Of Fools and Jesters

Fooling around is serious business. Playing a prank on the first of April has been a longstanding tradition whose origin is of some dispute. Some scholars think that it could have come from a reference to a prank in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Others suggest that it came about because in the Middle Ages, New Year’s Day was celebrated on the 25 March with a holiday that, in some areas of France, ended on 1 April. Those who celebrated New Year’s on 1 January made fun of those who celebrated on the other days.

In literature and performing arts, we have the tradition and character of the fool and jester, an interesting and complex character that takes the form of many roles. The fool is often a common man, who is clever and outdoes those in higher social positions through his wit. In fact, the ‘wise fool’ is a literary paradox in which the character that is regarded as a fool becomes the one to impart wisdom. There are also characters such as jesters who create mischief but ultimately serve as a reflection of society and of the behaviours of the characters in the story.

In theatre, you have the Shakespearean fool, a recurring character through various plays - Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2, Puck and Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Fool in King Lear, Lavache in All’s Well That Ends Well and many others.

In India, we have stories of Birbal, who was the clever jester in the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar. They talk of how he manages to outwit other envious courtiers, often in a humorous manner. In many of them, he even outwits Akbar himself without offending him and leaving him amused. There are similar stories told of another jester, Tenali Ramakrishna, popularly known as Tenali Rama, noted for his brilliance and wit.

In Indian mythology and often in classical dance, you have the character of Narada, who is known for being wise, virtuous and also mischievous. His pranks often serve as a reflection of the behaviours of the people he interacts with.

The idea of jesters and fools hasn’t completely died out - today we have stand-up comedians. They hold a mirror to society and highlight issues through their comedy. Bo Burnham, for example, talks about mental health and society, Taylor Tomlinson who talks about what it is to be a millenial, Vir Das who brings up several social issues, Trevor Noah, John Oliver and Russell Howard who talks about the news and current events through their comedy and these are only a few examples among many. What might seem trivial is actually a complex job - you have to make the audience laugh while pointing out serious issues.

People like to laugh, even at themselves, which is why roast comedy is also very popular. Maybe we need a lighthearted way to look at ourselves and examine our behaviours, which is why, the jester might continue to evolve and take on whatever form may be needed.

Editorial Desk

Editorial Desk