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Fansy and FoIy: The Drama of Fools in Magnyfycence Peter Happé John Skelton's Magnyfycence contains the most extensive use of fools on the English stage to have survived prior to the Elizabethan period and their adaptation and development by Shakespeare . As embodiments of folly, the fools Fansy and FoIy in Skelton's play require careful attention; the main objective of the present essay is to consider the detail of Skelton's handling of these characters and, to a lesser extent, their associates in the destruction of Magnyfycence. The task will be to review some aspects of the inheritance in what might be termed the theory of fools and in the ways in which this theory has been incorporated in some non-dramatic literature as well as in plays. In support of my discussion it will also be useful to consider similarities with the sotties, which may or may not have been influential but nevertheless offer illuminating similarities and contrasts. The central part of the essay focuses on the mechanics and functions of folly in Magnyfycence} and I conclude with a review of the effectiveness and limitations of Skelton's treatment and its relation to broader objectives. The Theory of Folly. There is no place here for a history of the fool from ancient times, especially as it has been developed in some detail by others,2 yet in order to give some background to Skelton's remarkable achievement some indications of what he was able to draw upon are necessary. The popularity of the fool in medieval times cannot be doubted, and this may be attributed to a sense of human inadequacy and impermanence which is deep in medieval consciousness. The ubiquity of folly may well be a complement to the Dance of Death in that both stress human limitation and weakness—and both comprehend all orders of society from the highest to the lowest. In both the extent of the influence of Fortune is also a consideration.3 The fool in real 426 Peter Happé427 life was largely seen in terms of human weaknesses, particularly since his foolish actions and language defied reason and set up by contrast a free reign of wilfulness and irrationality. The actions of fools were judged by reason even though at times the fool's wisdom provided a challenge to rationality and reached truth by direct but incomprehensible means. The conflict between folly and society as a whole upheld disorder and confusion, and yet it was at the same time part of a process of the affirmation of values in society and the condemnation of abuses. This paradox inherent in folly is paralleled by others. Fools could be meaningful and meaningless. They could be damnable and sanctified, innocent and guilty. Folly itself often implied wisdom either by actually being wise or by suggesting a wisdom which contradicted it. This last perhaps accounts for the duality of wit and folly which had currency in medieval times. These conceptual antitheses can be seen in medieval writing about folly and in the behavior of fools, and they account for the value attached to fools. In their most usual location as protected and tolerated members of a household, fools could imitate and comment on others, entertain and outrage, and embody what was worthy and unworthy. Their elaborately foolish behavior could be enjoyed as an entertainment, or it could result in harsh punishment and disgrace.4 Both language and behavior might be innocently , randomly foolish, or waspish and penetrating, giving rise to the frequently noted differentiation between natural and artificial fools. By skill and cunning the fool might achieve power over others or at least be an incisive and irresistible critic; but by ineffectuality or outrage he might also become a scapegoat . These three roles—evil doer, accuser, and victim—have been seen as fundamental to stage fools.5 They were played out in real life actions which included the exhibition of folly by the fool, the revelation by fools of folly in others as well as in selfmockery , and the poignant self-reductive agony of folly which strips away guilt, hypocrisy, and ambition and perhaps all other human attributes, good or bad, to leave people finally...


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pp. 426-452
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