Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 224
What comes to mind when you think about a “court jester?” What if we told you that fools in the Tudor court didn’t look or sound anything like the zany clowns you have in mind?
Historians don’t know much about Will Somer. We know he was Henry VIII’s court fool, but the details of his biography—and, crucially, his comedy—were never recorded.
By Shakespeare’s time, Somer had become famous. Whenever a poet or playwright needed to reference a long-lost comedy great, they’d name-check Will Somer—kind of like mentioning Charlie Chaplin or Groucho Marx today. But unlike Chaplin or Groucho, none of Somer’s jokes survived. So later writers just made them up, inventing a comedian to suit their own tastes.
Peter K. Andersson’s new biography of Somer, Fool: In Search of Henry the 8th’s Closest Man, digs through the layers of fiction that accumulated over the centuries to reveal is a fool very different from anything we might recognize from King Lear or Twelfth Night. We talk to Andersson about what we know about Somer, how he became a celebrity, and how people with intellectual disabilities were treated in the 16th century.
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Peter K. Andersson is a historian at Sweden’s Örebro University. Fool: In Search of Henry the 8th’s Closest Man is available from Princeton University Press.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published December 5, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Frida Anund in Sweden and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
MICHAEL WITMORE: What picture comes to mind when I say the words “court jester”? What if I told you that fools in the Tudor court didn’t look or sound anything like the zany clowns you have in mind?
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.
Historians don’t know much about Will Somer, or Sommers, as he was later called. We know he was Henry the 8th’s court fool. And we know what he looked like, because he was included in several portraits of the royal family. But the details of his biography and, crucially, his comedy were never recorded.
Nevertheless, by Shakespeare’s time, Will Somer had become famous. Whenever a poet or playwright needed to reference a long-lost comedy great, they’d name-check Will Somer. Kind of like mentioning Charlie Chaplin or Groucho Marx today. But because none of Somer’s jokes survived, later writers just made them up—inventing a comedian to suit their own tastes.
That all makes Peter K. Andersson’s job much harder. Andersson is a historian at Örebro University in Sweden. Andersson has written a biography of the elusive Will Somer, digging through the layers of fiction that accumulated over the centuries. What he reveals is a court fool very different from anything we might recognize from King Lear or Twelfth Night.
Here’s Peter K. Andersson, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Why Will Somer? Henry VIII’s fool. Is it because Henry is just so fascinating or is it because Somer was the most famous fool ever?
PETER ANDERSSON: Well, Will Somer was definitely one of the most famous English fools of the Renaissance or the early modern period, if not internationally. But there were numerous fools in this period who one might try to write a biography about.
Will Somer is an example of a Renaissance fool that is perhaps a bit more well-documented than the average fool of this period. And, of course, he lived in a very exciting time. So, of course, it was quite logical to write a book about him.
BOGAEV: I want to talk—I want to get to Will Somer in a moment. But just so we have some kind of grounding in fools—because I think we all are picturing a court jester with the cap and the bells and stuff. Who had the first fool at court?
ANDERSSON: Oh, well, that’s a very good question. The first fool at court—I mean, we’re probably going back to ancient history; the pharaohs, maybe even earlier than that. There were definitely fools or the equivalent of fools in Greek and Roman antiquity and so on. But yeah, this is something that has existed for almost all of history, I would say.
BOGAEV: What was the fool’s role at court? Was the fool a reminder of the outside world? A place where people are more sincere and not so artificial as the royal court?
ANDERSSON: Exactly. I think, they had a sort of, almost ritualistic or symbolic function of counterposing the sort of majesty and pomposity of the monarchs and the nobility. Very often in portraits of royalty, in Spain, for instance, you can see them depicted to together with the court dwarf. The sort of difference in size and so on was probably meant to evoke some form of amusing juxtaposition.
So, it was very complicated and probably a lot of different reasons for their presence.
BOGAEV: Yeah, it’s complicated. There are different functions, right? And there’s just one more thing I want to nail down before we talk about Will Somer, which is this distinction that you make in discussing fools between a natural and an artificial fool.
