Laughing at Natural Fools

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Tudor discourses of folly often invoke the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ fools. But although distinguished, these different kinds of fools are often discussed together, along with those in neither category who nonetheless behave foolishly. All are seen as appropriate generators of laughter. However the nature of that laughter, the way it is understood, and its perceived benefits for the spectator or audience are clearly not the same across this complex range of fools.

This paper aims to explore the particular discourse surrounding the natural fool as a source of laughter. It will examine what was understood as the pleasure or entertainment value of the natural fool, how spectators judged and responded to that pleasurable encounter, and what they gained from it. The natural fool has a less prominent place in Tudor discourses of folly. But the accounts and reflections of writers such as John Heywood and especially Robert Armin, alongside evidence about the kept natural fools of the sixteenth century, and portrayals on the contemporary stage, may help to elucidate how this particular kind of folly was understood.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-22
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2014


  • Folly
  • Natural fool
  • Robert Armin

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