Jesters in Reality


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Shakespearean Britain: Kemp and Armin
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, clowning in England was basically a theatrical artform. Shakespeare was the playwright for the Lord Chandler's Men acting troupe. Of the 26 principal actors in the Lord Chandler's Men listed in the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, two, William Kemp and Richard Armin, were clowns. William Kemp was the first clown to appear with the troupe. He was such an important star that he was a part owner in both the troupe and the Globe Theater. He specialized in playing stupid country bumpkin type characters (a style that would later become known as the Auguste).

Robert Armin (c.1568 - 1615) joined the company when Kemp left. He specialized in playing court jester style fools. He wrote a book on famous court jesters, one of the first histories of clowning to be published.

The style of Shakespeare's plays changed when Armin replaced Kemp so it is known that he tailored them to the style and abilities of his clowns. Scholars believe that part of the existing scripts were actually ad libs by the clowns that were written down after they proved popular. According to tradition, Hamlet's order that clowns speak only what had been written down for them was in reality Shakespeare's criticism of Kemp's ad libbing.

Richard Tarleton, woodcut, 1588

Shakespearean Britain: Richard Tarleton
Born Condover, Shropshire, England; died Sept. 3, 1588. London English actor, ballad writer, favourite jester of Queen Elizabeth I, and the most popular comedian of his age.

Tarleton takes his place in theatrical history as creator of the stage yokel; his performance in this role is thought to have influenced Shakespeare's creation of the character Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Tarleton himself is said to have been the model for the court jester Yorick described in Hamlet. By 1579 he was a well-known actor and Queen Elizabeth I's favourite jester, the only one able to "undumpish" her when she was out of humour and the only one allowed to tell her of her faults.

In 1583 he became a leading comic actor of the Queen's Men and groom of Her Majesty's chamber. His plays, which were praised by contemporaries, are all lost. In 1643 Sir Richard Baker said that "for the . . . Clown's part he never had his match, never will have."

The First European Circus Clown
Philip Astley created what is considered the first circus in England in 1768. He also created the first circus clown act called Billy Buttons, or the Tailor's Ride To Brentford. The topical act was based on a popular tale of a tailor, an inept equestrian, trying to ride a horse to Brentford to vote in an election. Astley impersonated the tailor attempting to ride the horse. First he had tremendous difficulty mounting correctly, and then when he finally succeeded the horse started off so fast that he fell off. As the circus grew and Astley hired other clowns, he required them to learn Billy Buttons. It soon became a traditional part of every circus for 100 years. Variations of the routine with somebody coming out of the audience to attempt to ride a horse are still being performed in modern circuses.

Commedia dell'Arte

Italy: Commedia dell'Arte
The Commedia dell'Arte began in Italy in the sixteenth century and soon dominated European theatre. It was a highly improvised theatre based upon stock characters and scenarios. It contained many comic characters divided into masters and servants. There were three types of comic servants: the First Zany, the Second Zany, and the Fantesca. The First Zany was a male servant who was a clever rogue often plotting against the masters. The Second Zany was a stupid male servant that was caught up in the First Zany's schemes and often the victim of his pranks. The Fantesca was a female servant, played by an actress, who was a feminine version of one of the Zany characters and would participate in the schemes and provide a romantic story among the servants.

The Commedia evolved over time; Harlequin started off as a Second Zany, the victim of Brighella. Performers portraying Harlequin gradually made him a smarter character until he eventually usurped Brighella's position. In English Pantomime, a style of theatre based on the Commedia dell'Arte, John Rich completed the evolution of Harlequin elevating it to starring position. New characters evolved to assume the position of Harlequin's stupid victims. One of these was the whiteface clown.

France: Triboulet
Jester in the French royal courts of Louis XII and Francis I. Subject of Victor Hugo's 1832 play 'Le Roi s'amuse', which was later turned into Verdi's famous opera 'Rigoletto'.

Henry VIII playing a harp, with his fool Will Somers; from the King's Psalter

England: Will Somers
Born 1490; died 1560. Jester of King Henry VIII, England. Somers was well-known for his kindness as well as his wit - he was known as the 'Poor Man's Friend'. Will Somers used to have rhyming contests with his master, and after his death had several works written about him. Henry had three other Fools during his life: the Duke of Lancaster, Diego the Spaniard and Peche.

