No group of Shakespeare’s characters is more treasured by audiences than those known as “fools.” On the surface, they are merely a source of amusement, providing comic relief under generally serious circumstances. Furthermore, their parts are rarely large and may actually be peripheral to the main action. In spite of this separation, however, or perhaps because of it, their perspectives mirror our own uncertainty, wonder, or frustration.
During Shakespeare’s time, the term “fool” was applied to jesters of the medieval court who entertained royal personages. Because fools had no official status, they were entitled to utter all sorts of humorous, even rude remarks which, if emanating from any other source, would have been risky indeed. In this discussion, however, the word “fool” is used more generously to encompass those characters whom Shakespeare describes sometimes as “fools” and at other times as “clowns.” All offer respite from the primary tensions; yet their reflections also provide insight about the leading players. These “fools” may be divided into two general categories: (1) buffoons who unintentionally create broad comedy with physical antics and eccentric vocabulary; and (2) wits who aim their agile wordplay at specific targets.
One of Shakespeare’s earliest, yet most charming clowns is Dull in Love’s Labor’s Lost. Above all, he is prone to corruptions of language that guarantee laughter:
his Grace’s farborough; but I would see his own
person in flesh and blood.
(I, i, 183–185)
Such malapropisms, though, provide more than humor. In a play where so many of the upper-class lovers are prone to linguistic grandiloquence