“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times…”
Hamlet, Act V, scene i.
The fool in Shakespeare, no matter how small he may seem, is always one of the main characters. Like Aslan in Narnia, he is all through the play, even when you cannot see him.
The fool is the foil; he is the voice of reason hidden in nonsense, the one you can trust to speak truth in all situations. He is wisdom cloaked in folly, reason veiled in madness, a rhyming, riddling truthspeaker fit to drive men mad. He is the source of laughter, and an inspirer of hope in dark circumstances.
In Shakespeare’s typical play on backwards roles, the fool is often the wisest man on stage. Consequently, the actions and appearance–or non-appearance–of the fool is often a good indicator of whether the play will end in tragedy or mirth.
In Hamlet, we do not discover the fool until we near the close of all things. Hamlet and his friend Horatio stumble upon a man digging a grave, who uncovers the bones of Yorick, former Fool to the Dane. We discover that the fool has been dead many years; and Hamlet gives a moody monologue on death to Yorick’s skull.
In light of this discovery, we can look back on the entirety of the play and see the effects of the loss of the Fool. The Fool plays the conscience; in his absence, Claudius marries Gertrude and few people make note of it. The Fool brings light; and Hamlet shrouds himself in darkness, listening to ghosts and his own dark and death-devoted thoughts. The Fool brings mirth; the only laughter in Hamlet is half-mad, the insane cacklings of a men and women bereft of their fathers in a land rotting from within.
In the absence of the Fool, all men play the fool. Hamlet plots a vengeful murder, and kills Polonius unrepentantly. Claudius marries the wife of the man he slaughtered, and lives in guilt but not repentance, praying without substance. Gertrude marries but a month after her husband’s death, and steadfastly refuses to see the truth until it is forced on her by a poisoned cup. Ophelia goes mad in all truth.
In a world without a fool, all is relegated to folly and vanity.
The Fool is a symbol of Christ. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world; Similarly, the wisdom of the Fool sounds like folly, but it brings life to those who heed it. He bears on his back the weights and griefs of those he serves, lightening their load with wit and grace in most graceless form. There is no stature in him to recommend him; and oft is he ignored. But better a fool to ignore than never to have one at all.
The world of Hamlet is a world without a fool, without wisdom, without hope, without redemption. In such a world, Hamlet’s dance with suicide is reasonable, even wise. We can understand Gertrude’s steadfast choice to ignore the darkness in Denmark. Claudius’s choice to grab what power he can and enjoy it while he might seems prudent.
The Fool is dead. Long live Folly.