I’ve come to the opinion, over the course of my personal Shakespearean odyssey, that there is a central theme running through all of Shakespeare’s work. This Grand Theme has three strands – madness, acting/pretending, and clowns/fools – which seem separate but are actually different aspects of one idea.
Shakespeare’s core obsession is with the boundary between reality and unreality. He probes and plays with this distinction using the three strands of the Grand Theme as his tools:
- madness – when a character is mistaken about what’s real and unreal
- theatre and pretence – a deliberate inversion or blurring of the two
- clowns and licensed fools – those characters who are able to use their feigned (or genuine?) status as madmen to skewer the pretensions and facades of others
The fool, in Shakespeare’s hands, is more than just the crossover between the other strands: it’s the central point around which the rest of his explorations of fiction and illusion revolve. Sometimes, Shakespeare goes so far down the rabbit hole, it seems that no character ever says anything which is straightforwardly true and honest. Everyone is either mistaken, losing their mind, lying or acting in some way. Except, that is, the fool, a sort of embodied double negative, who through madness is able to see the truth, and speak it freely.
Each new play that I read now, I analyse in terms of these three aspects. There’s a risk here of confirmation bias: by looking for these things, I might spot them where they’re only minor elements, or even over-interpret and see themes which aren’t there, thereby imagining my theory is proved. I’ve tried to remain wary of tenuous interpretations, and ready to criticise myself when I’m stretching the theory too far. But so far, even with plays that I’ve thought might break the pattern, I’ve found an abundance of madness, pretence and foolery at the heart of the story.
The two most recent plays I’ve seen are good examples. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a slapstick comedy about adultery, and Timon of Athens is a tragedy about wealth and loyalty. Neither seemed likely vessels for exploring the Grand Theme, but that’s exactly what they are: