- The English Clown Tradition from the Middle Ages to Shakespeare
"Unearthing Yoricks" is the whimsical characterization Robert Hornback gives to his scholarly task in the introduction to this highly readable book (1). Yet this careful study does more than dig dead jesters' bones out of graves. Distinguishing four clown types that flourished on the early modern stage, as well as their medieval antecedents, Hornback's "literary archeology" (1) provides scholarly readers with a more nuanced, historically grounded understanding of Renaissance clown and fool traditions than has previously been available and revitalizes a critical tradition.
Prior to delineating the four clown conventions to which his book is mainly devoted, Hornback acknowledges but critiques the belief, common among scholars, that early modern playwrights used "clown" only to denote the "natural" fool or buffoon character (such as Shakespeare's Dogberry). While many believe that the wise and satirical "fool by art" was a late-Elizabethan stage innovation, different in kind from the silly "born" clown, Hornback demonstrates that early Elizabethan clowns like Dick Tarlton and Will Kemp were known for their social satire, as well as their rustic clown roles, and that later "witty" fools like Robert Armin often called themselves clowns. With this justification, he unapologetically applies the word "clown" to the various jester types he proceeds to examine.
These types include the witless or stupid clown. Indeed, Hornback's book begins with a discussion of the most insidious "witless" clown convention, the late medieval and early modern use of the black-faced fool to represent the irrationality of deviltry. The chapter "Folly as Proto-Racism: Blackface in the 'Natural' Fool Tradition" begins with a convincing, closely read, and novel argument: that burned, smeared cork blackened the faces of men playing the fallen angels in the Wakefield Creation [and the Fall of Lucifer] and the York Fall of the Angels (both dating from the 1460s) and other late-medieval stage devils. Hornback then shows that such plays' action and dialogue linked their devils' blackness not only with evil but with comic folly. Thus, he uncovers an early root of nineteenth- and twentieth-century racist minstrel acts, which featured crazy characters with names like "Zip Coon" and "Bone Squash" (31). [End Page 591]
Nearly as original as this discovery is the thesis of Hornback's second chapter. In "'Sports and Follies against the Pope': Tudor Evangelical Lords of Misrule," he builds on the work of Paul White, Kristen Poole, and others who have directed attention to the carnivalesque aspects of sixteenth-century English religious reform. Counterintuitively, Hornback argues with these scholars that, far from being universally reputed to be dour killjoys opposed to "Catholic" festivities, the more radical early Reformers enjoyed—or suffered—a partly justified reputation for mayhem. For example, he provides evidence of "evangelical theatrical misrule" at Christ's College, Cambridge, during Edward VI's reign, when two of the Cambridge Reformers promoted a religiously themed satirical play that the bishop of Winchester deemed "provocation to 'Innouation and disorder'" (71). Carnivalesque celebrations in the mid-sixteenth century, largely Cambridge based, parodied the pope and ridiculed "papist" ritual and were roundly condemned by less-Reform-minded members of the clergy (especially, of course, under Queen Mary). Even in the late sixteenth century, the anonymous Puritan Martin Marprelate tracts, which hilariously lampooned the bishops, were described by their attackers as "'set[ting] the world at odds'" and threatening "an Universal Topsy-turvey" or "Upsy-downe" (97), terms casting the author Martin as a Lord of Misrule. Only at the turn of the seventeenth century, when Puritan Reformers began to influence political discourse and social criticism, did images of radical Reformers as subversive clowns start to disappear. Then plays like Twelfth Night and Bartholomew Fair reincarnated Puritans as enemies of festivity—as indeed they gradually became. Before this time, "Tudor evangelicals and traditionalists could, and often did, alternately reject or embrace misrule depending upon who had the upper hand or who had become most associated with stereotypes of...