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A Brief History Of The Fool

Updated on April 23, 2017
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Andrew has been writing for decades, publishing articles online and in print. His many interests include literature, the arts, and nature.

Modern fool - Mr Bean
Modern fool - Mr Bean | Source

History Of The Fool - Introduction

Fools throughout history have been making us laugh, shocking us, exposing the pompous and vain, telling home truths to those who don't want to hear them and generally causing chaos wherever they go.

There are many different kinds of fool, as you'll discover as you read on, but they all seem to have one thing in common - they help to reveal just how vulnerable we human beings are.

Clever fools use slapstick, satire, riddles, jokes, social commentary and drama as tools for deconstruction and instruction. In contrast natural born fools can't help but get themselves into ridiculous situations, through no fault of their own!

Either way, a genuine fool is always entertaining.

Charlie Chaplin playing the fool with giant waiter Eric Campbell.
Charlie Chaplin playing the fool with giant waiter Eric Campbell. | Source

The Modern Fool

There are many foolish people around capable of much foolery but great fools are a rare thing. A true fool is a mixture of ass, blockhead, buffoon, clod, clown, comedian, cretin, dunce, dolt, dullard, halfwit, ignoramus, imbecile, jester, nincompoop, simpleton, twit, wally and on into zany.

I'm thinking about modern fools such as Charlie Chaplin, Danny Kaye, Laurel and Hardy, Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson) and Jim Carrey, to name but a few. These entertainers have managed to harness their foolish energies and make a living out of making the public laugh.

You could include the Monty Python team too, as well as stand up comedians, satirists and cartoon figures like Homer Simpson.

Fools come in all shapes and sizes, from the clumsy upstart to the dark joker, from the accident prone to the practical trickster. And they go back a long way.

Both ancient Greek and Roman drama had equivalents of the fool, so the concept of an essentially comedic character who has a different angle on life is nothing new.

Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.

— Charlie Chaplin
The first ever sketch of Homer Simpson, family man and fool. Drawn by David Silverman.
The first ever sketch of Homer Simpson, family man and fool. Drawn by David Silverman. | Source

Homer Simpson - Special Fool

Homer Simpson, the cartoon character created by Matt Groening, is always getting himself into hot water. A father and family man, he drinks lots of beer, eats loads and as a consequence is overweight and unhealthy. His naughty son Bart is a constant thorn in his side and his long suffering wife Marg often threatens to leave because of Homer's crass stupidity.

Homer is well meaning enough and somehow likeable but manages to alienate people with his offbeat sense of humour, laziness and idiotic ideas. Like many American men, he suffers from hero syndrome, that is, inside he desperately wants to succeed and live the dream but in reality he constantly falls short. He is childish and insecure.

To try and bridge the gap he gets up to all sorts of weird stuff but usually things go wrong and he ends up with egg on his face. Homer is a funny guy who tries hard to turn the world around for the good. A fool with a heart of gold but a brain of questionable substance.

Laurel and Hardy in Hollywood Party
Laurel and Hardy in Hollywood Party | Source

Laurel and Hardy - Two Fools, Two Geniuses

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, comedy actors, teamed up in 1931 to make their first movie together Pardon Us but had known each other for some time previous.

The fat one and the thin one went on to make 106 films together (including guest appearances) and won an Oscar in 1932 for The Music Box.

Laurel and Hardy are seen by many modern comedians and double-acts as comedic geniuses. They have a chemistry on screen that is both appealing and disturbing for the viewer. Best friends, best buddies, their escapades often land them in the most bizarre situations.

Other Modern Fools

In film and t.v. :

Abbott and Costello

The Three Stooges

Danny Kaye

Jerry Lewis

Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson)

Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers)

Jim Carrey

Biblical Fools

In the old testament according to some interpreters a fool is seen as someone who opposes the word of God, consciously or not. There are five categories:

  1. Simple fool - is immature and gullible and has a drifting mind.
  2. Silly fool - says foolish things and is blind to the truth.
  3. Sensual fool - leads others astray and makes the wrong choices.
  4. Scorning fool - dislikes others, has wayward behaviour.
  5. Steadfast fool - is dangerous, opposes everything and rejects others.