Norman Britain: Taillefer
Definitely my favourite historical jester. Supposedly William the Conqueror's jester, and the first man to be killed in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when the Normans conquered England. Taillefer is mentioned in theCarmen de Hastingae Proelio ("Song of the Battle of Hastings"), a medieval poem that survives in a single incomplete manuscript.It is the only eleventh-century source to mention the man who gives heart to the disconcerted Normans. A jongleur, he rides out in front of the line, tossing his sword in the air and juggling it until an Englishman is provoked into confronting him and is killed.

From Robert Wace's Roman de Rou, from approx. 1165: "Then Taillefer, who sang right well, rode, mounted on a swift horse, before the duke, singing of Charlemagne and of Roland, of Oliver, and the peers who died in Roncesvalles. And when they drew nigh to the English, ' A boon, sire!' cried Taillefer ; ' I have long served you, and you owe me for all such service. To-day, so please you, you shall repay it. I ask as my guerdon, and beseech you for it earnestly, that you will allow me to strike the first blow in the battle!' And the duke answered, ' I grant it.' Then Taillefer put his horse to a gallop, charging before all the rest, and struck an Englishman dead, driving his lance below the breast into his body, and stretching him upon the ground. Then he drew his sword, and struck another, crying out, ' Come on, come on'. What do ye, sirs? Lay on, lay on' At the second blow he struck, the English pushed forward, and surrounded, and slew him. Forthwith arose the noise and cry of war, and on either side the people put themselves in motion."

When William the Conqueror learned of the death of Taillefer in the Battle of Hastings that he cried: "Drink to Taillerfer all; his heirs shall have a whole country fee, simple deeded and a motto: Consequitur Quodcumque Petit." (He accomplishes what he undertakes)

Stanczyk, by Jan Matejko - click for a larger picture    Stanczyk, by Leon Wyczolkowski - click for a larger picture

Poland: Stanczyk
Court jester to the Polish King Sigismund I [1467-1548], he had a reputation for pretending to be foolish while actually very wise. Stanczyk is mostly well-known due to the famous painting of him by 19th century patriotic Polish artist Jan Matejko, which depicts the court dancing while the jester sits solemn and alone, mourning a military defeat for Poland.

Statue of Till Eulenspiegel in Mölln

Germany: Till Eulenspiegel
Folkloric trickster figure of northern Europe, a peasant clown of the 14th cent. who was immortalized in chapbooks describing his practical jokes on clerics and townsfolk. Till is almost certainly legendary but is claimed to have died in approximately 1350, and the town of Mölln hosts a gravestone for him, as well as the statue above. (It's a shame this pic doesn't do justice to the statue's wonderfully sardonic grin! Rubbing a toe of his shoe is supposedly good luck, hence how shiny his toes are compared to the rest of him...)

There are some 46 stories of his exploits, originally written in Low German in about 1460. The character of Till has become a cultural icon as a figure who mocks and attacks the rich and hypocritical.

The literal translation of the High German name Eulenspiegel gives "owl mirror" or the more common English translation, 'owlglass'. However, the original Low German may have been ul'n Spegel, meaning "wipe the arse".

For more info I recommend this excellent site.

Ireland: Amadàn na Briona
The Fool of the Forth from Gaelic legend; the Amadàn (meaning 'Fool') is the jester of the Irish faery folk, the Tuatha de Edaine or Sidhe. One of the most powerful of his folk, the Amadàn's touch can bring madness, imprisoning men in their own heads.

The Fool is a very important figure in Celtic tradition. It is said that the Triple Muse can: "make fools of wise men, and wise men of fools". Who among us can tell the difference, if any? It is the Fool who becomes King for a day at Beltaine. Fionn [Irish legendary protagonist] takes the advice of the Fool without hesitation, saying to him: "oir is minic a bha chomhairl' an righ ann an ceann an amadain". (Often has the advice of the King been in the head of the Fool).

Click here for a piece by Lady Gregory, a friend of the poet W B Yeats, about the Fool of the Forth (dated 1920).

