Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right:
Lear’s Fool and Cymbeline’s Cloten and Their Social Significance
Clowns and Jesters abound throughout the Shakespearean canon, and the Bard’s later plays are no exception. In this paper I plan to examine the later Shakespearean fool, particularly King Lear’s Fool and Cymbeline’s Cloten and how they represent various political and social ideas. First, I will examine the historical significance of both Fool and Cloten’s station, their historic relevance, and similarities to other socio-political archetypes. Next, I will look at how Lear’s Fool and Cloten reflect the idea of progress by revolutionary derailment of main characters inspiring monarchical overturn and progress. Third, I will examine the symbolism in their deaths and how it reflects the historic trend of the maligned lower class, post overthrow.
Historically, the transition from the Elizabethan reign to James’ was a time of subtle social-realignment. The idea of the monarchy was beginning to show signs of weakness following the James’ ascension and the intellectual, producing artists like Shakespeare, were among the first to placate and simultaneously subvert it. Those of Shakespeare's own socio-economic class were fostering a class-limiting, Puritan structure. It is evident Shakespeare wholly rejected this new social ethic. He began to suggest in his writing a morality based in the issue brought to light by the humanist “bourgeoisie” of the Renaissance that was largely extracted from all but the landed feudal class. This “Renaissance Bourgeoisie” historically did not carry out its promises at that time nor later. Immediately after its first victories, its class limitations and contradictions forced it to change; instead of universal truth, it advocated philistine hypocrisy; instead of universal freedom, the enslavement of the lower classes.
Two sides to a classist ideology are presented in King Lear’s clownish lower station Fool and Cymbeline’s jesteric Cloten. Lear’s Fool exists, despite variations on age throughout various productions, as a product of something foreign or hidden in contemporary western thought, the criminalization of vagrancy. Attached to the King’s entourage and personage, he would have been a familiar character type. Elizabeth I was perhaps the greatest patron of theatrical art, however she and the ruling parliament attempted a somewhat pragmatic approach to their treatment of the poor. At the time, amendments to poor laws in 1572, insisted on the attachment of roaming players to a house or lord, lest they be charged for being a vagabond. This was no doubt an idea Shakespeare played close to the chest with. When the Fool early on entreats to Lear and Kent that they, “canst smile as the wind sits, thou’lt catch cold shortly” (1.4.88-89), he is not just warning of how quickly the favor of those in power can change, but also expressing an self-awareness reflected by the author. The entirety of the...