Even despots need a good laugh

Across time and culture, court jesters tickle the ruling funny bone

Throughout history, many people who have dared to speak truth to power have been ostracized, banished, jailed, or even killed for their trouble. But one figure who seems to have been allowed greater leeway in talking back to kings, emperors, sultans, chieftains, cardinals, popes, and princes has been the court jester.

It is the premise of Beatrice K. Otto's entertaining, enlightening, and splendidly researched book, "Fools Are Everywhere," that court jesters have been found in almost every culture, from ancient Egypt, China, and India, to the Middle East, Africa, Russia, and Europe, to the Aztecs and Hopis.

A jester might be a simpleton or a scholar, an actor, musician, or poet, a hunchback or an acrobat, a dwarf or a fully-grown person, a man or a woman; what mattered was an ability to evoke a laugh and a willingness to speak out while others were fearfully holding their tongues.

"I started because I'm mad about jesters," declares Otto in her prologue, and wanted "to give them the limelight they deserve."

"I do not say that the jester exists in all times and places: the crux is that he is not the product of any particular time and place.... The frequency of his occurrence, and the diversity of the cultures he has thrived in, make it hard to see how his universal nature can be refuted."

Otto's investigation into the world of jesters clearly suggests there may be something like a universal human craving for laughter and truth.

Not only did wise and reasonable monarchs, like Akbar and Elizabeth I, value their jesters and learn from their jokes, but even tyrants like Tamerlane and Ivan the Terrible seemed to need at least one person who could be counted upon to tell them the truth, albeit in jest, at least sometimes. Otto, fittingly cheerful, seems to find this a comforting thought, although the same evidence could also be seen as evidence of a darker picture of the sad fate of truth in any despotism, relegated to the realm of a joke.

In the course of her extensive research, Otto tells us, she found some interesting contrasts between China and Europe. The contrast was not so much between Chinese and European jesters themselves, who seem to have performed a similar function, but rather between the kinds of material about jesters: Europeans left more in the way of pictorial material – paintings, sketches, and drawings of jesters, while the Chinese had few pictures, but many, very detailed verbal descriptions of their sallies and witticisms.

Odder yet, however, was the fact that while most modern Westerners are familiar with the concept of the jester (even if they've never actually seen one in the flesh), modern Chinese people seem strangely unfamiliar with their country's rich and well-documented tradition. (Or perhaps this is not so strange; it's hard to imagine that Chairman Mao or the Revolutionary Guard would have cottoned to the idea!)

Otto's lively survey is crammed with amusing, colorful (and occasionally off-color) anecdotes about jesters and their jests – in their original languages and in English translation.

Otto also illuminates some related areas, such as the European medieval and Renaissance fascination with the potential wisdom of fools and folly, the difference between jesters and tricksters (tricksters were far less ethical), and the distinction that was made between an "idiot" and a "lunatic" (the former could lose his property and be made a ward, the latter was deemed only temporarily deranged and capable of recovery).

A pleasure to read, this book was clearly a labor of love: engagingly written, assiduously documented, finely illustrated, and handsomely designed.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor, no fooling.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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