Illustration by Hannah Robinson
It is fashionable to label political eras. The last 60 years of American Presidency, for instance, is normally divided into imperial, imperilled and post-imperial segments. David Runciman, in 2014, concluded that British politics had moved from an era of “big beasts” to one of “political pygmies”. Yet the years since have seen the arrival of a new animal: the Political Fool.
In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has Viola note that “this fellow is wise enough to play the fool, and to do that well craves a kind of wit”. The artful fool is a well-established character in many a drama.
A variation even appears in Hamlet in the character of Polonius, who for Prince Hamlet is little more than a “wretched, rash intruding fool”. How is this appropriate to our political times? How might a modern-day Shakespeare write this trope for our age. His career path? How about TV actor turned politician, like Volodymyr Zelensky? Heck, why not a comedian like Jimmy Morales or Beppe Grillo? Maybe his background is less important than his actions; so what might he do? Forget the date of the 1918 Flu Pandemic, like Joe Biden? Sure. Recommend ingesting deadly disinfectant to cure illness, as President Trump did? On brand. Get stuck on a zipline, steamroller a child, or rugby-tackle a football player in a televised match, imitating our own Prime Minister? If this were a play or a TV show, it would be all fun and games.
But it is not a TV show. Laugh at a Fool and you laugh at your peril. Anyone who remembers the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner might testify to that; Barack Obama scoffed that “Donald Trump says he is running for President as a Republican, which is funny because I assumed he was running as a joke”. We know who laughed last.
Because Polonius and his ilk are no fools, or at least they are not only fools. For their foolishness cloaks deeper menace. Their humorous public mask disguises a sinister private visage. Trump admitted as much when he asserted that “real power is fear”. More examples spring to mind. Once down from his zipline, our modern-day Fool might well purge opponents from his party. He’d definitely boast about his approval ratings and play to his own cult of personality. He might bully a Health Minister during a pandemic. He would do all he could to be as close to power as possible. And the number one weapon in his armour? Humour, and the underestimation, or trust, that it brings.
Even close relationships brings little insulation; just ask David Cameron, long-time friends with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and stabbed in the back by both (at least in his own mind) in the Brexit campaign. Shakespeare recognised that fools could be menacing, yet whilst his characters can be appreciated from afar, they are more troubling in the ‘real world’. In the end, if our Wise Fools are Jokers at all, they are ones who belong in Gotham.
For Jenny Lee “humour is a power we instinctively trust – we are powerless to resist”. Many politicians of this age, Eton educated or not, realise this power. We would do well to heed Viola’s warning in Twelfth Night, that “… wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit”.