Yet St Paul wrote in one of his letters to the Corinthians in the new testament that :

"We are fools for Christ's sake...."

This idea led to the development of the Holy Fool, someone who had given up everything, possessions and work and even family, to follow Christ. Holy Fools so called were revered in medieval times as they were seen as ultimate converts to the cause, giving up even their clothes to roam naked. Their shocking, unconventional behaviour was a conscious attempt to attract attention to the works of Christ.

Holy Fools were a part of both western and eastern christianity. They were highly influential in various cultures. Rasputin the 'mad monk' of Russia is an extreme recent example.

Fyodor Dostoevsky's Idiot

The Idiot is a Russian novel published in 1868 by Dostoevsky. It tells the story of one Nicolayevich Myshkin, an epileptic, who returns to Russia from a Swiss clinic where he's been treated for his unusual condition. The writer based his character on the concept of the holy fool, someone who is naive, good and innocent but has to live in a secular world where greed, cruelty and vanity rule the day.

Feast of Fools

The Feast of Fools was a feast day celebrated by the clergy in Europe way back in medieval times and was particularly popular in France. The idea behind it was one of social revolution, the poor and subordinate being put in a position of power, albeit temporarily.

Music, feasting and foolery however eventually morphed into abuse over time and by the mid 15th century officialdom had put a stop to this most unorthodox of christian ritual.

The idea behind it is said to have originated in pagan times, the Roman Saturnalia celebration of January 1st being the forerunner.

April Fools Day

On April 1st it is traditionally allowed to fool, deceive and confuse any person by playing an April Fools trick on them. All fooling should be done before twelve noon, the absolute deadline for all silly games and deceptions.

Whilst still alive and just kicking, this annual burst of tomfoolery is not as celebrated as it used to be. In the 21st century we're all so used to being deceived on a regular basis, there's hardly any need for April Fools.

Back in the day when the spaghetti fields of Lower Switzerland were hit by unprecedented plagues of spaghetti weevils, and North Korea turned into a theme park, April 1st pranks and follies were all the rage.

As for the origin of April Fools, there is no clear history. Some say it derives from so called renewal festivals, others that it came from religious rituals in 16th century France when major calendars changed dates, still others that it is based on events in the UK village of Gotham, Nottinghamshire, where three fools once sailed in a barrel, and King John's men believed the village full of lunatics.

William Shakespeare's King Lear and the Fool

In Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear the role of the Fool is all important in the first three acts. Basically the Fool taunts the old king by telling him just how foolish he has been giving away his lands to his three daughters.

It's a remarkable role. Not only is the Fool allowed to address the king in any way he chooses (with familiar Elizabethan terms like sirrah, nuncle) but he also taunts and teases Lear with songs, riddles and comic verse. The Fool gets away with it - any ordinary person in the household would be executed for slandering and verbally abusing the king.

For example:

He that has and a little tiny wit,-

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,-

Must make content with his fortunes fit,

For the rain it raineth every day.

Act III, Scene II

Both king and Fool are suffering in a hellish storm yet here's the Fool telling Lear he has hardly any sense (wits) left!

The Fool goes on to make a prophecy warning of 'great confusion' for the country because of Lear's decision.

They have a strange and closely comic relationship throughout these first three acts. As Lear gradually begins to lose his grip on reality, the farmhouse scene, in which the king and the Fool attempt to rest, is surreal and poignant:

King Lear : Make no noise, make no noise; draw the curtains: so, so, so. We'll go to supper i' the morning: so, so, so.

Fool: And I'll go to bed at noon.

Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing

Dogberry is another of Shakespeare's fools. In contrast to Lear's Fool Dogberry is a clowning buffoonish policeman who mixes up his words, is totally incompetent but ends up being a hero.

Dogberry (to Leonato): One word, sir. Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two aspicious persons, and we would have them this morning examined before your worship.

Leonato : Take their examination yourself, and bring it me: I am now in great haste, as may appear unto you.

