Jesters: Wikis


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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Depiction of a jester by William Merritt Chase

A jester, joker, jokester, fool, wit-cracker, prankster or buffoon was a person employed to tell jokes and provide general entertainment, typically by a European monarch. Jesters are stereotypically thought to have worn brightly colored clothes and eccentric hats in a motley pattern. Their hats were especially distinctive; made of cloth, they were floppy with three points, each of which had a jingle bell at the end. The three points of the hat represent the donkey's ears and tail worn by jesters in earlier times. Other things distinctive about the jester were his laughter and his mock sceptre, known as a bauble or marotte.




Political significance

The Royal Shakespeare Company provides historical context for the role of the fool:

In ancient times courts employed fools and by the Middle Ages the jester was a familiar figure. In Renaissance times, aristocratic households in Britain employed licensed fools or jesters, who sometimes dressed as other servants were dressed, but generally wore a motley (i.e. parti-coloured) coat, hood with ass's (i.e. donkey) ears or a red-flannel coxcomb and bells. Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her. Excessive behaviour, however, could lead to a fool being whipped, as Lear threatens to whip his fool. [1]

One may conceptualize fools in two camps: those of the natural fool type and those of the licensed fool type. Whereas the natural fool was seen as innately nit-witted, moronic, or mad, the licensed fool was given leeway by permission of the court. In other words, both were excused, to some extent, for their behavior, the first because he "couldn't help it," and the second by decree.

Distinction was made between fools and clowns, or country bumpkins. The fool's status was one of privilege within a royal or noble household. His folly could be regarded as the raving of a madman but was often deemed to be divinely inspired. The 'natural' fool was touched by God. Much to Gonerill's annoyance, Lear's 'all-licensed' Fool enjoys a privileged status. His characteristic idiom suggests he is a 'natural' fool, not an artificial one, though his perceptiveness and wit show that he is far from being an idiot, however 'touched' he might be.[1]

Scholar David Carlyon has cast doubt on the "daring political jester", calling historical tales "apocryphal", and concluding that "popular culture embraces a sentimental image of the clown; writers reproduce that sentimentality in the jester, and academics in the Trickster," but it "falters as analysis." [2]

Jesters could also give bad news to the King that no-one else would dare deliver. The best example of this is in 1340, when the French fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Sluys by the English. Phillippe VI's jester told him the English sailors "don't even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French."[3]

The position of the Joker playing card, as a wild card which has no fixed place in the hierarchy of King, Queen, Knave, etc. might be a remnant of the position of the court jester.[citation needed] This lack of any place in the hierarchy meant Kings could trust the counsel of the jesters, as they had no vested interest in any region, estate or church.

English royal court jesters

19th century engraving of Will Sommers, Henry VIII's jester.

All royal courts in those days employed entertainers and most had professional fools, sometimes called licensed fools. Entertainment included music, juggling, clowning, and the telling of riddles. Henry VIII of England employed a jester named Will Sommers.

During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I of England, William Shakespeare wrote his plays and performed with his theatre company the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later called the King's Men). Clowns and jesters were featured in Shakespeare's plays, and the company's expert on jesting was Robert Armin, author of the book Fooled upon Foole. In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Feste the jester is described as "wise enough to play the fool."

James VI of Scotland was originally very lazy about reading things before signing them. His jester, George Buchanan (1506–82) tricked him into abdicating in favour of George for 15 days. James got the point.[4]

King James also employed a jester called Archibald Armstrong. During his lifetime Armstrong was given great honours at court. He was eventually thrown out of the King's employment when he over-reached himself and insulted too many influential people. Even after his disgrace, books telling of his jests were sold in London streets. He held some influence at court still in the reign of Charles I and estates of land in Ireland. Charles later employed a jester called Jeffrey Hudson who was very popular and loyal. Jeffrey Hudson had the title of Royal Dwarf because he was short of stature. One of his jests was to be presented hidden in a giant pie from which he would leap out. Hudson fought on the Royalist side in the English Civil War. A third jester associated with Charles I was called Muckle John.

