The English Clown Tradition from the Middle Ages to Shakespeare

September 2009
6 black and white illustrations
256 pages
23.4x15.6 cm
Studies in Renaissance Literature
Library eBook

The English Clown Tradition from the Middle Ages to Shakespeare

Robert Hornback

A new account of medieval and Renaissance clown traditions reveals the true extent of their cultural influence.
From the late-medieval period through to the seventeenth century, English theatrical clowns carried a weighty cultural significance, only to have it stripped from them, sometimes violently, by the close of the Renaissance when the famed "license" of fooling was effectively revoked. This groundbreaking survey of clown traditions in the period looks both at their history, and reveals their hidden cultural contexts and legacies; it has far-reaching implications not only for our general understanding of English clown types, but also their considerable role in defining social, religious and racial boundaries. It begins with an exploration of previously un-noted early representations of blackness in medieval psalters, cycle plays, and Tudor interludes, arguing that they are emblematic of folly and ignorance rather than of evil. Subsequent chapters show how protestants at Cambridge and at court, during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward, patronised a clownish, iconoclastic Lord of Misrule; look at the Elizabethan puritan stage clown; and move on to a provocative reconsideration of the Fool in King Lear, drawing completely fresh conclusions. Finally, the epilogue points to the satirical clowning which took place surreptitiously in the Interregnum, and the (sometimes violent) end of "licensed" folly.
Professor ROBERT HORNBACK teaches in the Departments of Literature and Theatre at Oglethorpe University.

An e-book version of this title is available (9781846157202), to libraries through a number of trusted suppliers. See here for a full list of our partners.

Table of Contents

Introduction. Unearthing Yoricks: Literary Archeology and the Ideologies of Early English Clowning
Folly as Proto-Racism: Blackface in the "Natural" Fool Tradition
"Sports and Follies Against the Pope": Tudor Evangelical Lords of Misrule
"Verie Devout Asses": Ignorant Puritan Clowns
The Fool "by Art": The All-Licensed "Artificial" Fool in the King Lear Quarto
Epilogue. License Revoked: Ending an Era
Select Bibliography


Hornback's highly original approach works; he offers a balanced, thorough analysis of the ideological underpinnings of a heretofore lost tradition of early English satirical clowning that manages to restore the historical complexity that New Historicists' readings frequently simplified. Moreover, the wealth of close readings combined with his use of many colorful primary texts renders this richly complex yet ultimately accessible work appropriate to scholar and student alike. MEDIAEVISTIK

Persuasive, and most valuable to all interested in the antic, buffoonish, or satirical characters of the Renaissance stage. SHAKESPEARE QUARTERLY

An important study. CHRONIQUE

This is a valuable and very welcome study on a sorely neglected subject. What it demonstrates with admirable clarity is how mobile and heterogeneous this staple of early modern comedy could be. MEDIUM AEVUM

A fascinating book filled with important revelations. [It] is admirable in its breadth of vision and its specificity and [it] challenges some long-held assumptions. COMPARATIVE DRAMA, November 2010

Provides an enlightening and thought-provoking account of the somewhat over-determined subject of the English stage clown. [...] It also sheds some significant light on the workings of the nascent professional theatre which clearly depended on a ludic repertoire in order to underpin and ensure both public and private patronage. Hornback's book shows, however, that clowning and the comic tradition was not only an outlet for social tensions, or comic relief [...] but also a source and arena for important political, religious, and ideological discourse. NOTES AND QUERIES

[A] useful, clearly written book. ENGLISH STUDIES

Offers a significant rethinking of early modern English clown traditions and how they interact and represent tensions within Renaissance culture. CHOICE

Makes a valuable addition to the scholarly literature on early modern clowning, especially for its welcome focus on religion and race. RENAISSANCE QUARTERLY

With fascinating detail on virtually every page of this book, [the author] has produced a kind of academic page-turner. The English Clown Tradition deserves to be held in very high regard. TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT

Also in Series