John Knowles adopts King Lear’s view that ‘when we are born, we cry that we have come to this stage of fools’.

The fool has long had a place in art, theatre and life, but what place for the fool in the age of fools? When a fopp haired fool runs the country not for the benefit of anyone else but himself, a Boris-land built for his own amusement. What place does the fool have on the stage, when the stage is now the seat of power? I lived through Thatcher’s Britain and now live in its social shattering consequences. At the time we had fools a plenty pointing out the vile nature of those in power, Spitting Image amongst them, even if some of those fools later betrayed the values they used to propel themselves into the hearts of us socialists.

In my next two plays, now in tentative development, I’m exploring two aspects of the fool, the madman who takes us to the edge of beauty and the fool as social commentator, the wise fool. ‘Two Fools’ is a play, set on a bridge (a bridge on the river Drinar). In the play two of Shakespeare’s fools meet, one intending to jump to their death the other to make a leap of faith (as in the Tarot’s fool). What transpires is a discourse on the nature of the fool– in art, religion, politics and life. The end however points to a darker narrative, the fool as betrayer, the fool as a foil, the quisling fool. Tag line for the play is The Drinar Drop and takes the place back to a theme I have explored before, man’s appalling ability to treat others with utter contempt, to kill and destroy anything it doesn’t understand.

In ‘Bottom’s End’ I’ll be exploring the fool as an artist, as madman as a portal to magic realms.  In the play, Bottom, of Midsummer Night’s fame, is unable to return to his normal life as a weaver and instead finds himself slipping further and further into the world of faeries and magic. Betrayed by his friends he is locked away in Broadmoor where he meets painter Richard Dadd ( best known for his paintings of faerie kingdoms, which were created while he was a patient in Bethlehem and Broadmoor). Bottom finds himself/herself in a world filled with beauty and wonder, a world of Genet’s Flowers, a world which is blind to judgement and in which magic and art infuse so called reality.  The play mixes my love of magic and the fool with a love of Lindsey Kemp, an artist who showed me something beyond this realm and as a young man shaped my desire to create small moments of beauty, even those touched with darkness.

Wise fool by Jan Matekjo

A recurring theme here and indeed much of my work, is the outsider, the ones who stand on the edge of society, watching and wondering ‘WTF are you all doing, can’t you see the stars, the fairies, the beauty, the possibility of it all?’

John Knowles is a writer-producer-director and founder of Fetch Theatre – an independent local company specialising in new writing and intimate theatre.

Fooling Around

The fool in Elizabethan drama is someone employed to entertain a king or a duke or any other rich person who needs someone to entertain him. The convention in Elizabethan drama is that the fool is the most insightful and intelligent man in the play. He is not to be confused with a clown: in Shakespeare’s time ‘clown’ was a simple rural man – a yokel.

No sweat Shakespeare 

Fools were usually male and would often wear a distinctive costume of a ‘motley’ (parti coloured cloth), wear a coxcomb on their head (not the belled hood of later tradition but a removable cap) and carry a bauble or carved stick which was often a focus for phallic humour.  

Oxford companion to Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s greatest fools:

Feste, in Twelfth Night
Touchstone, in As You Like It
The Fool in King Lear
Trinculo, in The Tempest
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; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that.

Hamlet Act 5 Scene 1

He is usually the wisest character in the play. The other characters refer to him as ‘the fool’ and we usually know him as ‘the jester.’ He does not normally have a dramatic role but some fools do.  No sweat Shakespeare 

One can almost imagine that Shakespeare, going home from an evening at the Mermaid, where he had listened to Jonson fulminating against fools in general and perhaps criticizing the Clown in Twelfth Night in particular, had said to himself: ‘Come, my friends, I will show you once for all that the mischief is in you, and not in the fool or the audience. I will have a fool in the most tragic of my tragedies. He shall not play a little part. He shall keep from first to last the company in which you most object to see him, the company of a king. Instead of amusing the king’s idle hours, he shall stand by him in the very tempest and whirlwind of passion. 

A.C. Bradley

(quoting Malvolio back to him):

Why, “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrown upon them.” I was one, sir, in this interlude—one Sir Topas, sir, but that’s all one. “By the Lord, fool, I am not mad.” But do you remember? “Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal? And you smile not, he’s gagg’d.” And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

Twelfth Night: Act 5, Scene 1

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