This year’s April Fool’s Day coincidentally transpired a day ahead of Good Friday preceding Easter Sunday, one of the holiest weeks commemorating the sacrifice of Jesus in the Christian tradition. There is a subtle link between these two unrelated occasions, and the connection is more surprising than you think. It lies in one of the most enduring archetypes in history, literature, and popular imagination—the fools and jesters, who weaponize unruliness into expressing forbidden impulses and harsh societal truths.

Fools and jesters historically serve an important function beyond royal entertainers or itinerant performers in fairs for the common folk. Since they typically originated from an inferior social and political class, their clever buffoonery often inoculated them against harsh recriminations. They were perceived as extraneous characters on the political chessboard, unlikely to make inroads for any self-serving ambitions. Donning the fool’s cap gave jesters license to uproariously mock, criticize and parody kings and emperors, allowing them to hold court in contested spheres of authority through subtle wit and candor.

The wise fool figure is a cross-cultural phenomenon appearing in many guises throughout the ages. Historical accounts and literature are littered with them in many parts of the world, known by different names, with eclectic personifications unique to their own landscape. In China, numerous dynastic archives reveal a long tradition of jester-philosophers in court who paired humor with sagacity to prevent emperors from committing irreparable follies.

Parables of Wahab ibn Amr of Abbasid Baghdad, known as Bahlool the Wise Fool, remain as popular injunctions against power and conceit, laced with a philosophical bent. Women, too, were not exempt from this role, evidenced by famous jesters such as Mathurine de Vallois of France, and Jane the Fool of the Tudor court from the time of Henry VIII, held in high regard and affection by the queens that employed her.

A close-up painting of Henry VIII with third his wife, Jane Seymour, and Prince Edward. To the far left stands a woman, possibly a jester named Jane the Fool.
[Image Description: A close-up painting of Henry VIII with third his wife, Jane Seymour, and Prince Edward. To the far left stands a woman, possibly a jester named Jane the Fool.] via Wikimedia Commons
The most iconic foolery belying judiciousness is present in Shakespeare’s plays, who developed the dramatic fool archetype in Ancient Greek theatre into the wise fool known to us today in the Western literary canon. Shakespeare’s bevy of fools, as seen in famous works such as Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and King Lear, demonstrate the fool’s transition from providing comic relief into a more complex, educated dunce through rhetoric and language.

For instance, Fool in King Lear is perhaps the most qualified voice of reason in a disintegrating world sullied by madness, which does not even spare the eponymous king. His proximity to Lear begets an almost symbiotic teacher-student relationship, with Lear acting as a student in subversion of master-servant relations.

Donning the fool’s cap gave jesters license to uproariously mock, criticize and parody kings and emperors, allowing them to hold court in contested spheres of authority through subtle wit and candor.

In religious and mythological symbols, the fool traces its roots to the trickster archetype present in various cultures since ancient times. Situated at the crossroads where corporeal and intangible worlds collide, the trickster’s fluidity in taking different forms becomes a source of fear. For this reason, the trickster is sometimes viewed as an allegory for queerness who upends a binary social order. This is embodied famously in Loki, who possesses the ability to change his appearance and gender, using his powers to simultaneously further malicious intents and solve problems for other gods. The Yoruba deity Exú is a trickster orisha of crossroads, a protective spirit and feared divine messenger between worlds who is contradictory in nature, requiring constant appeasement to carry out his duties.

A close-up of Loki of Asgard with a sinister smile
[Image Description: A close-up of Loki of Asgard from The Avengers film with a sinister smile GIF.] via GIPHY
In the Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth has also been interpreted as a trickster figure,  since his rise marked a revolutionary sociological phenomenon challenging the religious and political systems of his time, at the expense of his own life. When Christians commemorate his crucifixion and resurrection during Holy Week, it is, in a sense, a celebration of Jesus’ disobedience to his social milieu, one that prefigured the advent of the world’s largest religion.

[Image Description: Stained glass church artwork depicting crucifixion of Jesus.] via Pexels
[Image Description: Stained glass church artwork depicting the crucifixion of Jesus.] via Pexels
In Medieval Russia, a particular kind of holy fool called iurodivy was an integral part of Russian culture. They were feared and revered as saints who exposed moral hypocrisy through outlandish behaviors and even had the rulers’ ears, acting as their conscience. It is no surprise that by the 18th century, the iurodivy were considered seditious, participating in a form of social mutiny that went against the Tsar’s autocratic establishment.

Though court jesters and fools are no longer in sight, they are survived by satire in the modern world. The court is more democratic than ever. Palace enclosures have paved the way for digital and print media. Satirists are often targeted for censorship, especially in countries where draconian laws are still in place to curtail freedom of expression.

Just look at the case of Egypt’s groundbreaking political satirist Bassem Youssef, who faced arrest and death threats for his show Al-Bernameg during the Arab Spring, and the suspension of Hong Kong’s iconic political satire show Headliner in the wake of pro-democracy protests and the enactment of national security law by Chinese authorities. These incidents, among many others throughout the world, indicate that the fool’s relevance in mastering the interplay of laughter, exposé, and criticism is still feared, for they show us the unvarnished truth of corrupt power.

So, the next time you think grotesque foolishness and wily deceit have no place in serious business, you might do well to remember that laughter has in fact unseated power from its pedestal. Perhaps it is time for the wise fool as truth-teller to make a grand comeback in our current world marked by massive protests against injustice in a global pandemic, to show us that conformity to oppressive systems is a fool’s errand after all. 

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  • Thira Mohamad

    Thira Mohamad is a writer based in her seaside hometown of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo. She has lived and studied in Toronto, where she found her love of writing, poetry, and grassroots community work. When not busy battling tropical allergies, Thira dabbles in literary translation, teaches poetry workshops, and mulls over the unwritten manuscript of her first book. She loves coffee, and Star Wars even more.