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All total, Shakespeare includes 21 Clowns and Fools in his works, that frequency wasn’t just personal preference. It was, as you may have guessed, a reflection of actual history. The Fool dates all the way back to the Romans as an appointed member of society whose job it was to entertain with honesty, mockery, and behavior that would have been foolish for anyone else. Since it is April Fool’s Day today, that makes it the perfect time to explore the history of fools, which is why today, we’re meeting with Tim Fitzhigham, who is currently completing his PhD on Robert Armin, the man who is most famous for playing some of those Clowns and Fools you see in Shakespeare’s plays. Tim joins us today to help us unpack the history behind the Fools of Shakespeare, the real people who served as fools in the royal court for Shakespeare’s lifetime, the role of Robert Armin had in developing the role of Shakespeare’s fools, and to share with us what we should know about the 16-17th century history of clowns, jesters, and fools when we see them in Shakespeare’s plays.  

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Tim Fitzhigham is the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk Creative Director, where he was appointed to oversee the revival of of St George’s Guildhall in King’s Lynn. 

I’ll be asking Tim Fitzhigham about:

  • We recognize the fool as a recurrent character in Shakespeare’s plays, but the term “fool” was applied more broadly in Shakespeare’s lifetime to include what was known as a “natural fool”, that stood in contrast to someone that was professionally employed to entertain. Tim, please explain for us the definition of a natural fool and how that contrasted with an artificial, or professional fool. 
  • In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Feste the jester is described as being “wise enough to play the fool.” Were fools intended to be silly, comedic figures, or were they more like bearers of unexpected wisdom?
  • What names can you give us of famous royal court jesters from the life of William Shakespeare (or reasonably close by), and were these individuals competition for the fools that show up in the plays that were performed before royalty?
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Tim Fitzhigham recommends:

Robert Armin’s Foole Upon Foole (read it online at the University of Michgan here)

Will Kemp’s Nine Daies Wonder (read online at the University of Oregon here)

A few other resources Cassidy thought you’d enjoy if you want to explore this topic further:

Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester around the World by Beatrice K Otto

Fools and Jesters at the English Court by John Southworth

Fool: In Search of Henry VIII’s Closest Man by Peter K. Anderssen

King Lear and the Fools of Robert Armin by H. F. Lippincott

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Quotes from Shakespeare’s plays about home
  • Related episodes about Tudor construction
  • Virtual Tour of Stratford Upon Avon
  • Links to a diagram of the house showing where John Shakespeare’s business room is located
  • Link to episode about Inigo Jones
  • 20th century illustration of Shakespeare’s birthroom
  • 19th century engraving of Shakespeare’s birthplace before renovations
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening! I’m Cassidy Cash and I hope you learn something new about the bard.

I’ll see you next time!