End of tradition

The tradition of court jesters came to an end in Britain when Charles I was overthrown in the Civil War. As a Puritan Christian republic, England under the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had no place for such fripperies as jesters. English theatre also suffered and a good many actors and entertainers relocated to Ireland where things were little better (see Irish theatre).

After the Restoration, Charles II did not reinstate the tradition of the court jester, but he did greatly patronize the theatre and proto-music hall entertainments, especially favouring the work of Thomas Killigrew. Though Killigrew was not officially a jester, Samuel Pepys in his famous diary does call Killigrew "The King's fool and jester, with the power to mock and revile even the most prominent without penalty" (12 February 1668). The last British nobles to keep jesters were the Queen Mother's family, the Bowes-Lyons.

In the 18th century, jesters had died out except in Russia, Spain and Germany. In Romania, the Hospodars kept Armenian jesters until the 19th century.

In France and Italy, travelling groups of jesters performed plays featuring stylized characters in a form of theatre called the commedia dell'arte. A version of this passed into British folk tradition in the form of a puppet show Punch and Judy. In France the tradition of the court jester ended with the French Revolution.

As late as 1968, however, the Canada Council awarded a $3,500 grant to Joachim Foikis of Vancouver "to revive the ancient and time-honoured tradition of town fool".[5][6]

Other countries

Stańczyk by Jan Matejko
The jester is the only person at a 1514 royal ball troubled by the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk.

Poland's most famous court jester was Stańczyk, whose jokes were usually related to political matters, and who later became a historical symbol for Poles.

In the 21st century, the jester is still seen at medieval-style fayres and pageants.

Tonga was the first royal court to appoint a court jester in modern times, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, the King of Tonga, appointing JD Bogdanoff to the role in 1999.[7] He was later embroiled in a financial scandal.[8]

In 2004 English Heritage appointed Nigel Roder ("Kester the Jester") as the State Jester for England, the first since Muckle John 355 years previously.[9] However following an objection by the National Guild of Jesters, English Heritage accepted they were not authorised to grant such a title.[10] Roder was succeeded as "Heritage jester" by Pete Cooper ("Peterkin the Fool").[11]

In Germany, Till Eulenspiegel is a folkloric hero dating back to medieval times and ruling each year over Fasching or Carnival time, mocking politicians and public figures of power and authority with political satire like a modern day court jester. He holds a mirror to make us aware of our times (Zeitgeist), and his sceptre or marotte is the symbol of his absolute and supreme rule.

Shakespearean jesters

The jester as a symbol

The root of the word "fool" is from the Latin follis, which means "bag of wind" or that which contains air or breath.

In Tarot, "The Fool" is the first card of the Major Arcana. The tarot depiction of the Fool includes a man, (or less often, a woman), Juggling unconcernedly or otherwise distracted, with a dog (sometimes cat) at his heels. The fool is in the act of unknowingly walking off the edge of a cliff, precipice or other high place. Another Tarot character is Death. In the Middle Ages Death is often shown in Jester's garb because "The last laugh is reserved for death." Also, Death humbles everyone just as Jesters make fun of everyone regardless of standing.

In literature, the jester is symbolic of common sense and of honesty, notably in King Lear, the court jester is a character used for insight and advice on the part of the monarch, taking advantage of his license to mock and speak freely to dispense frank observations and highlight the folly of his monarch. This presents a clashing irony as a "greater" man could dispense the same advice and find himself being detained in the dungeons or even executed. Only as the lowliest member of the court can the jester be the monarch's most useful adviser.

Author Alan Gordon also writes about jesters as advisers to the king, who actually make up a super-secret spy ring that try to keep peace and control the leaders of different countries. The Fool's Guild of these novels is portrayed as a mockery to the church, and they refer to Jesus Christ as "Their Savior, The First Fool."

Modern usage

US lawyer and politician Roscoe Conkling depicted as a jester in a 1884 cartoon.


In similar vein, Buffoon is a term for someone who provides amusement through inappropriate appearance and/or behavior.[12]

Strictly, a buffoon describes a "ridiculous, but nevertheless amusing person." In broader terms, a buffoon is a clown-like, publicly amusing person, such as a court jester. In the more modern sense, the term is frequently used in a derogatory sense to describe someone considered a public fool, or someone displaying inappropriately vulgar, bumbling or ridiculous behavior that is a source of general amusement.

