Essay on William Shakespeare's Fools

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Shakespeare's Fools

Shakespeare used foolish characters in his plays to make points that he considers highly important. I had previously supposed that Shakespeare was an entertainer who sprinkled his writing with observations about humanity and its place in the world to please critics. However, I discovered that he was a gifted writer who had a penetrating understanding the condition of humanity in the world and sprinkled his plays with fools and jokes meant for the common man as a way of conceding to his audience's intellectual level. Or, as Walter Kaufmann said in his essay "Shakespeare: Between Socrates and Existentialism," Shakespeare "came to terms with the obtuseness of his public: he gave his pearls a slight odor of the sty before he cast them." Kaufmann continues his essay by saying that Shakespeare, unlike many modern artists, "turned the challenge of a boorish, lecherous, and vulgar audience to advantage and increased the richness and the subtlety of drama." (Kaufmann 3)

Perhaps the best example of Shakespeare's use of the fool (and certainly the best in any Shakespearean play that I have read) is Falstaff in I Henry IV. In "The Fortunes of Falstaff," Wilson claims that Falstaff is the embodiment of the vice of Vanity: he is cowardly in battle, proud and pretentious, dishonest, conniving, lacks respect for the property of others, and is concerned only with wine, tavern wenches, and comfort. It would be easy for a reader (or play-watcher) unfamiliar with Shakespeare to conclude, in our own time, that Falstaff has been included in the drama solely to provide entertainment value.

However, Falstaff is also essential to the play in many ways. He is necessary in the development of Prince Hal, ...

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...han I first supposed. Rather than being mere device for the entertainment of his audience, Bottom and Falstaff (and many of his other characters) are used, in these cases to contrast the other characters of his plays, to make important points that Shakespeare wishes his audience to understand. They are integral parts of Shakespeare's drama.


Kaufmann, Walter. "Shakespeare: Between Socrates and Existentialism" in From Shakespeare to Existentialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. New York: Penguin, 1965.

Shakespeare, William. Henry IV, Part I. New York: Penguin, 1965.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. New York: Penguin, 1965.

Wilson, John Dover. "From The Fortunes of Falstaff" in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: Penguin, 1965.
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