Hamlet as a Fool


SHAKESPEARE, with his wealth of words of unfixed connotation, seems to have tried to distinguish the terms “fool,” “jester,” and “ clown.” In his nomenclature of characters, a clown is a muddle-pated, mistaught, clumsy fellow, too often lewd ; a jester is a witty man, whose trade is “ to set the table on a roar,” or who talks for the sake of hearing himself say clever things. “A fool,” says Webster, “is a man who counterfeits folly : ” and that is the basis of Shakespeare’s conceptions. His fools are at bottom exceedingly wise men ; they are judicious critics, but pessimistic, able to edge their observations with potent euphemisms,sharp paradoxes, or biting sarcasms. A good critic is invariably a fool, in this sense ; and a fool is ever a good critic.

The great dramatist, in making his best plays, seems to have followed a recipe like this : —

Take a man with an introspective brain, who is naturally kind of heart and whose instincts are mainly for good; give him such an education that he shall be fitted to observe men and things, and to compare his observations with the workings of his own soul ; then imprison him in circumstances which make it impossible for him to act as his heart bids him ; and for result you will have a hero, a villain, or a fool. The man becomes a hero when a way is opened at last for him to perform a noble deed, as witness Henry V. He becomes a villain when the only road from his prison leads through crime and bloodshed, as witness Macbeth. But if the dam walling in the troubled waters of his soul is never burst, he becomes a fool, whom the spectator must love as much as he admires, detests, or pities the other two ; and such a character must remain a fool till the last act, when death comes and brings him peace.

Such fools are not found in Shakespeare’s earlier plays. The first I know of is the fool in Twelfth Night, a lovable fellow, nearly a buffoon, whom Malvolio detests and all the others love. Of the fool in Lear Coleridge says, “ He is no comic buffoon to make the groundlings laugh. “ No; he is rather a wise man to teach the groundlings wisdom, whose “ rudeness is a sauce to his good wit. “ Wise with a wisdom which is expressionless, he must yet speak out of the fullness of his heart though he be whipped for it. For what can he do ? Can he stem the torrent of disaster which the old man by his unwisdom has brought upon his own head ? Can he bring back his beloved mistress, for whom “ since her going into France he hath much pined away ” ? Can he make the devilish Goneril and Regan as tenderhearted as they should be ? Can he stop the poor old King from going mad ? No, he can do none of these things; but he may endeavor, with his quips and quibbles, his euphemisms and paradoxes, to make the crownless Lear laugh at his own sorrows, and he can be faithful unto death, and fade from the wonderful page helping to bear the sleeping King to Dover.

Shakespeare’s fools do not all wear motley. He loved them too much not to place one on a high pedestal, and the one he has drawn most carefully is a Prince, always in black. For the hero of Shakespeare’s masterpiece is undoubtedly a fool, — the apotheosis of the Fool as the dramatist saw him. The contention that Hamlet was a weak man, who succumbed to a burden too great for him, and was essentially mad, is contradicted by the fact that he simulated madness, and also by his decisive action in the matter of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. A weak man never seizes the bull by the horns, as Hamlet did in that case, and in the matter of his call it was the circumstances which fooled him. He could have struck the nail on the head if he had been sure there was a nail to strike, but he was ever skeptical about his right to slay his uncle, and there was not always in him a firm belief that the Ghost was as real as it seemed.

No ; Hamlet was a fool in the same sense of the word that Lear’s friend and adviser of the motley was a fool. He recognized that the world was all awry; that wickedness, drunkenness, lewdness, and injustice were enthroned ; and that he could do nothing to remedy it nor to relieve the bitterness within him but by sarcastic speeches and euphemisms veiled in clownishness. “ There’s ne’er a villain dwelling in all Denmark but he’s an arrant knave,” taken with its context, is the quintessence of Shakespearean fooling.

It would seem that there works against this contention the fact that Hamlet is rarely to be laughed at, but with Shakespeare the fool’s part was not necessarily ludicrous. “ The clown,” says Hamlet, instructing his Players, “ the clown shall make those laugh whose lungs are tickle o’ the sear ; ” and we have seen that a fool and a clown are as different as a philosopher and a buffoon, and that the saws of a true fool will as easily make you weep as laugh.

In Act V. Scene i. the contradistinction between fooling and clowning is plainly seen. Hamlet answers the gravedigger according to his clownishness with the quibble, “ I think the grave be thine indeed, for thou liest in it.” And later, when the clowns drop out of the conversation, Hamlet continues his fooling in its true spirit, so that the staid Horatio says, “ T were to consider too curiously to consider so ; ” but the Prince will not leave it, and he plays his part consistently to the bitter end. Osric cannot of course understand it; the “ waterfly,” the dude, the empty-headed phrase plagiarist, is so befooled, so smothered in his own blanket, that he undoubtedly believes “my lord ” is mad.

Right to the end Hamlet’s introspection, his “ considering too curiously,” continues, and then his long-pent-up desire to do something finds an outlet. He has a presentiment that he is going to his death, but on no account will he appear cowardly. Circumstances, ever before against him, in the last scene show kind and cruel, and his fate having caused him to lead a fool’s life he dies a hero’s death. The “union” falls into the wrong cup, the swords are exchanged, the guilt of the King becomes palpable, and then Hamlet, in the very pangs of death, finds means to revenge himself and his father. And lest he should leave behind him the name of madman, he begs Horatio to stay on the earth a little longer, that the world may know that he was not mad, but only the Fool of Fate.