Jesters in Literature

What's on this page?
[Extracts]   [Poetry]   [Literary/Dramatic Jesters]   [Books]


A Wizard Abroad by Diane Duane
The Amadàn, legendary Fool of the Irish faery folk , lets his folk loose... In the middle of the High Street.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Four ill-matched companions are questing on the London Underground. Their destination? Earl's Court.

The Fools' Guild by Terry Pratchett
From the Discworld Companion; the entry for the Guild of Fools and Joculators and College of Clowns.

The Fool by Terry Pratchett
Also from the Discworld Companion; the entry for one Verence, Fool. (and King of Lancre)

Henry V by William Shakespeare
The King of France's herald breathes defiance at the conquering King Henry.

Knight's Fee by Rosemary Sutcliff
One terrified boy finds himself caught in a confrontation between a fearless minstrel and a furious Duke...

A Day For Fools by Philip Stubbs
An extremely disapproving Puritan wrote about the excesses of Fools' Day in 1583...

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
The introduction of Wamba the jester, who acts like a fool, but most decidedly isn't.

The Jester, source unknown
The (somewhat crude) translated text of a jester's song from ancient Mesopotamia.

Hop-Frog by Edgar Allan Poe
A typically nightmarish short story by Poe about a jester and the revenge he wreaks on the cruel king who mistreats him. Not for the squeamish.

The Jester's Sword
A children's story with a moral first published in 1908, as part of the Little Colonel series of books by Annie Fellows Johnston.


Karelea's Song by Iolo fitz Owen
The fool and the sorceress; a perfect couple...

Rahere by Rudyard Kipling
Henry VIII's jester finds himself the victim of a strange melancholy.

The Jester by Rudyard Kipling
Why jesters are special...

The Juggler's Song by Rudyard Kipling
An Indian juggler glories in his skill.

The Fool's Prayer by Edward Rowland Sill
A Fool teaches his master a sharp lesson in morality.

The Jester's Sermon
Just because it's funny doesn't mean it's not true...

The Jesters by Don Marquis
A toast to all the jesters!

The Cap and Bells by W B Yeats
A love poem with a jesterly twist.

Will Somers by Robert Armin
A poem about one jester, by another!

The Harlequin of Dreams by Sidney Lanier
A sonnet with an interesting take on the Divine Fool concept.


A collection of quotes
An eclectic selection of quotes featuring jesters from literature, film and anywhere else.

Literary/Dramatic Jesters

Jesters in Ancient Greek literature
The 'Wise Fool' character features frequently in Greek New Comedy (4th Century B.C.); Roman comedy, Plautus & Terrence (2nd Century B.C.); and Epictetus, Greek philosopher (2nd Century B.C.). These stories were marked by 'fools' manipulating their masters. Notable examples of jester characters in Greek literature:

Philippus the Greek in Xenophon's Symposium. This jester arrives at the banquet of the title and tries to earn his supper through humour. You can read the Symposium in Greek and English here.

Thersites in Homer's Iliad. Homer describes him as the ugliest and most impudent of the Greeks; he tries to turn the army back from Troy and persuade them to return home, tapping the general mood with his sarcastic comments, but is punished by Odysseus. Many modern interpretations view him as the voice of the commoners, oppressed by the aristocracy.

Jesters in Shakespeare
Books have been written on this topic! However, the most interesting facet of Shakespeare's jesters, in my opinion, is their ability to manipulate language; the Shakespearean fool speaks in nonsenses, misunderstandings and puns, yet often tells the truth where those who mean to be truthful cannot. The distorted world of the jester turns out to be reality; it is everyone else who lives in a distortion. Notable examples:

John McEnery as the Fool, Shakespeare's Globe 2001 season

The Fool in King Lear. This character, with no name other than Fool, is probably Shakespeare's most famous jester; he accompanies his King as his only courtier, when Lear is driven out of court by his faithless daughters. As the King descends into madness, so he and his fool change places; it is Lear who has been a fool, while his jester has told him nothing but sense.

'Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest,
Ride more than thou goest,
Learn more than thou trowest,
Set less than thou throwest.
-The Fool, King Lear.

Touchstone in As You Like It. Touchstone performs the classic jester role. Interestingly, a touchstone was a stone used to test the purity of gold and silver. In the same way, Touchstone the jester tests the wits of his aristocratic masters.

The fool doth think himself wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
-Touchstone, As You Like It.

Feste in Twelfth Night. Olivia's fool Feste is the only sane person in a kingdom ruled by chaos. He is the prime mover in the plot to fool Malvolio, and finally concludes the play. While playing the part of the classic jester, he also reveals a darker side in his manipulations of Malvolio.

