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:
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Merry Wives is a play all about fools, with the biggest fool of all at its centre. Falstaff was the clown character in Shakespeare’s earlier history plays, Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II. Audiences loved him so much that, by popular demand, Shakespeare wrote a whole play about him. In other words, he’s an early example of the Breakout Character trope, and Merry Wives is the Renaissance equivalent of one of those spin-off TV series starring a minor character from another series. And, appropriately for a knockabout comedy revolving around a fool, most of the other characters are also fools, foolish, or made fools of throughout the play.
Madness is a constant presence in Merry Wives, and, even though the play is a comedy, becomes a serious threat at times. Falstaff is deliberately baffled by the wives, with false ideas about their reciprocal feelings, and the trials they put him through, and finally bewitched into thinking he’s going to be tortured and murdered by fairies.
Ford, on the other hand, is driven to a state of pure madness and fury by his false belief that Mistress Ford is unfaithful, leading other characters to comment that he “so rails against all married mankind, so curses all Eve’s daughters, of what complexion soever, and so buffets himself on the forehead, crying ‘ Peer out, peer out!’, that any madness I ever yet beheld seemed but tameness, civility, and patience to this his distemper he is in now.” Page tells him, “You are not to go loose any longer. You must be pinioned” and Evans states that his behaviour “is lunatics… mad as a mad dog.”
Although they call him mad, the other characters are largely to blame for Ford’s false suspicions, since Mistress Ford has indeed set up assignations with Falstaff, to prank him. Merry Wives can be regarded as a comic counterpoint to the tragedy Othello, where the main character’s false belief in his wife’s adultery, deliberately planted by another’s lies, also leads to madness, but tragic consequences.
Merry Wives is also full of pretence. In fact, I can’t think of another play I’ve seen recently, except As You Like It, which is so dense with layers upon layers of pretending. At one point, there’s Falstaff, pretending to be in love with Mistress Ford, and Mistress Ford pretending to be in love with him, plus an aside where Mistress Page pretends to be put out, and Falstaff pretends to really be in love with her, and only pretending to Mistress Ford. Mistresses Ford and Page then pretend to be in a panic about the arrival of Ford, effectively putting on a little play to prank Falstaff, and hamming up their concern about the danger he’s in, to trick him into adopting a humiliating disguise (i.e., pretending to be dirty laundry or an old woman). But Ford is actually en route, because he knows about the affair, having pretended to be a man called Brook in order to goad Falstaff on, and Falstaff pretended in return that his seduction has been more successful than it has.
The finale of Merry Wives is the fairy pageant at midnight in Windsor Forest. The play within a play is one of Shakespeare’s favourite tropes: the most well-known examples are in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but he uses it repeatedly in many other plays. It’s a very powerful and subtle meta-dramatic device which draws attention to the unreality of his own play, influences events in the fictional reality of the framing play, and comments on the nature of fact and fiction, truth and pretence.
Timon of Athens
The plot of Timon of Athens has a close similarity to King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s best known madness plays. Both stories are about a wealthy and powerful man, who makes poor judgements about who to trust, and who unwisely gives away everything that he has. Later, when he relies on people for support, they reject him. His cruel treatment at the hands of those he trusted drives him to madness, and he flees society to spend time in the wilderness. An invasion by a military force brings events to their tragic conclusion.
Pretence is a major theme of the play. Timon acts as though he has limitless wealth, although he doesn’t know at first that he’s already living on credit. The steward pretends to Timon’s creditors that payment will come soon. The lords, senators, guests and friends of Timon are pretending to love and honour him, when they’re only using him for their gain. A major set piece of the first half is the masque, a play/dance/entertainment within a play. After discovering his penury, and his friends’ betrayal, Timon pretends to be rich again – pretending that his requests for support were themselves pretence, to test people – and puts on a mock banquet, a pretend version of the earlier masque (itself a pretend masque within Shakespeare’s play). Even in this, one of Shakespeare’s most straightforward plays, there are levels upon levels of pretence.
There is a character named as ‘Clown’ in Timon of Athens, although it’s a very minor part. The true clown role is filled by Apemantus in the first half, and in the second half by Timon himself.
Apemantus, the cynic philosopher, is allowed to attend Timon’s feasts even though he sits in the corner, eating roots and criticising and insulting Timon and all his guests. He is therefore the only person speaking sense and truth, from his privileged position as pseudo-madman, among the madness and pretence of Timon’s revelries and the sycophantic hypocrisy of the guests.
In the second half of the play, when Timon has lost his wealth and become a true madman, living in the wilderness, he becomes the fool character himself. When the characters from the first half visit him to ask for forgiveness, pretend support, or solicit money, he answers them in the same critical and cynical manner as Apemantus, though infused with even more bitterness and rage.
The overall plot and character development of Timon, therefore, is about a man who ignores the wise advice of his licensed fool (who is trying to warn him about the madness which surrounds him), and as a result falls victim to true madness himself, finally seeing through the pretence of the world before his death. It’s Shakespeare’s Grand Theme once again.