ANDERSSON: Yes, that’s quite essential when you talk about fools in the early modern period, because people talk about natural fools and artificial fools. Basically what that was—it was, the natural fools were fools who had some form of intellectual disability. They were employed based on that, based on the fact that they were different from the rest at court.
Then, there were artificial fools who, as you might gather, were more skilled comedians, sometimes even writers. But I think most fools, when we go back to the Renaissance and the 15th, 16th century, were natural fools.
And there was a sort of suspicion towards artificial fools because you really—most monarchs really wanted a natural fool.
ANDERSSON: I think there was something symbolic in the natural fool. They had no affected behavior. They didn’t perform. They said what they said and they didn’t sort of act in any… with any mannerisms or anything like that in the way that other courtiers did.
They were seen as something different. Something more authentic than most other peoples at court.
BOGAEV: Right. So, what we were talking about before, like a walking symbol of authenticity and like a human pet, I mean, it sounds like.
ANDERSSON: Yes. Actually, the phrase “human pet” has been suggested by some earlier scholars. I don’t think that’s… I mean, it’s not only that, but sometimes when you look at the way fools were treated in this period. Yeah, they were treated with a sort of condescension, but also care and sympathy. In the way that you might treat an old dog or something.
BOGAEV: Yeah, okay, now let’s talk about Will Somer, the man. Now that we know a little bit more about court fools. What do we know about him? What do we know about his origins and his temperament?
ANDERSSON: The first references to him in court records are from around 1535 in the middle of the reign of Henry VIII. Then, he is referenced in, you know, payments and court accounts from Henry VIII through the reign of Edward and Mary Tudor. He’s even present at the coronation of Elizabeth I. Then there is a record of his funeral in 1560.
So he was present at court during quite a long time. Where he came from, it’s almost impossible to say. There are several posthumous stories about how he came to court, the most believable of which says that he was originally employed by a local rural lord who was convicted of treason by Henry VIII.
So Henry took over this fool. Then, according to legend, Will Somer pleaded with Henry on his deathbed to pardon this original lord, which he did. This story sort of suggests that Will Somer was loyal to his original master all his life. But we don’t know if this is true really. We know that this man existed, and so on, but whether he was the original employer of Will Somer we cannot really say.
BOGAEV: Ah, so you can’t really tell where he comes from, but you do write about the fact that many disabled people were kept in nunneries or lived in nunneries. And there was something like a scout for fools who would go to nunneries? Like a baseball scout.
ANDERSSON: Exactly. Especially in the Middle Ages, people with an intellectual disability could be housed at convents or nunneries and so on. There are a few records of people with similar names to Will Somer from the convents, but there is nothing to substantiate that he came from a nunnery or something like that.
There is an interesting letter from a courtier at this time who has been traveling around in the provinces and he spotted a fool at an abbey. He thinks this fool is suitable to be a new court fool. Whether this was Will Somer or not, we cannot say. Probably not, but it’s still a very interesting document because it just suggests, just as you say, that there were some sort of talent scouting going on.
BOGAEV: There was a biography about Will Somer, a pamphlet. What did it say? Was it factual at all? Just how common was it to have biographies of jesters?
ANDERSSON: Well, this particular biography was published, I think, 70 years after his death, and it’s not very reliable. Basically, what it is, it’s a jest book, which was a very common genre of pamphlets in the early modern period.
BOGAEV: Oh, really? People kept jest books in their privy?
ANDERSSON: Yes, maybe. So, collections of jokes and sometimes these jest books could be in the form of jest biographies. Different sort of anecdotes and funny jokes that were attributed to one certain individual.
But quite often, these jest biographies were very sort of—I mean, it’s all anecdotes, and sometimes these anecdotes can be found in another book attributed to someone else, and so on. So, they’re very unreliable as a source for information on the life of that person.
BOGAEV: Okay, so someone was just trying to make a buck.
BOGAEV: Okay, we don’t know where Will Somer then came from, really. Do we even know if he told jokes?
