Playing the Fool - a Collection of Insights

*Playing the Fool - Various insights for actors preparing for the role*

Early on in ''Twelfth Night,'' Feste, one of Shakespeare's most memorable fools, strives to straighten out the noble Olivia on the subject of mourning. ''Good madonna,'' he says, ''give me leave to prove you a fool.'' Then he engages her in a little improving dialectic:

Feste. Good madonna, why mourn'st thou?

Olivia. Good fool, for my brother's death.

Feste. I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

Olivia. I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

Feste. The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.

Like the practical joker who celebrates April Fools' Day by slipping his whoopee cushion under some pompous rump, Feste -- though with considerably more art -- is out to explode pretensions. If Olivia can respond to Feste's sort of humour -- and she does -- then surely she's not quite so embalmed in mourning as she herself might think, or want others to imagine. If I can laugh at that, she'll be compelled to ask herself, how grief-smitten can I really be? And shortly Olivia will be in love, though, naturally, with the wrong person.

What's touching about the comic pedagogy that Feste offers his mistress is that intervention into worldly matters isn't in his nature. He's actually detached, and rather melancholic. He'd prefer to view life from the wings, commenting on the passing show in his sadly melodious way. (Feste sings some of Shakespeare's most beautiful songs.) But he also loves Olivia a great deal -- an affection that she touchingly returns -- and when it appears that she is going to suffocate under her own renunciations, Feste swings, however reluctantly, into action.

Shakespeare's fools are subtle teachers, reality instructors one might say, who often come close to playing the part that Socrates, himself an inspired clown, played on the streets of Athens. They tickle, coax and cajole their supposed betters into...