And, of course, not to forget Puck, Bottom, Lavatch, Dogberry, Costard, Launcelot Gobbo, Pompey, Falstaff, Philip the Bastard, Hamlet, Montjoy, Trinculo, Yorick, and many others who perform the function of jester in some respects in various of Shakespeare's plays...

Jesters in Indian literature
The court jester has been a staple of Indian literature for centuries - see the Jesters in Reality: Asia page for accounts of some real Indian jesters. The jester character in Indian drama tends to be less physically impressive and rather older than the European jester stereotype, being rather a wise, sarcastic and witty adviser to the king. In Sanskrit drama the jester character, or vidusaka, often spoke his lines in an eastern province dialect, to set him apart from the other characters. Notable examples:

Madhavya in Kalidasa's Shakuntala. The king's jester is his loyal friend and adviser throughout this play, in which the king pursues the beautiful maiden Shakuntala, having espied her while out hunting. You can read a translation of Shakuntala here.

Jesters in Opera
Jesters show up in quite a few operas; they not only cut a fine figure onstage, but the grand scale and often melodramatic and elaborate settings of opera are ideal for the larger-than-life character of the jester. In addition, jesters are, of course, some of the most tragic figures anyone could possibly wish for... Notable examples:

Paolo Gavanelli as Rigoletto, Royal Opera House production 2001

Rigoletto, main character of the opera of the same name, is a tragic figure; the bitter, twisted hunchback who caters to the decadent and sadistic whims of his master the Duke. His machinations finally bring about his downfall, as his own innocent daughter falls victim to the Duke's evil.

Jack Point is a major supporting character in Gilbert & Sullivan's 'The Yeomen of the Guard'. Synopsis: 'Colonel Fairfax, sentenced to die in an hour on a false charge of sorcery, marries Elsie Maynard, a strolling singer. But then he escapes, causing complications. At the end Elsie's boyfriend, Jack Point, dies of a broken heart. Or does he? The nearest that G&S came to grand opera.' [source] It has been suggested that Point, the tragic funnyman, is the alter ego of Gilbert himself.

At peer or prince - at prince or peer,
I aim my shaft and know no fear!

-Jack Point, The Yeomen of the Guard

Other operas which rate a mention: Peter Maxwell Davies' Taverner has a very disturbing Jester/Death character, Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, a story of love and jealousy amongst a Commedia dell'Arte troupe, Strauss' Guntram, Harry Somers' The Fool (which I really want to see some day), the considerably disturbing Escorial by Friedrich Petzold (after the play by Michel de Ghelderode), Verdi's Falstaff doesn't exactly have a jester character in it, but I refer you to the character of the title and his Tutto nel mondo è burla (Everything in the world is a joke).

Jesters in Ballet
For the same reasons as opera, ballet is an appealing context for the flamboyant symbolism of the jester. In addition, the legacy of the Renaissance and Commedia dell'Arte is particularly noticeable in ballet, and therefore archetypes from those times, such as Harlequin and the clown-like Zanies, are familiar to the ballet fan. Apparently jesters are also particularly common in Russian ballet productions. Notable examples:

Columbine and Harlequin dolls, Dayton Ballet production of the Nutcracker (2000)

Petrushka in Petrushka (French spelling 'Pétrouchka'), is the Russian Harlequin. The owner of a puppet theatre brings his dolls to life; Petrushka falls in love with the Ballerina, but she prefers the Moor, who kills him.

The Jester in Swan Lake was added after the original ballet was created, and is often accused of being a pointless addition. However, he offers a great deal of opportunity for interesting staging, and can be played as almost any variety of jester.

Jose Martin as the Jester in Cinderella (photograph by Andrew Cockrill)

Other ballets with jesters: Cinderella, and the Nutcracker features a clockwork harlequin.

Jesters in Theatre
And a miscellaneous extra or two:

Fantasio by Alfred de Musset

Fantasio, a debt-ridden student, sneaks into the king's palace disguised as a jester, in Alfred de Musset's bitter and witty comedy from 1834.


[Non-Fiction]   [Fiction]   [The Mildly Irrelevant]  

The book list was getting a bit big, and has therefore been evicted to its own page: find it here.

If you know of any books that should be in this list, or have any further information about books already in the list, please please please let me know! I hope to make it as comprehensive as possible...


When I get the chance, I write reviews of the books on the list! Only one so far, but hopefully more to come later...

The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory.