THE RISE OF THE FOOL
The fool has always existed in drama and literature as a counterpart to heroic characters. Rather than being filled with the heroic virtues of grace, intelligence and strength, the fool behaves stupidly, lacking in sense and decorum. In Shakespearean tradition the fool was used as a form of relief after a serious scene, or to make the action more understandable for the audience. The fool was always a secondary character in these forms of drama, fulfilling an important, but ultimately supporting role.
Now however, the fool is moving into the spotlight. Think of any Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell or Mike Myers film. These are not serious dramatic films, nor could they be described as straight comedies, but instead are very much a celebration of the fool. Rather than being a secondary character there to entertain and rebuff the hero, the fool has now become the hero in his own right. Think of Zoolander saving the day by turning left, Austin Powers defeating Dr Evil with raw sex appeal, and even Forrest Gump – who despite being intellectually handicapped becomes the unlikely hero of his own life and that of many others. The fool has risen above his original purpose and characteristics to assume a new role and to cater to a new audience.
But what is this new audience and why does it require a different hero? We can see the success of superhero films in recent years – Batman, Superman, and Spiderman all have well-developed franchises. So why, when there are such displays of typical heroism available, do audiences get excited about the prospect of the Anchorman sequel? It may well be fun to imagine yourself as a superhero, but that will ultimately lead to a certain level of disappointment at your
own normality. When watching a fool, however, you are able to feel superior. It is a poor reflection on human psychology, but for the most part we prefer to feel superior to a fool rather than inferior to a hero, no matter what reflection that has on our actual status. It is possible then to see this rise of the fool as a form of escapism for the modern age, where we get to believe in the power of stupidity for an hour and a half.
However, there is another more compelling argument for why the fool as a hero has become such a popular structure in films. The jester or clown of the medieval era was employed to provide, not only entertainment, but also a fledgling version of what we would now call satire – poking fun at prominent members of the court in a way that no other person could. Indeed it was often the fool who was charged with telling a monarch of particularly bad news through a thinly veiled jest. Think of the fool in King Lear whispering truths about his ‘thankless’ daughters to the weak king. In this way the fool has often held a measure of power in its ability to present unwanted truths in a more palatable way. We can see this in the ‘fool’ films of today; Anchorman tackles the misogyny of the 1970s and the media; Forrest Gump has clear messages of equality and tolerance towards those less fortunate. In viewing these subjects through more simple characters we are presented with a clearer resolution to these moral dilemmas.
These contradicting views of the rise of the fool in modern film reflect the confusion we face nowadays between ego and morality. Perhaps in this way the fool presents us with a reconciliation of these two fundamental parts of human nature.