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Shakespearean Clowns

July 2
10:32 AM 2014

Jim Dale's career as an actor grew out of his success as a music hall performer and musician. He put those music hall skills as a wit, singer, musician, and physical comedian to work in performances of William Shakespeare's many clowns and fools.

Clowns or fools appear in twenty-two of Shakespeare's forty plays. They exist outside of the rules; they speak directly to the audience and are both part of the action on stage and commentators on the action. They also live outside of the rigid social hierarchy of Shakespeare's time and, as a result, can speak truthfully to powerful people.

Shakespeare's clowns evolved out of the character "Vice," a comedic tempter in Medieval festivals and morality plays, and from the European tradition of wealthy households employing court jesters who entertained their employers with verbal wit, song, tricks, and wisdom. By the time Shakespeare was writing, there were several professional fools working in England, includingRichard Tarlton, Will Kemp, and Robert Armin.

Shakespeare wrote roughly two types of clowns, though many of his characters have elements of both types. The simple-minded clowns, like the Rude Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream, provoke laughter in the audience and yet often highlight the truth about what is happening on stage or in society as a whole. Wise fools, like Feste in Twelfth Night, use verbal wit and satire and often have close relationships with their high-status employers.

A FEW OF THE ROLES JIM DALE PLAYED

AUTOLYCUS IN THE WINTER'S TALE

Dale played Autolycus at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966, early in his acting career. Autolycus, whose name means Wolf, is a peddler and con man, a wandering singer of raunchy yet beautiful songs.

Shakespearean Clowns

Painting of Autolycus, a Shakespearean clown from A Winter's Tale

BOTTOM IN A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

Dale returned to Edinburgh in 1967 to play Button in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Bottom is a buffoon. He's the leader of the workmen who meet in the woods to rehearse their production ofPyramus and Thisbe and is transformed by Puck into the donkey-headed lover of spellbound Titania.

Shakespearean Clowns

Jim Dale as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1966

LAUNCELOT GOBBO IN THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

in 1970, at the request of Laurence Olivier, Dale joined the British National Theatre as a leading actor. That year, he played Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, a chatty young servant with a love of tricks (he plays one on his own blind father) and a habit of using malapropisms.

COSTARD IN LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST

Costard is a rustic, country character and one of Shakespeare's early "wise fools." He mixes up love letters he's tasked with delivering, gives away other people's secrets, and mocks the upper classes. While mocking a schoolteacher, he uses the longest word in Shakespeare:Honorificabilitudinitatibus.

Perhaps Dale's greatest clown role was not in Shakespeare at all, but Scapino, the title character of Scapino!, an adaptation of the 1671 comedy Les Fourberies de Scapin by French playwright Molière. Dale and director Frank Dunlop collaborated on the adaptation, which opened on Broadway in 1974 to rave reviews. Dale received a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for his performance.

Shakespearean Clowns

Scapino!, N.Y.C.


Just Jim Dale plays at the Laura Pels Theatre May 15 through August 10. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

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