August Wilson’s Shakespearean Fools
By Jim Shea
April 14, 2009
A Shakespearean ‘Fool’ tends to be a character that at first appears to have the role of a clown as a character used for comic relief and a disruptive force but whose roles turn out more enlightening by the conclusion of the play. Mark Edmundson (2000) describes the role of the role of Shakespeare’s Fools by saying, “Shakespeare’s fools are subtle teachers, reality instructors one might say, who often come close to playing the part that Socrates, himself an inspired clown, played on the streets of Athens. They tickle, coax and cajole their supposed betters into truth, or something akin to it. They take the spirit of April Fools’ Day to an inspired zenith.” Although early dialogues from these fools appear to be nonsensical banter and interrupt the flow of the play, their speeches often foreshadow actions later in the plays. The Fool from King Lear is arguably Shakespeare’s most famous fools and holds these same qualities of comic relief integrated with enlightenment. Certain characters in August Wilson’s plays share the same aura around them as the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Wilson’s characters also create some kind of comic relief for the audience while revealing something that is to come later in the play. August Wilson’s fools are Sylvester from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Gabriel from Fences, and Hambone from Two Trains Running.
The Fool in King Lear gives counsel in the form of banter with Lear throughout the whole play. Although he is a mere jester to Lear, the Fool is able to mock Lear’s actions without any repercussion. But through some of the Fool’s speeches comes insight toward actions later in the play:
“Mark it nuncle:
Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest,
Ride more than thou goest,
Learn more than thou trowest,
Set less than thou throwest;
Leave thy drink and thy whore,
And keep in-a-door,
And thou shall have more
Than two tens to a score.” Act I Scene IV
The Fool is panning out Lear’s journey for the rest of the play. Lear will learn that he cast off the wrong daughter (Cordelia), will be turned away by his other two daughters and end up losing everything, including his sanity. Although this speech seems silly and babble as Lear at this point is still in a position of power, the audience will find it comical and later find out that the Fool was foreshadowing the play in this speech.
Shakespearean Criticism (2002) has a number of essays in volume 46 entitled ‘Clowns and Fools.’ An essay in the collection by Charles S. Felver states:
“Nothing further is said to develop this close relationship
between the Fool and Cordelia, but it is clear from these
lines that the Fool, besides his function as remind to Lear
of his absent and beloved daughter. These lines also
suggest a close family bond between the Fool, Lear, and
Cordelia…” pp. 43
These lines are the cusp of how the Fool in King Lear is able to not only entertain, but remind the audience of Lear’s folly. Everything surrounding the Fool, even down to his name, seem simple and strictly for comedic purposes from the beginning. Yet, the audience later finds out that a lot of what the Fool has to say intervenes with the actions later in the play. In this particular instance the Fool isn’t even on stage. Lear calls for the Fool and is told that the Fool is sad because Cordelia’s in France. The Fool hasn’t even stepped on stage and is foreshadowing how Lear will be saddened once Cordelia is cast out of the kingdom.
George Orwell (1947) does not care much for Leo Tolstoy’s depiction of King Lear and spends this entire article criticizing Tolstoy’s critique of Shakespeare:
“The Fool is integral to the play. He acts not only as
a sort of chorus, making the central situation clearer
by commenting on it more intelligently than the other
characters, but as a foil to Lear’s frenzies. His jokes,
riddles and scraps of rhyme, and his endless digs at
Lear’s high-minded folly, ranging from mere
derision to a sort of melancholy poetry (‘All thy
other titles thou hast given away, that thou wast born
with’), are like a trickle of sanity running through the
play, a reminder that somewhere or other in spite
of the injustices, cruelties, intrigues, deceptions
and misunderstandings that are being enacted here,
life is going on much as usual.”
In this particular passage Orwell focuses on the importance of the Fool in King Lear. Orwell describes Tolstoy’s thoughts on the Fool’s role and the storm: “This is the bare skeleton of the play, and even here Tolstoy wants to cut out most of what is essential: He objects to the storm, as being unnecessary, to the Fool, who in his eyes is simply a tedious nuisance and an excuse for making bad jokes.” Clearly he doesn’t care for Tolstoy’s critique, but he sees past some bad humor as the foreshadowing they’re meant to depict. The Fool does ramble on like a lunatic and mocks Lear at will, but if one observes and actually understands what is being said the Fool not only is insightful, but he does it in a clever entertaining way for the audience. Shakespeare took a character that is usually strictly used for comic relief and uses him as an essential plot device for the reader or member of the audience to think about after experiencing Lear. The storm scene also depicts Lear’s loss of sanity and The Fool continually exacerbating Lear’s madness. Although the Fool’s speeches on Lear’s current condition are true, they intensify Lear’s madness whereas what Lear really needs is levelheaded counsel. The Fool is used at this point to not only narrate the scene, but antagonize Lear into deeper psychotic state.
August Wilson describes his ‘Fool’s in An Interview with August Wilson (1993):
“There is something that I call a “spectacle character.”