The term may originate from the old Italian "buffare", meaning to puff out one's cheeks. Robin Williams's character conjectures in the movie Toys that the word "is a combination of the words 'buffer' and 'fool.' Or perhaps 'buffamotus,' he who carries the pickle."


In the popular comic by DC Comics, as well as three Batman movies (1966,1989 and The Dark Knight) and the TV series, The Joker is the supervillain nemesis of Batman. The Joker's sometimes-girlfriend, Harley Quinn, is also a jester.

Marvel also had a character named The Jester who would use little toys the were made into weapons by the Tinkerer, such as a doll/bomb or a yo-yo/grenade. His most common enemy is Daredevil.[13]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Notes on the Fool". Royal Shakespeare Company. Retrieved 2009-10-29. 
  2. ^ Carlyon, D. (2002). "The Trickster as Academic Comfort Food". The Journal of American Culture 25 (1-2): 14—18. doi:10.1111/1542-734X.00003. 
  3. ^ Otto, Beatrice K (2001). Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World. University of Chicago Press. p. 113. 
  4. ^ Otto, Beatrice K. (2001). Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World. University of Chicago Press. 
  5. ^ The New York Times. May 14, 1968. 
  6. ^ Northumberland needs county jester to lighten up politics :: Consider This :: community voices in discourse
  7. ^ "Tonga royal decree appointing JD Bogdanoff as court jester" (JPEG). Retrieved 2009-10-29. 
  8. ^ "Tongan court jester faces trial". BBC News. 11 August, 2003. Retrieved 2009-10-29. 
  9. ^ BBC NEWS | England | Jesters joust for historic role
  10. ^ BBC NEWS | England | Jesters get serious in name row
  11. ^ BBC NEWS| England | Jester completes 100-mile tribute
  12. ^ (In Australian colloquial slang Buffoon can be used affectionately like the term dag).
  13. ^


  • Welsford, Enid: The Fool : His Social and Literary History (out of print) (1935 + subsequent reprints): ISBN 1-299-14274-5
  • Otto, Beatrice K., “Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World,” Chicago University Press, 2001
  • M. Conrad Hyers The Spirituality of Comedy: comic heroism in a tragic world 1996 Transaction Publishers ISBN 1560002182
  • Doran, John A History of Court Fools, 1858
  • Billington, Sandra A Social History of the Fool, 1984

The Jester, a book written by James Patterson and Andrew Gross

External links

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010
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From Wikisource

The Jesters
by Don Marquis

A TOAST to the Fools!
Pierrot, Pantaloon,
Harlequin, Clown,
Merry-Andrew, Buffoon--
Touchstone and Triboulet--all of the tribe.--
Dancer and jester and singer and scribe.
We sigh over Yorick--(unfortunate fool,
Ten thousand Hamlets have fumbled his skull!)--
But where is the Hamlet to weep o'er the biers
Of his brothers?
And where is the poet solicits our tears
For the others?
They have passed from the world and left never
a sign,
And few of us now have the courage to sing
That their whimsies made life a more livable
We, that are left of the line,
Let us drink to the jesters--in gooseberry wine!

Then here's to the Fools!
Flouting the sages
Through history's pages
And driving the dreary old seers into rages--
The humbugging Magis
Who prate that the wages
Of Folly are Death--toast the Fools of all ages!
They have ridden like froth down the whirlpools
of time,
They have jingled their caps in the councils of
They have snared half the wisdom of life in a
And tripped into nothingness grinning at fate--
Ho, brothers mine,
Brim up the glasses with gooseberry wine!

Though the prince with his firman,
The judge in his ermine,
Affirm and determine
Bold words need the whip,
Let them spare us the rod and remit us the
For Death has a quip

Of the tomb and the vermin
That will silence at last the most impudent lip!
Is the world but a bubble, a bauble, a joke?
Heigho, Brother Fools, now your bubble is broke,
Do you ask for a tear?--or is it worth while?
Here's a sigh for you, then--but it ends in a smile!
Ho, Brother Death,
We would laugh at you, too--if you spared us the


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