ANDERSSON: No, we don’t. The sort of core of the book is me trying to analyze retellings or recollections made in Somer’s own lifetime by people around him, in letters or in pamphlets and so on. Where people in passing say, “Oh, you know, it’s like, what Will Somer once said to the king,” or, “I recall Will Somer once saying this or this.”
It’s always someone else, sort of, putting words in his mouth. But, it’s interesting because these were people who were close to him and who probably knew him or met him, and it’s interesting to see how Somer’s own words might have been a bit twisted, a bit touched up to make them appear funnier than they were.
When you have that in mind, you can see that probably this was a natural fool who was sort of self-conscious of his tendency to put his foot in his mouth. To say things that people around him laughed at. He noticed that people were laughing at the things he said, even if he might have said things inadvertently or it didn’t mean them as a joke.
But, I mean, we can never say definitely. But I think there was a sort of constant play between this self-consciousness and the sort of naivety of a man like him. And that’s probably also what was the main appeal of fools like this and what made them popular in court circles.
BOGAEV: You said he’s a natural fool, so he has some kind of intellectual disability, and that one of the things you think you’ve ferreted out from these sources that might be true is that he was sleepy all the time. Almost as if he had narcolepsy or something. He seemed to always just be sleeping.
ANDERSSON: Yes, exactly. There are several references to Somer’s sleepiness and that he had a tendency to fall asleep in odd places. And people at court, servants would find him sleeping and they would go and put a pillow under his head to make him more comfortable or something.
BOGAEV: He slept with the spaniels. Like in the kennel?
ANDERSSON: Yes, that’s one of the most—exactly. There is a reference to him after having sort of entertained the king, going away to sleep with the spaniels, as if he went into a corner of the room to sleep in the dog basket. Here we have once again the human pet parallel.
Was he even—is that how he how he lived his life? Is that how he was treated? Because there are no records of him having quarters at court or in the palaces. Probably he lived and was fed together with the lowliest servants. When we speak of people in this way, I mean, it’s horrendous. But it also says quite a lot about how people of this type were viewed in this period.
BOGAEV: There’s some anecdotes that you tell that make it seem as if he was also bad-tempered, or maybe he’d been abused or he’d been, you know, picked on and bullied and would take out his frustrations on people nearby.
ANDERSSON: Yes, yes. I think it seems that there was an atmosphere surrounding a lot of fools, of horseplay and manhandling and very rough treatment. Sometimes fools were beaten.
There is a very well-known dialogue from this period by John Haywood, who was one of the foremost poets of Henry VIII’s court, where he references Will Somer. It’s a long list of descriptions of how fools are treated, generally.
It begins, “Some beat him, some bob him, some joll him, some job him, some tug him by the arse, some lug him by the ears, some spit at him, some spurn him, some toss him, some turn him,” and the list goes on and on. And then it ends, “Not even Master Somer, the king’s greatest fool, can avoid this kind of treatment.”
So, it says quite a lot about how fools were generally subjected to this kind of disciplining, in the same way as children were in this period.
BOGAEV: Poignant. What did he look like? Do you know that?
ANDERSSON: That’s one of the things we actually do know, because there are several portraits of him preserved. I mean, even more portraits of him than there are of some of the foremost aristocrats of this period. He appears never alone, but he appears in, sort of, in the background of a lot of family portraits from the reigns of Henry VIII and Mary Tudor and so on.
BOGAEV: Why? Why are fools included in royal family portraits?
ANDERSSON: They weren’t generally. They weren’t as a rule, but Will Somers is. Why was he so cherished?
I think it was that he gradually became a sort of mascot of the court. A sort of symbol of the continuity of the Tudor court, especially in the monarchs succeeding had to show that it was basically the same court as before.
BOGAEV: So, between Henry VIII and his son.
ANDERSSON: Yes, yeah. And his son and his daughters. Even in portraits from the reign of Elizabeth I, when Will Somer was dead, he appears in the margin as a sort of—
BOGAEV: A reminder.
