Shakespearean fools: Their modern equivalents

Frank Gallagher, Homer Simpson and Miranda Hart

Shakespeare loved a fool and not just on 1 April. He used them in most of his well-known plays, but who would their equivalents be today?

It was never about bright clothes, eccentric hats and slippers with bells on them. Shakespeare's fools were the stand-ups of their day and liked to expose the vain, mock the pompous and deliver a few home truths - however uncomfortable that might be for those on the receiving end.

"Shakespearean fools, like stand-ups today, had a licence to say almost anything," says Dr Oliver Double, who teaches drama at the University of Kent and specialises in comedy. "It was an exalted position."

About Shakespeare

William Shakespeare
  • William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564
  • He married Anne Hathaway in 1582 and they had three children
  • He published poetry before his plays, starting in 1593
  • Records of his plays begin to appear in 1594

He doesn't use just one type of fool, he uses different characters for different jobs.

There are the knowing, wise fools. Professionals, they are employed by royalty and nobility to entertain. They are smarter than those in positions of authority and used by Shakespeare to mock them, reveal the truth of a situation and provide social commentary.

Then there are the natural fools, who simply lack any grey matter and common sense. As well as providing some slapstick, they are also used to inadvertently reveal some home truths.

"They [the fools] are these strange characters that show up and make witty observations and very often become very central to the action," says Dr Jacquelyn Bessell, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute.

"They do share a sort of capacity to stir things up, to say things that other characters in their social bracket couldn't possibly get away with saying. In that respect, they're a really useful vehicle driving your moral and argumentative point home if you're a dramatist. They deflate pompous, socially superior characters. They're able to criticise kings."

So smart and articulate or stupid and foolish, who are the closest modern equivalents of Shakespeare's fools and comic characters?

Homer Simpson - Dogberry (Much Ado About Nothing)

Homer Simpson

Role: Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare's unwitting fools, but one who ultimately comes good. A figure of comic incompetence, he is a clownish policeman who mangles nearly every word he says and botches nearly everything he does. Despite all of this he inadvertently uncovers a villainous plan and saves the day. Incompetent he may be, but ultimately he is the play's real hero. "Characters like Dogberry are humorous and silly, but what they say and do often has a telling significance," says Kiernan Ryan, professor of English Language and Literature at the University of London. "While the characters might not realise this themselves, Shakespeare designs it so the audience doesn't miss the point."

Homer and Dogberry wisdom

  • Homer to Bart and Lisa: "Kids, you tried, you failed. The lesson is never try"
  • Dogberry: "O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this"

Modern-day equivalent: Homer Simpson, from Fox Broadcasting's The Simpsons, is greedy, lazy, opportunistic and largely incompetent as a husband, father, friend and employee. Despite his shortcomings and failings he often comes good as well, but in his own amoral way - like taking daughter Lisa to see an exhibition she is devastated to have missed, but doing it by breaking into the museum after hours.

Why: Dogberry and Homer are both incompetents. The policeman fumbles his job the same way Homer has fumbled his way though life, marriage and parenthood for years. But they are both fools who eventually do good, without quite knowing how they did it. Both characters are used to provide moments of insight without being aware of it themselves. And just as Dogberry is one of the Bard's most-loved fools, Homer is one of television's most-loved idiots.

Miranda (Hart) - Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream)

Miranda Hart and her on-screen mother Penny, played by Patricia Hodge

Role: In A Midsummer Night's Dream Bottom is silly and bossy, but ultimately very lovable. He makes a fool of himself, but his idiocy is almost endearingly innocent and never malicious. In the play his head is transformed into a donkey's and a spell is cast upon Titania which causes her to fall in love with him. "The Queen of the Fairies falling in love with an ass is the ultimate symbol of comic topsy-turveydom," says Dr Stephen Purcell, who teaches English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick University.

Modern-day equivalent: In her sitcom Miranda is likeable, but always stumbling into awkward and often hopeless situations. She usually ends up looking like a fool as she tries to extract herself, and small mistakes end up growing into ­comic disasters.

Why: Blustering and silly, both Bottom and Miranda end up in all sorts of comic confusion. What they also have in common is that neither has a dark or morally ambiguous side, they are just immensely likeable. "The role of Bottom also involves physical comedy and Miranda Hart is a brilliant physical clown," says the University of Kent's Double.

