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Journal of World History 14.4 (2003) 555-559

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Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester around the World. By Beatrice K. Otto. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001. xxii + 420 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

One of the world's oldest historical figures—the court jester—was researched and explained by Beatrice K. Otto in this fascinating cross cultural study Fools Are Everywhere. She concludes that the court jester [End Page 555] was a universal phenomenon appearing across time and place as jesters were examined in Europe, China, India, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. Otto stated her thesis: "I argue that [the jester] is very much a universal character, more or less interchangeable regardless of the time or culture in which he happens to cavort—the same techniques, the same functions, the same license" (p. xvi). The jester pokes "jest" or fun at important political figures such as kings and emperors, allowing them to laugh at themselves and be humanized thereby. The jester offers a monarch a salable commodity—laughter, entertainment, wit, and insight—that eases political tensions at court and allows the ruler to see himself as the poor, downtrodden, and often disadvantaged individuals view him. For the services of the jester, often the monarch was prepared to pay handsomely with honors, gifts, titles, lands, and positions of influence.

A unique aspect of this study was that it compared jesters in great detail both Europe and China, and Otto commented that she had been awestruck at the similarities between jesters in China and those better known in Europe. In China the magisterial aloof emperor was often chided, mocked, or ridiculed by a jester figure just as were the rulers of Europe. Often the sparkling wit of the jester appealed to the common need throughout history to humanize power. "The evidence," writes Otto, "points to his having existed across the globe and across history, in most of the major civilizations of the world and many of the minor ones" (p. xvii). The enduring social need for humor was found in all cultures across time. The jester was a symbol of "physical and verbal dexterity and of freedom from convention" (p. xviii) and might wear a foolscap with bells in Europe or be dressed as a scholar-sage in China. But the legacy of every jester was to provide pointed advice and shrewd wit to rulers. Numerous sources illustrate that the jester figure played a strong role in the Chinese court. Wang Guowei's Records of Jesters' Words (Youyu Lu), Ren Erbei's The Collected Sayings of Jesters and Actors (Youyu ji), and most significantly Sima Qian's (about 145-86B.C.) Historical Records reveal the very real presence of a long tradition of jesters within the Chinese court from earliest times. All Chinese formal dynastic histories include the biographies of famed Chinese jesters such as Dongfang, the principal jester to the Han Emperor Wu Di (r. 140-87B.C.). In the Chinese tradition, the jester, like his European counterpart, was to keep his ruler from folly. All jesters used humor to point out shortcomings or limitations in judgment of the ruler, before the ruler could make a mistake. Humorous jokes kept the ruler from uppitiness or errors of judgment costly to the realm. Circumstances are humanized by the court jester to allow the [End Page 556] ruler to see things as they really are and jesters fended off misapprehension, miscues, and misquotes and prohibited cultural misunderstanding. The jester was often called upon to be a global player, acting as diplomat or ambassador because of their charm, gaiety, and sound judgment. He was often used as a translator between cultures, people, habits, and institutions because he was viewed as highly intelligent and held the gift of prophecy. Viewed at court often as the king's right-hand man, the jester's bauble was sometimes equated to the ruler's scepter. "Jesters in China, Europe, the Middle East, and India aimed their humorous arrows at the same targets—religion, self-important scholars, venal officials...