Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Playing the Fools, Part 1

~by Louis Butelli

Hello, dear readers of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Education Blog! My name is Louis Butelli, and I’m an actor, specializing in Shakespeare’s comic characters. For the purposes of this post, though the term doesn’t necessarily always apply, for reasons I’ll discuss later, I’ll refer to them all as “Fools.”

Louis as Will Somers in Henry VIII, Folger Theatre 2010
Louis as Will Somers in Henry VIII, Folger Theatre 2010

Here at the Folger, I’ve had the good fortune to play Bardolph in Henry V, Roderigo in Othello, Will Sommers in Henry VIII (for which I won the Helen Hayes Award), and am currently playing Feste in Twelfth Night. I hope you’ll come along and see us, if you haven’t already. Some of the other Fools I’ve been lucky enough to play include Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew, Lear’s Fool in King Lear, Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both Dromio twins in A Comedy of Errors, Sir Hugh in The Merry Wives of Windsor, among others.

While there are plenty of differences between these characters – some are noble, some are servants, some sing and dance, some are clever, some are simple – they still have a similar function: they make you laugh. Or, at least I hope that they do.

Let’s start with laughter.

Laughter has long been treasured by human beings, both because it provides a sense of safety, well-being, and social cohesion, and because it just feels really good.  Recent work in Anthropology has suggested that spontaneous, “feel-good” laughter – or so-called “Duchenne laughter” – was passed along to us by our primate ancestors. This means that laughter has been a vital part of the human experience since, well, before we were human.

On an almost evolutionary level, then, we hold people who make us laugh in fairly high regard. Moreover, we also sense that laughter is never far from its opposite; joy and grief seem to require each other in order to exist at all. We can see evidence of this as far back as it is possible to look into our own history. All ancient mythologies – from all over the world  – contain some version of a “trickster” god or persona.

Most people know Loki as the supervillain from the new Avengers movie franchise. And there’s something to that. Still, his origins are in Norse mythology. There, Loki was an anarchic shape-shifter who refused to follow the rules and sometimes helped and sometimes hindered the other gods. For the Navajo from the American Southwest, the spirit of Coyote lurks behind “naughty” and “mischievous” behavior. In one instance, Coyote’s antics result in the creation of the Milky Way.

We have Ancient Greek culture to thank for much of the foundation of our own literature. For the Greeks, Hermes played the trickster role in the pantheon of Olympian gods. At once a messenger, a thief, and a mischief maker, he invented the lyre – which he made from a turtle shell – and stole the cattle of the sun god Apollo.

To stick with the Greeks, and move closer to the point, I’ll mention “satyrs” here. Satyrs are anarchic demigods. Half man, half goat, they are lusty creatures of sensual pleasure and appetite. During the Festival of Dionysus, an annual theater celebration, citizens would gather to watch three plays in a row by the same playwright. Then, after the third play concluded, the author would present a “Satyr Play.” These were entertainments wherein the traditional Chorus was replaced by a chorus of satyrs – who caused much mischief and mayhem. The presence of the chaotic satyrs would turn a familiar story upside down.

This idea of inversion, of something naughty or unexpected emerging from something familiar, is very much at the root of the foolery we find in Shakespeare. If we think of Twelfth Night – playing through June 9th at Folger Theatre – we spy some of these notions. The holiday known as “Twelfth Night,” has its origins in the pagan figure known as “The Lord of Misrule.” On his holiday, the social order would invert. The servants became the masters, and vice versa. This temporary departure from the ordinary way of doing things seems to have offered a kind of social cleansing, the ability to “blow off some steam” before returning to business-as-usual.

Louis as Feste with James Konicek and Craig Wallace as Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, Folger Theatre 2013
Louis as Feste with James Konicek and Craig Wallace as Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, Folger Theatre 2013

Fools in Shakespeare often seem to function as permanent, or “professional” Lords of Misrule. They are often employed by the monarch, or the higher status characters, and because they have some sort of skill – they tell jokes, they sing songs, they offer honest opinions – they are free from the normal social order. So long as they don’t displease their employer, they are free to come and go as they wish.

As Feste, the Fool in Twelfth Night, says, “God give them wisdom that have it. Those that are Fools, let them use their talents.” In saying so, he emphasizes his difference and separateness from the other characters, and suggests that he’d rather sing for his supper than be thought of as “wise.”

I’ve written an article for the Folger Theatre Production Diary about some of my research for playing Feste, with some pretty juicy stuff about Fools – check it out by clicking here!

We’ll continue with Part 2 of Louis’s post on “Playing the Fools” next Tuesday. Catch up with Louis on the Folger Theatre blog!



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