Are You Sitting Comfortably?
'People don't like their politicians to be comfortable. They don't like you having expenses, they don't like you being paid, they would rather you lived in a fucking cave.'
Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of It; Season 3 Episode 1
Olivia: Take the fool away.
Fool: Do you not hear, fellows? Take away the lady.
Twelfth Night, I.5.330-331
Four hundred years on from Shakespeare’s death, and his Fool is still following us around. He jabbers away in the background, delving into our doubts, internal contradictions and secret vices. He does not intend to be demeaning, simply to keep us on the straight and narrow, and remind us that as well as being ‘infinite in faculty’, we are human, frail and not exempt from the general rules of the species. However, it does get exhausting after a while, so, like Olivia, we will be tempted to dismiss the Fool. Much easier to listen to shallower voices, offering the kind of satirical voice that comforts us and strengthens our preconceptions, rather than forcing us to engage with any shades of grey.
Happily, we know where to find these voices. They belong to the commentators whose views we already agree with, and whose stock in trade is to imitate the satirist’s cutting edge, but to turn the blade away from the reader and towards a target that can be comfortably identified as the enemy. This Frankie Boyle diatribe from April against a cabinet minister is a vivid portrayal of a wider genre: when he asserts that the minister is ‘so overtly ridiculous that he might be best thought of as a sort of rodeo clown, put there simply to distract the enraged public’, he reveals an unwitting truth. Boyle’s writing is the satire of the playground bully. He closes down debate and sets up his dehumanised enemy as an object for hatred and ridicule, denying legitimacy to those who disagree. It is comforting for those in the hate mob, of course, but that doesn’t make it satirical, just as a book of cartoons depicting a religious prophet is not satirical merely because they cause offence. Instead the message is the opposite of satire: you are right, and they are wrong. Don’t think, don’t question, and don’t investigate further. Just know your enemy, and hate them, and be comfortable.
The Fool gives us a much harder time. Shakespeare did not write for a mutual appreciation society, but for as diverse an audience as can be imagined. As a consequence, no one escapes ridicule. In Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Jan Kott writes: ‘The Fool does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good.’ However comforting it may be to believe in good guys and bad guys, the Fool will not let us off so lightly. He disrupts the illusions of beggars, kings, tradesmen, sexual adventurers, clergymen, aristocrats, democrats and players alike. His genius is to make us laugh at ourselves, which is the most liberating laughter of all.
Satire of this calibre is not only found in Shakespeare. In the contemporary political comedy series The Thick of It, the foul-mouthed spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker monopolises the laughs. But the joke is on us. When Tucker bullies politicians and civil servants, he does so on our behalf. Since we demand sanitised and simplistic political messages, he is employed to provide them. So when we laugh at Malcolm Tucker, we laugh at our own folly. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the contradictions are still more acute. Malvolio, the pompous steward, is brought low in a plot orchestrated by the Fool himself, in which the audience are invited to be co-conspirators. We laugh along as Malvolio is declared to be mad, imprisoned in a dark cell, whilst his protests are ignored and his humanity rejected. By the time we realise what has occurred, it is too late. Malvolio is beyond conciliation: ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’, he shouts, and this time the laughter catches in our throats. And a four hundred year old voice asks, who is the fool now?
Joe Skeaping is Head of History at Brighton College. This piece was originally written for his History blog A Brazen World. Check it out http://abrazenworld.blogspot.co.uk/