“Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Bird fly high by the light of the moon”
The prehistoric archetytpe of the Wise Fool remains with us as strongly today as ever before. The entire Tarot centers around him. The great comedians of our age are great because they go far beyond jokes and point out profound observances in the center of your laughter. What Bill Hicks meant to me at a certain point in my life cannot be overstated.
It is from this that both comedian and clown come. Indeed, in our modern age, they have become two separate entities, but they were not always so. We are interested here in the lineage that became the clown.
After the Roman theater closed down and with it the comedies and comic actors that had developed since Greek times, theater entered a dark age. As did… well, all of Europe. So instead of going out for a show to have a few laughs, the rich and powerful would employ jesters to amuse them and their court.
Jesters were there to make people laugh. There was 2 types: The Natural Fool and The Licensed Fool.
The Natural Fool was… not clever. It was someone innately nit witted or mad. Let’s let all our notions of political correctness go flying out the window for a minute… bye bye…. basically, a powerful man might find some boy who was… you know… challenged in some aspect of his mental abilities. Or an outright madman. However, the monarch would find their utterances and behavior amusing if not absolutely hysterical and would house and feed the poor soul so that they could amuse the guy. They were in many ways very much like a pet or mascot.
The Licensed Fool was someone who was witty, entertaining and adept at physical humor. They might also juggle, play music, especially notable would be their riddle telling. They might be peasants, defrocked monks, or university alumni. Many had some deformity. They were inherently funny and the sharper the wit, the higher they could climb up the jester social ladder.
A great jester might start out with a Baron, but some Duke would buy him from the Baron. Not in a slave way, more in a contract way, although there was no contract… in any case, a great jester could actually move from house to house until he was employed by a King.
They might get discovered by performing in town squares. Today a stand up comic just stands there and tells jokes. Back then the comedian would do amusing physical acrobatics also. An inspiring comic would throw a rug down in the square. That is his performing space. Then he would cry out: “Come watch me shave a chicken whilst drinking an ale!”. A few curious passer byes would pause to watch and the act would begin. If he was good he might get an invitation to perform for somebody notable and from there perhaps an invitation from the Royal Court Representative to audition for jester.
Over time the jester’s place became more interesting. The jester was indeed allowed to unleash critique and commentary no other in the court would dare. The members of court had to constantly worry about their social standing and favor with the monarch. The monarch would tire of the never ending “yes-men” that surrounded him. Humorous yet insightful critique could be very helpful and relieving. It didn’t mean the jester might not get whipped for going too far, but over time it became accepted. Queen Elizabeth is said to have rebuked her Fool for not being chastising enough at a particular occasion.
It is from this tradition that we get Shakespeare’s jesters. Fools who at times speak more wisdom than the monarchs and courts they entertain in. Obviously King Lear is a crowning example of this type of Fool.
However, as romantic as this is, it is important to remember the duty of the jester was first and foremost to be silly and entertain. He was expected to clown about and was indeed dressed in a particular suit, the jester’s suit, which would over time evolve into the modern clown costume.