- The English Clown Tradition from the Middle Ages to Shakespeare
The English Clown Tradition from the Middle Ages to Shakespeare is a fascinating book filled with important revelations about the significant functions clowning played in the religious and political discourse of early modern England. The book is historicist and materialist in approach, drawing together information from a wide range of sources to construct its arguments but deliberately distancing itself from the binary polemics of New Historicism. The result is a book that is admirable in its breadth of vision and its specificity and which challenges some long-held assumptions about the role of clowning and comedy in early modern England.
Although the title implies a comprehensive approach to English clowning, the book is concerned primarily with the specific instances of clowns operating as "religio-political" satirists, more specifically: the use of blackface fools, the adoption of traditions of misrule by religious propagandists, the puritan as clown in pamphlet satire and on the stage, and the royal fool as evinced by the two editions of Shakespeare's King Lear. The famous clowns from the period, Tarlton, Kempe, and Armin play a central and yet strangely marginal role in the book. At times one feels that much is being inferred about their clowning from passing references in satirical texts while less attention is paid to the books and plays they authored or to roles we can be relatively sure they played on the stage. The role of Derrick in Famous Victories, a likely Tarlton role, for example, contains none of the religious satire Hornback argues characterized his clowning. There is much about the English clown tradition that is not explored in this book.
That said, the specific investigations the book undertakes are impressive and their contribution to scholarship invaluable. The first chapter challenges the critical assumption that the use of blackface to represent fools is religious in origin, signaling the connection between folly and the devil. Hornback provides telling evidence connecting the performance practice with emergent racist discourse associating blackness with a lack of intelligence being used as justification for the slave trade. It is also proposed that the use of blackface for fools in plays and in Morris dancing forms a line of continuity with later antebellum blackface minstrelsy.
In chapter 2, through an intensive exploration of documentary records, Hornback traces the manipulation of festive traditions of misrule to serve the propaganda of religious reformers and counter reformers through the reigns of Edward VII and Mary Tudor. He demonstrates that the objections of political-religious factions to festive practices arise only when the comic intention is directed at their party. In the third chapter, Hornback examines the satirical exploits of [End Page 354] Martin Marprelate and his detractors, developing connections between this satire and the professional clowns Tarlton and his successor Kempe. Hornback argues persuasively that Jack Cade and Dogberry, both likely parts played by William Kempe, would have been seen as puritan clowns by their original audiences.
The fourth chapter argues that the two editions of King Lear offer contrasting but equally effective versions of the Fool. Counter to common arguments, Hornback argues that the Fool of the Folio is a natural fool and that the Fool of the Quarto is a bitter artificial fool. Here, Hornback relies on an unsustainable dichotomy between the natural and artificial fool, insisting that artificial fools are all bitter, natural fools sweet, and that playing bitter artificial fools was Robert Armin's specialty. The introduction to Armin's Two Maids of More-Clacke informs us to the contrary that the play was inspired by the popularity of his impersonation of local natural John of the Hospital, and the introduction to his Nest of Ninnies (1608) makes it clear that artificial fools, like Armin, imitate natural fools "liking the disguise."1 Hornback quotes this statement but fails to understand the deliberate confusion between artificial and natural folly that was central to Armin's art, and this undermines the dichotomy between Quarto Fool and Folio Fool attempted in this chapter...