Fools in Shakespearean Drama: Clawn in Antony and Cleopatra, Grumio and Curtis in The Taming of the Shrew, Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Introduction: like that of regular protagonist, Shakespeare’s comic figures are also highly varied. They include bumbling rustics such as Dogberry and Verges in Much Ado About Nothing, tireless punsters like the Dromios in The Comedy of Errors, pompous grotesques like Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost, elegant wits like Feste in Twelfth Night, cynical realists like Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and fools who utter nonsense that often conceals wisdom, such as Touchstone in As You Like It and the Fool in King Lear. In traditional theater, the fool typically stood outside the action of the drama, making witty asides about the events onstage. The fool’s costume was boldly colored, and the hood was often adorned with bells and horns. Laurie holds a marotte, a staff with a small puppet resembling the fool himself at one end.

Clawn in Antony and Cleopatra: Bereft of her lover, the disgraced Roman leader Antony, and faced with the fearful prospect of public humiliation at the hands of Caesar, who has defeated both her and Antony in battle, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, has only one remaining course of action available if she wishes to remain in control of her destiny: to take her own life. She is captured by Caesar’s soldiers within the monument to which she has retreated, and is forced to deal with various Roman guards and officials before she can accomplish her final act. She ponders aloud the horrors of the alternative fate and eulogizes Antony, with whom she longs to be reunited, struggling to maintain her dignity before the haughty Caesar. At last, dressed in her royal finery by her maids, Charmian and Iras, she takes up the venomous snakes that have been brought to her, and commits suicide. In her magnificently staged death, Cleopatra restores and seals forever the image of majesty and nobility that had been robbed from her by Caesar’s criticism and military success. As the play ends, even Caesar, who had previously termed Cleopatra a “strumpet” and Antony a lovestruck “fool,” is impressed. He bestows upon the tragic couple the honor of a “solemn show” to attend their funeral, and brings to completion Cleopatra’s last wish, as he orders that: “She shall be buried by her Antony.”

Grumio and Curtis in The Taming of the Shrew: Petruchio, a gentleman from Verona, has travelled to Padua to find himself a wealthy wife. There he is introduced to Katherina, or Kate, the “shrew” of the play’s title. She has been endowed with a large dowry by her rich father Baptista, who is extremely keen to find her a husband because he thinks her ill-tempered, wilful, and a nag—in Elizabethan terms, shrewish. The quick-witted Petruchio is impressed by her spirit and her wealth, and eagerly takes up the challenge of taming Kate into a loyal and obedient wife. In Act 4, Scene i, his servants and the audience watch as he “kills her in her own humour,” his contrariness parodying her own self-willed behavior. Soon she is begging him to “be not so disquiet,” as others have begged her before. In a famous speech at the close of the scene Petruchio explains further how he will tame Katherina as a falconer tames a hawk. On stage, the slapstick, wordplay, and contradictions are full of an energy and humor that overpowers the sense of cruelty that can seem apparent on the page. While The Taming of the Shrew has been condemned by some feminist writers, other critics have argued that Petruchio and Katherina eventually arrive at a happier, more balanced partnership than Kate’s younger sister, Bianca, achieves through her more conventional marriage to Lucentio, which forms the sub-plot of the play.
Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which appears as the second comedy in the First Folio, was probably first performed about 1594. Shakespeare’s first attempt at romantic comedy, it concerns two friends, Proteus and Valentine, and two women, Julia and Sylvia. The play traces the relations of the four, until the two sets of lovers are happily paired off: Proteus with Julia, and Valentine with Sylvia. Much of the humor in the play comes from a clownish servant, Launce, and his dog, Crab, described as “the sourest-natured dog that lives.” Shakespeare probably wrote the part of Launce. 

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