In a word....
Tomorrow is April Fools’ Day. So, be careful out there. Yes,TS Eliot’s “cruellest month” is upon us, “breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire”. But April is not the word this week, it is the altogether more familiar fool who resides with us constantly and not just for 30 days a year.
Derived from from the Old French word fol , it means a madman, an insane person, and idiot, a rogue, a jester, etc. As such, poor simpleton, the fool was allowed freedoms not granted the “normal” person. He could be said to have been the precursor of contemporary comedians. Alas, poor guys/gals.
Because regarded, in the past (!!), as not quite the full shilling he would get away with saying things to power that could have meant instant death for believed betters.
Soon this freedom was adopted by the more astute and it evolved into carefully constructed entertainment at court which led in time to happier circumstance whereby, with power diffused, the nervous titter was freed at last to become full-throated guffaw.
Shakespeare makes great use of the Fool as a dramatic device, usually as light relief after a horrific scene. Examples would include “poor Yorick”, in Hamlet , that “fellow of infinite jest” whose “flashes of merriment . . . were wont to set the table on a roar”. The discovery of Yorick’s skull comes immediately after Ophelia’s suicide and provokes in Hamlet /Shakespeare one of the more vivid contemplations on death in literature.
There’s the drunken Porter/Fool in Macbeth who imagines he is at the gates of hell and speculates, with the lively assistance of inebriation, on who he would admit to that warm place for the damned. He appears immediately following the foul murder of King Duncan. The Fool in King Lear is often the only one who makes sense, biting as it can be. He is not unlike our better political satirists today, including a certain local cartoonist. No fool he.
My favourite “foolish” lines also come from Shakespeare and sum up an attitude to life which can be consoling, even inspiring, in fraught times. The words are from Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice and may help see you through the unforseen trials that could await you tomorrow.
Let me play the fool:
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,
And let my liver rather heat with wine
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.