ANDERSSON: Yeah, yeah, a reminder or just to sort of connect with the old order, so to speak. I think beyond that, fools were probably seen in a way as mascots.
BOGAEV: What did he look like?
ANDERSSON: I mean, in the portrait, he doesn’t look like the archetypal jester with a cap with bells and so on. He looks very morose, very serious. You might at first wonder, “Can this really be the court fool?”
But yes, he stands there looking a bit like a Friar or something. Sometimes he might be seen to smile a bit of a Mona Lisa smile, but he never sort of comes across as a very jesting or trickster character. He just stands there in the background.
BOGAEV: He does look very normal. He has normal, kind of normal working man clothes on or, I was going to say, jester-leisure wear.
ANDERSSON: Yes. Exactly, yeah. And if you look at portraits of fools from the early modern period generally, they are never wearing the sort of stereotypical clothes.
Maybe in the later period, in the sort of late 17th century, when fools were starting to disappear and it was more a sort of reminder of old days. Then we sort of get these fools with the bells and the bauble and so on.
But if you look at portraits of fools from the 16th, early 17th century, they generally wear quite normal clothes. They’re quite toned down, sometimes wearing quite dark clothes. And that’s very strange, of course. But I think it suggests what other things also suggest, namely that fools, they were not just comedians. They were not just there to amuse. There was something more to them than that.
BOGAEV: And you have the account books from court that show he had a lot of clothes. Most of them green, and just a ton of buttons.
BOGAEV: This guy got so many buttons. What was that about?
ANDERSSON: Looking through the wardrobe accounts from this period, you are struck by the numerous times buttons are being ordered for Will Somer, the king’s fool. And this, I mean, of course, sometimes during the 16th century, fashion demanded that you had quite a lot of buttons on your clothes.
But this is more than that. This is, strangely, quite a lot of buttons being ordered for him.
So, I have a brief speculation in the book about whether this is an indication of something else. Was he a collector of buttons? Did he have a tendency to pull off his button in bouts of rage or due to some sort of nervous tendency?
Of course, we can’t say. But I think when you notice that, it’s sort of, you’re being given a very small glimpse of something more.
BOGAEV: He’s so elusive, but so many people wrote about him in his day. I wonder why he was so interesting. Was it just because of his proximity to a king or his longevity? He’s even mentioned in one of the earliest known comedies from 1577, Misogynous.
ANDERSSON: Yes. I think the references to him in Misogynous is one of the earliest literary references to him beyond, you know, people writing about him, mentioning him, who knew him.
After his death—quite soon after his death—he turns into a literary character which gradually moves further and further away from the real person. He is being increasingly mythologized. He becomes sort of like a Robin Hood character of fools. Sometimes tales are told of him that were originally told of other fools and so on.
BOGAEV: Why Will Somer?
ANDERSSON: Yes, probably just because he was the king’s fool during the reign of Henry VIII. The reign of Henry VIII became such an important period, especially at the end of the 16th century. So that a lot of things that were connected to that period became sort of emblematic.
I think also folklore works in this way that if you have a certain character that is well known or that is spoken of a lot, he sort of becomes attached to a lot of other different motifs and other stories.
When you get to the end of the 16th century, the age of Shakespeare and so on, you find him being a character in a lot of plays. So then, he is really well known. Then he is really famous and legendary in a way that he probably wasn’t in his own lifetime.
BOGAEV: Yeah, let’s talk about Shakespeare and fools because you write about Robert Armin, the clown of the Globe Theater. The actor that played many of Shakespeare’s most iconic fools, Touchstone and the Fool in Lear. He wrote a book about fools called Fool Upon Fool, which I thought was a great title, but then it was later delightfully renamed A Nest of Ninnies.
ANDERSSON: Yes, an even greater title.
BOGAEV: Yeah, they really outdid themselves. Tell us about it. Was it like a “Who’s Who” of famous fools?
ANDERSSON: Robert Armin is a very interesting figure, and he’s quite important when you talk about Will Somer. Because he was an actor and the clown at the Globe, but he was also very interested in the history of fools.