The portrait of Thomas Skelton with his 'will', from Muncaster Castle

England: Thomas Skelton
Jester of Muncaster Castle in Cumbria, 16th century. According to tradition, 'Tom Fool' and 'tomfoolery' both originated with Thomas Skelton, who by reputation was a rather unpleasant character. There are stories that he used to sit under a chestnut tree by the castle, and direct travellers he didn't like the look of into the quicksand; and that on his master's orders he cut off the head of an unfortunate carpenter who had fallen in love with his master's daughter. Some believe that his ghost still haunts the castle to this day. There is a portrait of Thomas Skelton which still hangs at Muncaster Castle, and includes a painted document in the form of a will.

It's hard to tell what's history and what's legend with Skelton; almost everything about his tale has been questioned, including the idea that he was even at Muncaster at all! Click here for a site with some fascinating information about Tom, including the full transcript of his 'will'.

Arthurian legend: Lailoken
This character's roots are as murky as most Celtic legend, but Lailoken (probably from 'lalockin', translated as 'twin' or 'brother') was a wild man of the woods character from early Celtic legend. He features in the story of St Kentigern, to whom he prophesies his own death by stoning, impalement and drowning (of course, this impossibility comes true). In another tale of Lailoken, he informs a King of his Queen's adultery in a riddle, and his three-way death comes when the king figures it out.

Lailoken is often described as a great warrior who was driven mad by the death of his men in a battle which he started. The king on one side, Rydderch, was married to Lailoken's sister Gwenddydd. Lailoken, prophet and fool in Rydderch's court, not only started the battle but supposedly changed sides later and fought against his brother-in-law.

The character of Merlin from Arthurian legend is probably a derivation from the Lailoken story (or at least Lailoken makes up part of Merlin's cultural heritage). In many forms of the Arthur story it is mentioned that Merlin was a twin and has a sister named Gwenddydd, and indeed the riddle story of Lailoken mentions Merlin by name:

Pierced by a spear, crushed by a stone

And drowned in the stream's waters,

Merlin died a triple death.

Interesting article on Arthurian characters and their Celtic roots here.

Arthurian legend: Sir Dagonet (Daguenet)
This one, on the other hand, is (as far as I know) an invention of Malory's in his famous 'Le Morte d'Arthur' from 1470. Sir Dagonet is Arthur's court fool, and appears in several places in the tale. He is sent to fight the knight La Cote Male Taile, by way of a practical joke (to shame him for having fought a fool). Sir Tristram de Liones chucks him in a well and smacks him round the head (Sir Tristram is a little crazy at the time, as he's busy doing his eternal-love-and-despair thing for Isolde). The knights dress Sir Dagonet up as Sir Lancelot and successfully scare the pants off King Mark of Cornwall. He's described as a coward, but when his wife is kidnapped Sir Dagonet tracks down and kills the offender.

You can read Le Morte d'Arthur here. This version is translated from the Middle English; it's available, and perfectly possible to read, in the original but it's rather hard work.

France: Mathurine
Mathurine was a real jester, and a woman - one of relatively few female jesters who survived by their wit (as opposed to 'natural fools' who were often mentally subnormal, or selected due to dwarfism or some physical deformity). She was a jester at the French court in the late 1500s and early 1600s - the reigns of Henri III, Henri IV, and Louis XIII of France. During her lifetime 'Mathurine' was used as a name for satirists, and a specific type of burlesque writing is still known as mathurinade.

On December 27, 1594, an assassination attempt was made against Henri IV on his return from Picardy to his palace of Bouchage. A young student, Jean Châtel, lunged for him with a knife. Finding himself injured, the king thought it a trick of Mathurine's and cried out "Faites retirer cette folle, elle m'a fait mal!". ("Someone remove this fool, she's hurt me!"). But Mathurine ran to the door and blocked the assassin's escape; he was captured and executed.

Mathurine de Valois was one of Queen Marie de'Medici's household in the early 1600s, and in 1622 King Louis XIII raised her pension to 1,200 livres - a vast sum for a servant.

Britain: Archie Armstrong
This famous rogue was jester to King James VI of Scotland, who became King James I of England on the death of Elizabeth I, and later to his son Charles I. He was a Scottish sheep-stealer before securing his position at court, which he held until his rivalry with Archbishop Laud became too much for the King to tolerate, and he was kicked out of court in 1638 for 'Give great praise to God, and little laud to the devil' (Laud was very short).

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