restricted access The Beating of a Drum. A review of Studies in the Development of the Fool in the Elizabethan Drama, by Olive Mary Busby; and The Sacred Dance: A Study in Comparative Folklore, by W. O. E. Oesterley
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[ 471 The Beating of a Drum A review of Studies in the Development of the Fool in the Elizabethan Drama, by Olive Mary Busby Oxford: Oxford UP, 1923. Pp. 87. The Sacred Dance: A Study in Comparative Folklore by W.O.E. Oesterley Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1923. Pp. x + 234.1 The Nation and the Athenaeum, 34 (6 Oct 1923) 11-12 The inquiries of Darwin appear to have made no more impression on literary criticism than that recorded by the misleading title of Ferdinand Brunetière, L’évolution des genres.2 If literary critics, instead of perpetually perusing the writings of other critics, would study the content and criticize the methods of such books as The Origin of Species itself, and Ancient Law, and Primitive Culture, they might learn the difference between a history and a chronicle, and the difference between an interpretation and a fact.3 They might learn also that literature cannot be understood without going to the sources: sources which are often remote, difficult, and unintelligible unless one transcends the prejudices of ordinary literary taste. Literary historians will, it is true, trace the external chronicle of some “form” – as the antecedence of mystery and morality to drama – but this chronicle, once recounted, is a preface to be forgotten, unnecessary for the “appreciation” of the finished product – appreciation for which, as a rule, ignorant sensibility is the chief qualification. That the nature of the finished product (“finished,” of course, is relative) is essentially present in the crude forerunner , is an assertion which the prompt disposers of values do not make. Miss Busby’s book on the Fool in Elizabethan Drama is somewhat of a disappointment. She does not produce all the facts that seem to me relevant to the Fool, and she does not draw the kind of general conclusion that I should like to see drawn. It is apparently her purpose to demonstrate the superiority of Shakespeare’s Fools to all others; but this conclusion is demonstrated by the Fools themselves, and needs no assistance of scholarship. 1923 472 ] Miss Busby’s facts are good facts and worth having: my objection is that she has assembled and chosen them as a chronicler rather than as an anthropologist of Folly. It is true that the Elizabethan drama is a composite affair, in which several levels of culture are represented; and until we go back to the very crudest English dramatic performances we find everywhere this mixture. The Fool, Miss Busby observes, shows very early the influence of the “comic servant”: in other words, just as Seneca or Plautus is everywhere, so there is in the Fool a foreign, artificial, Scapin-fourbe element.4 But neither this, nor the Court-fool, is, in my opinion, the direct ancestor of the Elizabethan: I can only offer a theory, and ask whether it supports better my interpretation of the essential Shakespearian Fool. Shakespeare certainly employs the comic servant. But the really remarkable contributions of Shakespeare appear less in his comedies than in his tragedies. The Fool in Lear is probably the ripest and finest product of Shakespearian Folly; and this Fool can hardly be classified as the “comic servant.” We do not need to trace the ancestry of the comic servant or Figaro himself; perhaps there is a common ancestor in the background; but the comic servant as we find him on the Elizabethan stage is an importation , not of British descent. The Fool in Lear is a possessed; a very cunning and very intuitive person; he has more than a suggestion of the shaman or medicine man. There must, if the Fool in Lear be called a “comic” character , be admitted to be some of the same comic element in the Witches in Macbeth. And I see no reason why, by the same extension, Caliban should not be included in the same category. I am aware that my classification of Fools may appear arbitrary. And two other inclusions may appear more arbitrary still: the Porter in Macbeth and Antony in the scene on Pompey’s galley.5 In these instances there is no question of supernatural powers: the Porter and Antony are Fools because they provide a contrast of mood which contributes to the seriousness of the situation. And each, in his way, is master of the situation. In comedy this antithesis is attenuated, as observable in the “comic servant” everywhere, and in a very refined state in the comedies of Marivaux; it is in tragedy, or in some...