Frank Gallagher - Falstaff (The Merry Wives of Windsor)

Frank Gallagher

Start Quote

Stephen Richardson playing Sir John Falstaff

Well, if my wind were but long enough to say my prayers, I would repent”

End Quote Sir John Falstaff The Merry Wives of Windsor

Role: Not strictly a fool, Sir John Falstaff is one of Shakespeare's comic characters - but one of ill-repute. He is likeable, humorous and witty, and revels in the pleasures of the flesh, but doesn't think too hard about the consequences. Falstaff - who appears in both The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV (Part I and II) - also has a darker side and is a drunkard who lies, cheats and exploits people.

Modern-day equivalent: An unemployed drunk, Frank Gallagher in Channel 4's Shameless spends most of his time in the pub or trying to get money to go to the pub. Irresponsible and rude, he usually leaves a trail of destruction and insults people wherever he goes. He is the father of countless children by several mothers. But while he usually shirks responsibility for them, he does loves them and they love him. He has been known to step up when it matters most.

Why: Both are classic loveable rogues. They are deeply flawed but their wit and moments of kindness mean they are still loved by those around them, despite some truly appalling behaviour. They are also prone to some drunken philosophising. Frank is even fond of quoting Shakespeare during an alcohol-fuelled rant. "Many of Falstaff's qualities can be detected in Frank Gallagher, but the main difference is that he is not nearly as eloquent or as witty as Falstaff," says Warwick University's Purcell.

Frankie Boyle - Trinculo (The Tempest)

Frankie Boyle

Role: The king's jester in The Tempest, Trinculo is a comical character and a professional fool. It means he is funny but also smart and clever verbally, playing around with words. Also, while a lot of Shakespeare's fools have redeeming features, Trinculo is downright bad. In the play he plots with Caliban and Stephano to kill Prospero.

Modern-day equivalent: Arguably one of the most controversial comics around, Frankie Boyle often provokes outrage. Last year he was censured by Ofcom after it received 500 complaints about one of his jokes. But he is also popular, appearing on television and headlining his own tour. He says he is simply "telling it like it is". There is definitely no sugar-coating going on.

Why: Trinculo and Boyle aren't too worried about being nice or who likes them. They pretty much do what they want. The difference between them is Trinculo gets repeatedly outwitted in The Tempest.

Ian Hislop - King Lear's fool (King Lear)

Ian Hislop

Start Quote

Have more than thou showest, speak less than thou knowest, Ride more than thou goest...”

End Quote King's Lear's fool

Role: The fool in King Lear is far removed from Shakespeare's unwittingly wise ones. A professional fool, he is clever and sharp - a social commentator and a satirist. Being the king's fool he gets away with talking to Lear in the way no-one else would, and takes full advantage.

Modern-day equivalent: Editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye, Ian Hislop has made a career of taking on and mocking authority. In his work as a journalist and commentator in print and on television, he demonstrates a healthy scepticism towards people in positions of power.

Why: Hislop and Lear share a verbal dexterity and a talent for words. Both are satirical, political and poke fun at those in power. One difference is that King Lear's fool often speaks in riddles and in a roundabout way that Lear cannot always pin down his meaning. Hislop's meaning is usually very clear.

Russell Brand - Feste (Twelfth Night)

Russell Brand

Role: Feste in Twelfth Night is part of the household of Countess Olivia, her licensed fool. He is frivolous and naughty, but extremely eloquent. "He is a clever satirist and describes himself as a 'corrupter of words'," says Purcell. "He is quite the opposite of clowns like Dogberry and Bottom, who are merely foolish." But he also has a darker side that occasionally emerges.

Modern-day equivalent: Russell Brand is idiosyncratic, with very distinct mannerisms and use of language. His speech is excessively articulated and flowery and he plays around with tone. "He's almost created his own language," says Double. He also dresses like a modern-day dandy, all tight trousers and flowing scarves. But he has his demons and is a former drug addict.

Why: Both Feste and Brand are slightly bohemian and very imaginative with the way they play with words. Feste sums it up well in his first scene when he says: "Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit." But despite their playful and outwardly frivolous nature, they can be brooding.

Additional reporting by Keith Moore.

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