilt about the high-handed way that Kings ignore the concerns of the poor. Macbeth is horrified by the blood on his hands and his guilt at his murder of Duncan, but also beginning to glimpse a more profound despair at the pointlessness of life and as for Hamlet- well I haven't got the time or space to list all of the contradictory emotions running through his head.

Shakespeare wants to involve individual members of his audience in these emotional journeys and does so extremely effectively. However he is also aware that audiences are a collective and that an important part of our experience of emotions can be social as well as individual. He wants to harness the collective power of those emotions to enhance each individual's emotional engagement. So how does he do this?

Well, one of the ways is through laughter. Assuming that the Fools' various speeches were hilariously funny at the time and so did give rise to actual audible laughter, then what better way to bind an audience together in a communal expression of emotion?

Of course you may well feel that this is hardly a new observation. Critics have long argued that the various Fools' interjections act as ways to ratchet up the tension through temporary release, much as do the various false alarms in any horror film.

What I am saying here though is, I believe, something slightly different. I think the main effect Shakespeare sought was the communal and social effect that audible laughter can bring about. He wants to bind the audience together so that they can to some extent act as an emotionally connected whole, capable of accessing some of the deeper and more troubling messages of the tragedy. In this process I believe the Fool becomes something of a conduit, and certainly in Lear it is he who first introduces the note of regretful Weltschmerz that becomes Lear's predominant emotion by the end. In the scene with which I started this post, the Fool caps Lears majestic railing against the storm with the quieter but in the end much more touching lines:

"He that has a little tiny wit,
  With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
  Though the rain it raineth every day."

No comments:

Post a Comment