As many are fond of pointing out, The Fool in Shakespeare’s plays is the one figure that may speak freely against authority. While the rest of a king’s court is sycophantic, the fool’s role in court is privileged because he is honest. We are meant to be in awe of this fact. After all, free speech is democracy’s most favored virtue and to see it exercised by one with so little social power pleases a modern audience. But really, this Fool is a dramatic innovation, not a political one.
Speech could never be seen as a sign of power in the feudal world. A king did not need to make great speeches or to win hearts and minds. Though he may be classically educated in the oration style of Cicero or Pericles, the nature of his power was coercive, not consensual. In short, this was no republic. There is no need for a Pericles.
I wonder, therefore, if this reading of the Fool doesn’t have more to do with our own fantasies about power. Sure, we get chills when Mel Gibson gives his freedom speech before Scottish Highlanders in blue face paint. Yes, everyone loves to say THIS IS SPARTA and kick an imaginary Persian down an imaginary well. But this is where the fantasy ends. A king must inevitably get his hands dirty; the fool must await the dreadful outcome.
That this reading of The Fool is often espoused in the lecture halls of the English professor is also relevant. Could it be an expression of approximate power between these two social roles? Over-educated and under-appreciated; skilled, yet powerless? This Fool is the patron Saint of the intellectual class. For so long has this class has been preoccupied with speech—jargon-laden articles, speeches, blogs, books, neologisms—that it has perfected the art of the perfectly empty utterance. Juggling.
Speech in a democratic culture is not necessarily a power. Speech can also be the illusion of power. Consider Sheldon Wolin’s description Inverted Totalitarianism as a:
Scheme abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious aliens and domestic dissidents.
Here Democracy says: “Speak all you want. Amuse yourself at our expense even. But never forget: no one is listening.”
The thrill of an insightful idea is like the thrill of a good joke: hard to retell to others and never as funny the second time around.
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