It’s part of that. [Hambone and Gabriel] are both
Mentally deficient. One has a war wound, which I
think is most important. It would make me mad when
I read the reviews and they would refer to Gabriel as
an idiot…without reference to the fact that this man
had suffered this wound fighting for a country.” pp. 552
August Wilson himself sees these two characters as ‘spectacles.’ But he seems to do it for a reason. Along with being clownish characters for the audience, Wilson tries to use the characters within the essence of the play. These characters foreshadowing mirrors the Fool in King Lear, but he’s showing them as important characters in society who get discarded and misrepresented. Wilson refers to Gabriel being injured during the war and mocked by the community for fighting for their rights. He then describes Gabriel as one of his most ‘self sufficient’ characters since he’s able to live his life as a hard worker and provider for the house he lives in by collecting fruit and vegetables for his family. Yet the outside world depicts him as a pity case who reliant on his brother, Troy. He then almost contradicts himself by saying there’s a correlation between Gabriel and Hambone, but they’re very different characters since Hambone “has a much more important part in Two Trains.” He says Hambone’s a character that affects everyone in the play and that he starts out looking like a simpleton, but turns out to be the most important character, “because of his life and death.”
In Fences, Gabriel is a wounded war veteran who now holds down a stable job but the effects of the war are obvious through his immature speech. He is always singing childish songs and wondering if Troy is mad at him. Gabriel claims to eat breakfast with St. Peter every morning and that he is going to help him open the gates of Heaven one day:
“…every morning me and St. Peter would sit down
by the gate and eat some big fat biscuits? Oh, yeah!
We had us a good time. We’d sit there and eat us
them biscuits and then St. Peter would go off to sleep
and tell me to wake him when it’s time to wake him
up when it’s time to open the gates for the judgment.”
Everyone in the play kind of patronizes Gabriel humoring his songs and childish dialogue, but at the end of the play he does end up opening up Heaven’s gate at Troy’s funeral. Although he did not accomplish it by playing the horn as predicted, Gabriel found a way to open the gates of Heaven even though it wasn’t in the traditional Christian way.
Hambone and Gabriel appear to have some kind of mental disability and are viewed in a pathetic manner by the other main characters due to talk track. Hambone’s speech does have subtle premonition though: he complains to Lutz about how Lutz owed him a ham for the painting he did on the fence. Lutz felt that the work he did was only deserving of a chicken. Hambone walked around for nearly a decade constantly repeating, “I want my ham” and “He’s gonna give me my ham.” At first everyone thinks Hambone is just pathetic, but later the characters sympathize with him because they’ve also been had by white oppression and are able to sympathize with Hambone. Sterling goes as far as to steal a ham to put in Hambone’s casket. In the end, Hambone’s actions foreshadowed not only the physical ham placed in his casket, but also how black society would feel oppressed by life around them.
In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Sylvester also appears to be one of August Wilson’s spectacle characters. Upon Sylvester’s first appearance he is seen as a disruption in the studio and in a scene leading up to his and Ma Rainey’s arrival as well as comic relief as he has a terrible stuttering problem. Sylvester was involved in a car accident before arriving at the studio and disrupts the recording several times since he constantly stutters while trying to not only remember, but properly annunciate the introduction to a recording track. Although subtle, his interaction with the police officer in the studio does foreshadow actions later in the play. While the Policeman recalling the accident, Sylvester interrupts repetitively pleading his innocence that “I ain’t done nothing” and how the “man ran into me.” The Policeman says he is going to charge Sylvester with assault and battery, but Sylvester said that he didn’t hurt the cabbie and what would have happened had the cabbie followed through on a threat:
“I ain’t done nothing to him! He’s the one talking
about he g-g-gonna get a b-b-baseball bat on me!
I just told him what I’d do with it. But I ain’t done
nothing cause he didn’t get the b-b-bat!” pp. 36
The final action of the play has Levee stabbing Toledo in the back, “I ain’t done nothing to your shoe…look what you done…” pp. 88. Much like Sylvester earlier in the play, Levee is repetitively justifying why he stabbed Toledo. Unlike Sylvester though, Levee had the other person in the conflict actually confront him. Sylvester’s incident did not resort to violence because the cabbie did not resort to violence whereas Toledo not only stepped on Levee’s shoe but then argued with Levee face to face and turned his back. Levee told the band earlier, “Turn your back on me, motherfucker! I’ll cut your heart out!” pp. 78. Levee, like Sylvester, warned the other band members what would happen if they confronted him and turned their back on Levee. Toledo did not take his warning seriously enough and ended up dead.
The Shakespearean Fool and August Wilson’s spectacle character share many of the same qualities: nonsensical dialogue, comic relief, disruption within the play, but all the while foreshadowing what is to come within the play. Both Shakespeare and Wilson have these dynamic characters that the audience can easily take for granted as simpletons, but later realize that their actions or speeches should not have been scrutinized. All four of the characters discussed were scrutinized, mocked, pitied or just simply discarded as irrelevant by the other characters in the play. In the end:
“…nobody ever hear him,
or the sound he appears to make,
and he never seems to notice,
But the fool on the hill,
Sees the sun going down,
And the eyes in his head,
See the world spinning ’round.”
The Beatles (1967)
The Beatles. Fool on the Hill, Capitol Records, 1967.
Harris, Laurie Lanzen, Lee, Michelle, Scott, Mark. Fools in the Histories and Historical Fools. Shakespearean Criticism, Vol. 46. Michigan: Gale Research Company, 2008.
Orwell, George. Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool. London, 1947
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997
Shannon, Sandra G. Blues, History, and Dramaturgy: An Interview With August Wilson. African American Review, Vol. 27, St. Louis, 1993
Wilson, August. Fences. New York: Penguin Group, 1986.
Wilson, August. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. New York: Samuel French Inc., 1981
Wilson, August. Two Trains Running. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2007