If I were to quote to you ‘the fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ I bet you would recognise the writer. And possibly even pinpoint the source. Yes, William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Bravo. But does it fill you with joy, passion and pleasurable memories, thinking of the Shakespeare works you have read or watched? No? Well, what about boredom? Hopefully not dread?
Many consider William Shakespeare to be the greatest playwright, poet and writer of all time in the English language. Others consider his work obsolete, inaccessible, irrelevant and dusty. I guess you could say he is the ultimate ‘marmite’ writer. Love him or hate him, most people know at least something of his work. I am a fan, and having grown up in Stratford-upon-Avon, I am fortunate to have seen quite a lot of Royal Shakespeare Company productions. I have a particular fondness for his fools!
- a silly or stupid person; a person who lacks judgement or sense.
- historically, a retainer in royal or noble households, employed to provide amusement and entertainment. Commonly dressed in motley, with cap, bells and bauble. In modern times, professional jesters provide a similar role for a fee.
- a weak-minded or idiotic person.
- a person who has been tricked or deceived into appearing or acting silly or stupid: to make a fool of someone.
- an ardent enthusiast who cannot resist an opportunity to indulge an enthusiasm (usually preceded by a present participle): he’s just a dancing fool.
Derivation: Middle English, from Anglo-French fol, from Late Latin follis, from Latin, bellows, bag.
First Known Use: 13th century
Influential? World-renowned? Prolific? Yes, all of those things are true of the playwright and poet, William Shakespeare. If you also happen to live in Stratford-upon-Avon, you also can’t help but notice his omnipresence. Shakespeare tourism is big money!
For years I have walked past this unique, ornately decorated lamp, wondering about the possible symbolism and meaning behind it. It is one of a number of lamps to be found on the picturesque, tourist-packed streets of Stratford-upon-Avon. Each lamp has been donated by another town or country. They are interesting, unique pieces of art and culture, available for appreciation by anyone out and about in the town.
Donated by the State of Israel, the combination of characters on this lamp has always seemed odd to me. I’d assumed Bottom, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the donkey, but was stumped as to the Jewish man with the fiddle. Shylock from Merchant of Venice? Surely not. Yes, it’s a Jewish man, but the fiddle?
Well, I did a little research and it turns out that it is actually a depiction of Tevye from the musical, Fiddler on the Roof. And, as I thought, it is indeed Nick Bottom. The weaver and play-actor turned into a donkey-headed fool, by the mischievous sprite, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
An unusual pairing of subjects, but perhaps I had missed a key piece of the puzzle connecting them together! Still, what an interesting creation, immortalising one of Shakespeare’s most famous fools.
Shakespeare usually gave the ‘fool’ mantle to peasant figures in his plays. He also often gave them the gift of surprising cunning and insight, intentionally setting this at odds with the expected perceived role of the fool. The character called Touchstone in As You Like It and the fool in King Lear are two prime examples. Bottom is actually quite an unusual Shakespearean fool, in that he is in fact largely deserving of his title!
But the whole of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is cut through with themes of foolishness and frivolity, reality and dream state, magic and mayhem. A very playful play if ever there was one, and to be enjoyed for its levity rather than its complex plot and characters!
At first I couldn’t see a link between the two characters on the lamp. But having listened to a bit of The Fiddler on the Roof since researching the Israeli lamp-post, there is actually a song between a married couple – Tevye and Golde – called ‘Do you love me?’ which gave me my light bulb moment:
Golde I’m asking you a question…Do you love me?
You’re a fool
I know…But do you love me?
Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him
Fought him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?
Then you love me?
I suppose I do
And I suppose I love you too
It doesn’t change a thing
But even so
After twenty-five years
It’s nice to know.
Bottom is, of course, the fool of the play. Added to that, the ongoing trials and tribulations of the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream give Puck cause to scoff ‘lord, what fools these mortals be!’. So it turns out that perhaps there was a connection all along – that there is the potential for all of us to be made fools of by love?!
One real beauty of Shakespeare’s work is the wide range of possible interpretations of his meaning. If ‘love fool’ is indeed the intention of the lamp, then how brilliantly clever of the designer. All that from a donkey, a wise owl and a man with a fiddle! And what a wonderful, appropriately Shakespearean perspective the State of Israel took in the creation of the lamp.
I hope that you have enjoyed this gentle wander through a tiny bit of Shakespeare’s town and works. Perhaps it even brought back some memories of something written by Shakespeare that you have read. A really great line? A particular character? Even a favourite Shakespeare play maybe?