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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare's Great Stage of Fools
  • Robert Hornback (bio)
Robert H. Bell . Shakespeare's Great Stage of Fools. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. 186. $80.00.

Robert Bell's study, Shakespeare's Great Stage of Fools, undertakes the ambitious goal of exploring the virtues, wisdom, value, and limitations of folly and so-called "foolosophy" (Thomas Chaloner's coinage in his 1549 translation of Praise of Folly and frequently used throughout by the author here) over the course of Shakespeare's career. Altogether, this book aims to cover a tremendous amount of ground in just 138 pages of text (with another forty-eight of notes and bibliography), and the results, though mostly admirable and certainly successful in the final three chapters, can be hit or miss. In the end, however, Bell's thoughtful and provocative work is well worth the lively read.

This study "dissects four kinds of folly" (3) as embodied or enacted in turn by 1) clowns and jesters, 2) opponents of folly, 3) comic and/or romantic protagonists, and 4) tragic heroes. After a brief introductory chapter evoking the example of the slippery doubleness of Erasmus's fool Moria in Praise of Folly and invoking the New Critical approach of William Empson, chapter 2 describes foolery from Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Dromios in Comedy of Errors, Bottom [End Page 108] and Puck in Midsummer Night's Dream, and Dogberry in Much Ado through Touchstone in As You Like It, Feste in Twelfth Night, and Lavatch and Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well. Chapter 3 recounts the longstanding, conventional take on the "dialectical drama" staged by Falstaff, "Shakespeare's greatest apostle of folly," and the purported "madcap" Prince Hal, reforming "apostate from folly" (3). If the first three chapters, therefore, largely sample Shakespeare's fools and clowns and familiar interpretations of them, the last three chapters offer insightful, excellent, focused new readings. Chapter 4, for instance, adroitly considers the limitations of fooling as practiced by lovers with fool affinities in Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. Chapter 5 then shrewdly examines four posing "anatomists" and would-be "scourges" of folly—Mercutio, Jacques, Malvolio, and Thersites—each character more unpleasant than the last. Finally, chapter 6 explores the subtleties of five tragic incarnations who play the fool in different ways: Romeo, Richard II, Hamlet, Lear, and Othello.

Both the considerable virtues and the occasional flaws of the work are encapsulated by a frank, self-revelatory account in the introductory chapter where Bell reports: "Teaching Shakespeare for the first time, I was asked why a fool carries a 'glass.' I was confidently explaining the symbolic implications of an hourglass when my student objected: 'The footnote says the glass is a mirror.' Flustered, I responded, 'Well, it just goes to show that you can't believe everything you read.' 'Or hear!' the student declared" (4). Bell goes on to detail ably what he would now, "as a seasoned teacher," ask and explain (4). In this work, then, readers will indeed encounter the lively mind and personality of a dynamic, award-winning teacher of Shakespeare at Williams College since 1972, and that is surely saying much. On the downside, the very same kind of "confidently explaining" remains, having crystallized into seemingly authoritative truisms, and there sometimes therefore recurs the sanguine tendency not to question his own readings while either not engaging with or casting doubt on other critics (e.g., his handling of Marjorie Garber's interpretation of Orlando in As You Like It on p. 67), save for recurring hallowed voices like the humanist Erasmus, the venerable Shakespearean critics William Empson and Harold Bloom, the poet Robert Frost, the philosopher Henri Bergson, and the modernist James Joyce.

This tendency leads to the notable low points in this study, which I, albeit with regret, simply cannot pass over in silence. One of these appears in Bell's oversimplified, inaccurate treatment of Shakespearean clown Will Kemp: "Kemp cultivated a special relationship with spectators who might have seen him before the show, as he mustered a crowd and collected tickets. A flamboyant figure, costumed extravagantly in an ass-eared cap and bells...


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