Shakespeare’s early plays feature characters from every level of society, from the servant class to the governing elite. There are plays in which the servants are the most admirable characters on show (‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ for example) as there are those in which the most humble are also incidental and marginal to the plot, like ‘The Merchant of Venice’. But Launce and Gobbo share plenty of common ground in other respects: for example the relationship they strike with the audience – on one side, a certain ridicule, on the other, a distinct affection and sense of identification.
It’s telling that both these characters are notable for their losing battles with the English language. Launce is refreshingly plain-spoken, a contrast with the pompous Valentine and Proteus, but also at times tongue-tied, particularly when attempting the occasional polysyllabic challenge: for example he describes himself as ‘like the prodigious son’ – meaning presumably the prodigal son. Gobbo faces the same challenges, refusing his father’s request to take a ‘dish of doves’ to his master as ‘impertinent’ (meaning irrelevant) and calling on his father to ‘frutify’ himself, meaning explain.
These linguistic stumbles are revealing: they imply that there is a standard language (bear in mind that Shakespeare spelt his own name in six different ways) which most of the audience will recognise, particularly when its conventions are infringed. Moreover, these infringements are forgivable and amusing – indeed, endearing – rather than anything more damning. It’s hard after all to imagine the audience laughing at characters like these, whose virtues are ‘trumpet-tongued’, rather than with them.
Many of Shakespeare’s earlier plays feature characters like these: servants (like the nurse in ‘Romeo and Juliet’) whose loyalty is as steady as their good nature, entirely unthreatening, a source of light relief. Bottom in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is such another, as are Dogberry in ‘Much Ado’ and Costard in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’. These are characters for whom the audience feels a ready affection for every humiliation they experience – and there will be many who feel a certain sense of identity with them too.
All the plays mentioned so far were written in the first part of Shakespeare’s career, before the Lord Chamberlain’s Men became the King’s Men (1603 – 4) – indeed before he moved from north of the river to south, exchanging in 1599 The Theatre at Shoreditch for The Globe. Another way of reflecting his developing practice is to note that all the plays mentioned so far were written while Will Kemp (much admired for his physical comedy) was still the resident clown in the company, before he was replaced in around 1600 by Robert Armin.
I say ‘clown’ because it’s around this point that Shakespeare’s clowns become his fools. Characters like Touchstone in ‘As You Like It’ (1599) and Feste in ‘Twelfth Night’ (1599) add an extra depth to the hapless clowning of characters like Bottom and Dogberry. The Fool in ‘King Lear’ (1606) is a further example. Characters like these draw on a courtly rather than a theatrical tradition which allowed the jester to speak his mind in courts in which, like that of Claudius in ‘Hamlet’, truth-telling is at a premium.
Touchstone in ‘As You Like It’ (1599) is the court jester in the usurper’s court of Duke Frederick. Canny and insightful, he follows Celia into the forest so as to be a comfort on the journey. By contrast with Shakespeare’s clowns, Touchstone is articulate and eloquent. True, he ends up competing with William for the affections of Audrey, a slow-witted goat herd who is drawn to him for all the wrong reasons, but his detached wisdom contrasts with naïve enthusiasm of characters like Bottom or Gobbo. The role of Touchstone may be the first role played by Robert Armin after he joined the company.
Feste in ‘Twelfth Night’ (1599) is court jester in Olivia’s household, inherited from her father. His primary role is to make her laugh, though he also sings around half a dozen songs – a further reminder that the part was most likely written for Armin rather than Kemp. Feste, like Touchstone, is wise and knowing, implying (once again) a certain detachment (‘Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage’ etc), and he is often asked by Olivia for his view. He is also, of course, fully involved in the plot to trick Malvolio. He is addressed as ‘Fool’ though the stage directions call him ‘Clown’.
The Fool in ‘King Lear’ (1606) represents part-diversion from, and part-commentator on, events. He is fearless in his conversation with Lear, whom he intermittently entertains, advises and warns – for example about his relationships with his daughters. His right (or duty) to speak on the level to Lear is reflected in his perception of Lear as foolish and misdirected. Thus paradoxically the fool is the wisest of men. In this role he is depended on by the king, and hanged by the king’s enemies – ‘And my poor fool is hang’d’ laments Lear in Act Five: the only fool (or clown) to die.
Hamlet’s speech to the actors in Act Three delivers a number of strictures on the role of the fool (or clown): importantly, the performer is to deliver only those lines that the script contains, for fear of de-railing the main themes of the play. Perhaps Shakespeare still has the Kemp / Armin story in mind, and perhaps we can glimpse here the real reason why Kemp left the company. Armin famously inherited the grave-diggers’ role – indeed it is said that the role was written for him. Curiously, Hamlet’s speech uses the terms ‘fool’ and ‘clown’ interchangeably, implying that they denote much the same kind of character. But the evidence strongly suggests otherwise, and the plays written around the turn of the century, of which ‘Hamlet’ is one, are the heart of the evidence.