Dogberry: It shall be suffigance.

Trinculo the Jester in The Tempest

Whilst Dogberry is an innocent, stupid blunderer, Trinculo is smart and clever and knows exactly what he's up to. A professional fool, he's not interested in being diplomatic and nice, he tells it how it is and shocks in the process.

Triculo: Monster, I do smell all horse-piss, at which my nose is in great indignation.

Feste the dark fool in Twelfth Night

Feste is an eloquent and articulate clown and definitely has a darker side to his nature.

Feste: Well, God give them wisdom that have it; and those that are fools, let them use their talents.

Bottom the Midsummer Night Fool

Bottom is one of Shakespeare's better known characters and definitely displays traits that are classically foolish. Part of the Mechanicals gang of amateur actors, he is portrayed as an ambitious but ultimately silly person, a sort of aspiring failure.

Innocent yet pushy, Bottom is an insecure dreamer, a likeable fool.

“The most perceptive character in a play is the fool, because the man who wishes to seem simple cannot possibly be a simpleton.”

— Cervantes in his book Don Quixote
Ship of Fools, 2009.
Ship of Fools, 2009. | Source

The Ship of Fools

The Ship of Fools or Das Narrenschiff, a satirical book, was created in 1494 by Sebastian Brant in Switzerland. He based his story on Plato's description of democracy as being like a ship run by a crew of loud mouthed, drunken fools. Whoever could shout the loudest got to navigate the ship.

Discipline and order are thrown overboard as the ship runs into anything and chaos ensues.

Plato hit the nail on the head, democracy does seem a bit mad and directionless at times but I guess it's much more preferable to a dictatorship.

The Fool in Music

Pop music titles reflect the importance of the fool - lovers feeling foolish, partners not being prepared to play the fool anymore, individuals who don't want to get fooled. Here are five of the top songs:

1, The Fool on the Hill The Beatles 1967

2. Won't Get Fooled Again The Who 1971

3. Fool in the Rain Led Zeppelin 1979

4. What a Fool Believes Doobie Brothers 1979

5. Fool to Cry Rolling Stones 1976

The Fool
The Fool | Source

The Tarot Fool

The Fool card represents a new journey through life, a new beginning or the end of something that is no longer useful or positive.

Some readers also relate innocence and unawareness to this symbol, the last in the Major Arcana, numbered XXII or 0 or sometimes unnumbered.

The image is a classic figure of a beggar or vagabond on a journey, unperturbed by the chasing dog or cat, which usually tears at the Fool's pants.

Often the Fool is shown near the edge of a cliff which in the divinatory sense means that a new venture might be about to start - be wary of the potential pitfalls, be prepared for the next phase of life.

The Fool in Phrases and Proverbs

The origin of the word fool comes from the latin follis 'windbag or bellows' implying that a fool is full of hot air, empty headed most of the time. Over time many phrases and sayings developed with the word fool playing a central role. Here are some of the common ones we meet in English:

to be nobody's fool - to be a strong-minded person, shrewd and prudent.

a fool and his money are soon parted - a person who is careless with money might be seen as foolish if they end up penniless.

fools rush in where angels fear to tread - people lacking common sense and bad judgement might act impulsively in a situation where even the wisest might think twice.

to make a fool of oneself/yourself - to act or behave in an incompetent or careless manner

more fool you/them - said of those who behave in a stupid or naive fashion : if you actually paid to do the work, more fool you

to act or play the fool - to behave in a silly, childish way

there's no fool like an old fool - older people doing foolish things or acting foolishly seems that much more severe when they're supposed to be the sie level-headed ones.

you could have fooled me - when something doesn't quite come up to expectations or standards : Haute cuisine was it? You could have fooled me!

living in a fool's paradise - living beyond one's means without being aware, false happiness based on ignorance.

he's on a fool's errand - an activity or task that has no chance of ending in success.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me - famously misquoted by President George Bush II when he made a gaffe, entangling himself in this simple phrase. Originally said to derive from an Italian proverb - he that deceives me once, it's his fault;but twice it's my fault.

© 2016 Andrew Spacey


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