Jester versus Clown

Which one makes you laugh and which one gives you nightmares?

This article was written by me! Link to it, copy it, post it, quote it, do whatever you like with it, but please be kind enough to credit me (Jongleur) and include a link to my site. I'm British, so naturally this should be read in the appropriate accent.

As a jester aficionado and a firm believer that all clowns are evil monstrous demons sent from other planets to eat my soul, there are few things that annoy me more than when people mix them up. It is certainly true that there is a great deal of overlap between the two, but there is a gap between 'jester' and 'clown' in both symbolism and metaphor which makes all the difference to me.

Firstly, a disclaimer; back when there were actual professional jesters, in the pointy-hat-with-bells, hangs-around-in-castles-wearing-tights style that most people are thinking of when they say jester, there were no such thing as clowns - at least, not as distinct from jesters. The clown, in his current incarnation (y'know, face-paint, false smile, ginormous trousers) grew up probably as an ancestor of characters in Commedia dell'Arte and Greek theatre. The circus clown didn't develop until as late as the early 19th century (1), long after the Middle Ages profession of jester had largely died. This article, therefore, is about certain modern interpretations of their roles,not the historical facts of what they did. In a world where jesters are corporate logos and clowns live in circuses and horror films, analysing history is not enough to understand what modern society has done to them. This article is about metaphor and meaning in today's culture.

(And, obviously, it's only my moderately-informed opinion. It's not going to be true all the time and you may not believe that it's true at all, so please don't develop an ulcer if you disagree. I am, however, always glad to take on an intelligent argument ^_^)

Back when being mentally subnormal or physically deformed was thought to be funny in its own right, jesters spent a lot of time rolling around doing physical comedy. Nowadays that role has been almost entirely taken by the clown figure; think of the picture it creates in your head when you're told that someone is 'clowning around'. I bet you're imagining a person who's moving, not standing still. Clowns are the ones who laugh at themselves; they don't make the joke, they are the joke. The clown is the guy who takes the bucket to the face, whose trousers fall down, who falls off the ladder. He exists to be mocked and laughed at by everyone else, and the jokes can be really nasty. Take a moment to imagine if those things were actually happening to someone.

And the funny thing is that you're aware of it. There isn't a much more obvious way of pointing out that somebody isn't smiling, than to paint a smile on their face. The reason clowns are often seen as a bit disturbing (anyone here ever read or seen Stephen King's 'It'?) is because not only are they being 'tortured' for your entertainment, but they're pretending to enjoy it; and that is a bit disturbing if you ask me. In historical context, today's clown is the descendant of the mediaeval 'natural fool', the mentally subnormal who were kept as objects of humour by the rich. Stupid, physically incapable, our clown exists to be laughed at by the audience. He is, fundamentally, a victim.

He is, therefore, the absolute opposite of today's jester, who might make you laugh but decidedly isn't there to be laughed at; he's laughing at you.

In contrast to the clown, the jester nowadays is a dangerous character - and when I say nowadays, you can see this jester in not only many Shakespeare plays but in the Commedia dell'Arte Harlequin of the 16th century, and even in the witty slave characters of the Greek Middle Comedy in something ridiculous BC. The jester in his modern incarnation is heir to a great and ancient dramatic tradition. He mocks others; his eye is sharp, his tongue is sharper, and woe betide you if he chooses you as the target of his wit. He is, in many ways, the nasty kid at school who makes himself popular by laughing at everyone else; you want to be his friend not only because he's funny but because otherwise you might become his next victim.

The key fact about our witty, dangerous jester is this; he tells the truth. His jokes, which seem trivial, are actually all true, and it is not he who is crazy, foolish, or upside-down, but the world. The concept of the jester who can tell the truth to the king in a jest, when nobody else dares, has been around for a long, long time. Yu Sze, jester of emperor Shih Huang-Ti in about 300 BC, persuaded the emperor through mockery not to have the Great Wall of China painted, for it would take the lives of thousands of Chinese laborers. Yu Sze was the only one to criticize the emperor's plan, and for that he is considered a national hero. This ancient concept, of humour as the vehicle of truth, has lasted for thousands of years, and this is simply the modern spin on it. (2) In any modern medium - movie, book, comic, game - you may spot a character who fulfils this function. Look out in particular for the character who appears to be stupid or ignorant, but is actually the only one who sees clearly; this character, who looks like a clown but is really a jester, shows up in movies a lot. (3)

So our modern jester is a truth-teller in a world of lies, who highlights the madness of the world with his wit. In this role he is frequently portrayed as a living expression of defiance against hypocrisy, or ignorance, or self-satisfaction; anything that rests on self-delusion or lies. He is no victim like the clown but the very opposite; he confronts authority openly, or he subverts it while appearing to play along. Can you see why jester imagery is often popular with teenagers? Likewise, the skull with a jester's hat is a staple of Goth imagery - either laughing at death, or death laughing at you, it's all about defiance and black humour in the face of the inevitable.

So that's Modern Clown and Jester Symbolism: the Short Short Version. The above is (obviously) a huge simplification and the briefest of touches on the subject; of course there's a heap of overlap between the two archetypes, and of course when you see a clown or a jester in art or on TV you're not necessarily thinking of all these things. But it's totally more fun if you are.

(1) The first circus clown is generally held to be Joseph Grimaldi, who made his name in England as a 'Whiteface' clown back in the early 1800s. The other major clown types, the 'Auguste' and 'Character' clowns, developed much later.

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(2) If you follow this argument deeper you come up against the question: is it possible to have humour at all without truth? Would you think a joke was funny if there wasn't any truth - about someone, about society, about the world - in it? Is humour fundamentally based on a 'twist' of reality? And then you get into deep neuroscientific and philosophical questions about the nature of funny, and then you start frothing and have to go jump off a high-rise, or alternatively read excellent articles like this one.

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(3) My personal favourite example is Keung from Hong Kong action flick Infernal Affairs; he's a goofball gangster who seems to have a total paranoia complex about the police being everywhere, and makes apparently random comments about his fellow gangsters being moles. You spend the whole film laughing at him for his idiocy, but if you pay close attention you'll notice that he's right every single time.

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