For the date of my birth anniversary I choose to celebrate that most magnificent of Shakespearean creations, the Fool. Fools, or Clowns, in Shakespeare were usually the smartest characters on stage. One of my favorite Fool speeches comes from As You Like It, where the Fool Touchstone enumerates the parts of an argument, and how to win any argument.
Can you nominate in order now the degrees of the lie?
O sir, we quarrel in print, by the book; as you have
books for good manners: I will name you the degrees.
The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the
Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the
fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the
Countercheque Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with
Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct. All
these you may avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may
avoid that too, with an If. I knew when seven
justices could not take up a quarrel, but when the
parties were met themselves, one of them thought but
of an If, as, ‘If you said so, then I said so;’ and
they shook hands and swore brothers. Your If is the
only peacemaker; much virtue in If.
—As You Like It, Act V, Scene iv
As if all arguments in the world could be parsed out into a simple formula, he lectures the character Jaques (much stupider than Touchstone) on the finer points of debate: For instance, the ‘Retort Courteous’; the ‘Quip Modest’; the ‘Reply Churlish’; the ‘Reproof Valiant’ and so on. And as if this weren’t enough, Touchstones seals the list with the Power Word–the one word that can win any argument: ‘If’. (If you continue with this scene, Touchstone goes on to give examples of how well ‘If’ works.)
As You Like It is filled with grand wit, and was one of Shakespeare’s most risky plays: for its wittiest character is a woman–Rosalind. Elizabethans, as a rule, considered woman property and grossly inferior to men. But Rosalind was by no means a fool, and I’ll reserve her for another day.
Some other infamous and favorite Shakespearean Fools include Trinculo in The Tempest, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Fool in King Lear and, of course, Falstaff from Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The image comes from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It from 1996 with David Tennant as the Fool Touchstone.