~by Louis Butelli
Today, I’ll just talk a little bit about what it’s like playing so many Fools.
The first thing to say is that it’s a great honor to be included in the roster of Shakespeare’s Fools. One of the most fascinating things about Shakespeare’s writing is that he worked with an active theater company – he wrote things for specific actors to perform on stage, often very soon after he finished writing. Anybody lucky enough to play Shakespeare’s Fools owes a huge debt of gratitude to two men in particular: Will Kempe, and Robert Armin.
Kempe was an actor and comedian and a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company for which Shakespeare wrote. He was a “rustic” comic, his jokes were bawdy and improvisational, and he specialized in “jigs,” comedic song and dance routines. Many people suspect that he was the original Falstaff from the Henry plays. He is likely to have played Peter, the comic servant in Romeo & Juliet – there is a Quarto edition of the play with the, apparently mistaken, stage direction “Enter Kempe,” rather than the expected “Enter Peter.” For reasons unknown, Kempe left the company in 1599, replaced as company clown by Robert Armin.
Armin was a comic writer in his own right. He wrote plays (“The History of the Two Maids of More-Clacke”), essays (“Foole Upon Foole”) and poems (“The Italian Tailor and his Boy”). He is generally accepted to have created the roles of Feste, Lear’s Fool, Touchstone, the drunken Porter, among others. Seeing as Shakespeare has given songs to many of these characters, one suspects that Armin was also a skilled musician. More interesting, perhaps, is the impact Armin’s presence in the company had on Shakespeare’s writing. These later Fools are darker, sadder, more melancholy – they are more philosopher Fools than rustic clowns.
Certainly, the writing in the plays speaks for itself. However, we are afforded a little glimpse of Shakespeare’s own opinion about the difference between the two men, and how Fools function for him.
This is from Hamlet’s “advice to the players:”
“Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.”
Food for thought, indeed!
Thanks so much for reading, and come and see Twelfth Night before it closes on Sunday!
Catch more insights from Louis on the Folger Theatre blog!