The first of April some do say/Is set apart for All Fools’ Day/ . . . on this day are people sent/on purpose of pure merriment.—Poor Robin's Almanack, 1760
Tom Killigrew hath a fee out of the wardrobe [Fund] for cap and bells, under the title of the King's foole or Jester, and may with privilege revile or jeere anybody, the greatest person, without offence, by the privilege of his place.—Samuel Pepys' diary, February 13, 1668
For April, a month when we celebrate mischief-making, we turn to Frans Hals (1580-1666). Hals' Jester With a Lute, completed in 1624-1625, depicts a jester with a merry and mischievous grin playing a melody (cover). The viewer's eyes are drawn up toward the larger-than-life-sized musician, whose body, slightly turned, elicits a sense of animated movement. The contrast of the earthy neutral background and his colorful dress make him vibrant. His fingers are precisely positioned on the lute's strings; his face expresses smug satisfaction. Is his smile a response to his attentive audience or an inner reflection on a clever jest he is about to impart? Thus, Hals evokes the viewer's curiosity as he frames the jester's joyful presence.1
Frans Hals (1580-1666), Dutch. Jester With a Lute, 1624-1625. Oil on canvas, 70 × 62 cm (27.56 × 24.41 in). Louvre, Paris, France (http://www.louvre.fr). Photo credit: Peter Willi/The Bridgeman Art Library International, New York, New York.
Hals was a resident of Haarlem, the most powerful city in the 7 provinces of the Dutch Republic. Throughout Hals' life, he celebrated the burgeoning republic with his paintings of its citizens captured in a moment in time. His portraits of community leaders are genuine and reflect their social status but lack the warm expressiveness of musicians like the jester, fishwives, and tavern dwellers. Haarlem's leading portraitist, Hals rivaled Rembrandt during his lifetime, but following his death, his art was eclipsed for the next 2 centuries until rediscovered in the 19th century by modern artists. Now Hals continues to capture the modern imagination.2
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) described Hals best, mentioning him in 19 of his letters to his brother Theo and artist friends.3 Vincent wrote that Hals' portraits of good citizens with their families showed humanity in all its truthfulness—“portraits of a whole self-assured and lively and immortal republic—serene not fearful.”
Court jesters throughout the world, in Europe, the Middle East, China, and India, targeted their humor at officious and venal nobles; erring, corrupt, or lazy rulers; self-important scholars; representatives of religion—anyone held sacrosanct.4 The traditional jester, typically an entertainer of the royal court, went into decline as democracies and republics were established and theatrical groups were formed. Hals' jester retains the merriment and fun of an entertainer but is not part of a royal court as was the case in contemporary Spain.5 In royal settings, jesters were seen as one of two types: natural or artificial fools. The former could include dwarfs5 and those physically or intellectually disabled who were deemed odd. They were cared for by their masters as entertainers and companions to royal children. The artificial fool, in contrast, demonstrated verbal wit and clever intellectual repartee and often was politically astute.
Court jesters were a regular part of English society and were given license to critique royalty but punished if they went too far. Some of the best known jesters in literature appear in Shakespeare's plays. Among Shakespeare's “wise fools,” are Touchstone in As You Like It, Feste in Twelfth Night, and King Lear's unnamed Fool. The Fool ignores ideology; rejects appearances of law or justice; and recognizes brute force, cruelty, and lust. Without illusions, he does not seek consolation; he knows that the only true madness is to assume this world to be rational.
The knowledge of the wise jester weighed heavily on Stańczyk (1480-1560), Poland's most famous court jester, who became a historical symbol for his country. Employed by 3 Polish kings, he was a political philosopher gifted with insight and used satire to highlight Poland's political situation. In Jan Matejko's (1838-1893) painting6 (Figure), the dejected Stańczyk is the only person at a 1514 royal ball at Queen Bona's court who is troubled by the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk. Stańczyk, wearing the traditional tri-pointed floppy hat with bells and brightly colored clothing, slumps in his chair, for he foresees, while the royal family parties on, that Russia will dominate Poland, as it does soon afterward.
Jan Matejko (1838-1893), Polish. The Court Jester Stańczyk (1480-1560) Receives News of the Loss of Smolensk (1514), During a Ball at Queen Bona's Court, 1862. Oil on canvas, 120 × 88 cm (47.24 × 34.65 in). National Museum, Warsaw (http://www.ddg.art.pl/nm/collections/arts/14.stanczyk.html). Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York, New York.
Yet despite misfortune and daily woes, the tradition of the jester carries on in community life. All Fools' Day jests date back to ancient Indian festivals and Roman mythology, especially to “fool's errands,” or wild goose chases. Popular practical jokes are carried out in all cultures as winter turns to spring and levity is renewed. April Fools’ day gives license to pranksters throughout the world. In modern times, television, Web sites, and magazines find new and imaginative ways to trick the gullible—and play the April Fool.7
Sed Frans Hals. London, UK Royal Academy of Arts1989;
M The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals. New York, NY St Martin's Press1994;
BK Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World. Chicago, IL University of Chicago Press2001;
JC Portrait of Francisco Lezcano–The “Niño de Vallecas.” Arch Gen Psychiatry