He tried to compile a sort of collective biography of what he thought were legendary fools from history, or even fools that he himself had encountered in his youth. One of these was Will Somer.
So the chapter about Will Somer in Fool Upon Fool, it is perhaps one of the most important sources of information about him, even though it is posthumous and occasionally a bit unreliable. But Robert Armin was instrumental, I think, in shaping a new fool character that was partly based on this old image of the court fool. And Will Somer played a role in that.
BOGAEV: Well, how do we see that in his performances or even in Shakespeare’s characterizations because they kind of work together on the fools as a character, didn’t they? Shakespeare and Armin.
ANDERSSON: Yes, yes, probably they did. I mean it’s a bit contradictory because Armin is often credited with creating a new type of fool character in later Shakespearean drama, that was more clever, more of a witty fool than than his predecessor Will Kempe, whose fools in Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and so on were often bumbling, stupid servants and so on.
BOGAEV: And raucous and slapstick.
ANDERSSON: Exactly. Yes, yes, definitely. It’s strange that being inspired by earlier court fools, Robert Armin creates this witty, fool. Perhaps the sort of posthumous image of fools like Will Somer made them out to be more of the sort of clever truth-tellers than they actually were.
Based on that image, he created a new type of fool. I mean, almost all of the fool characters that he played—Feste or Lavatch or Touchstone—they are court fools, unlike Will Kempe’s characters. That’s the sort of inspiration he got.
BOGAEV: Despite the wittiness, do you see Will Somer in Shakespeare’s fools?
ANDERSSON: That’s a good question. I mean, the interesting thing about Shakespeare’s play of Henry VIII is that Will Somer is not in it. He even has a prologue saying to the audience, “You might expect to see the well-known motley fool of the reign of Henry VIII in this play, but you will not.” To try and, you know, prepare the audience for this disappointment, he says that Will Somer will not be part of his play. Unlike a lot of other of his contemporaries who wrote plays about the reign of Henry VIII, and did include Will Somer as a very witty fool who sort of improvises verse and does a lot of practical joking and so on. Quite unlike the real Will Somer.
It’s strange. A lot of scholars have pondered about this. Why didn’t Shakespeare write a role for Robert Armin based on Will Somer? But maybe there was something there. Maybe Robert Armin was reluctant to play this very—by now—very legendary and well-known fool.
BOGAEV: What happened to fools in the 17th century?
ANDERSSON: Gradually, it becomes rarer and rarer for kings to employ court fools. When we get to the period of Louis XIV in France, and then, of course, the Enlightenment and so on, it becomes less and less common. But they don’t disappear. A recent book, actually, about fools in the age of Enlightenment, by an American historian called Dorinda Outram, very rightly states that there were a lot of court fools up until the end of the 18th century. This is particularly true of certain countries like the Nordic countries or Eastern Europe.
Enlightenment didn’t sort of banish the keeping of fools because it was seen as distasteful or something like that. No. I think that that happened eventually.
BOGAEV: Cruel? I’m projecting here.
ANDERSSON: But yeah, it was seen as distasteful and cruel eventually. But not until the very end of the 18th century, I think, when of course, the era of monarchy and the ancient regime and so on changed irrevocably.
There were certainly court dwarfs employed by the English court until the early 18th century. The last court dwarf at the English court was a man called Conrad Copperman. Before him was the even more famous court dwarf, Geoffrey Hudson, who was quite a well-known figure in the 17th century.
But then it disappears, and it disappears because society disappears. Society changes. There are new conditions for this, in a way you might see new entertainment forms in the late 18th, early 19th century, as new areas where the equivalent of court fools or court dwarfs could be employed, like sideshows, or the circus, or carnivals, or fairs, and so on. This type of entertainment didn’t disappear, but it probably swapped arenas, basically.
BOGAEV: In the end, you know, I had this impression reading your book that there was a case to be made that Will Somer was the first reality TV star.
ANDERSSON: Yes, there is a connection there, I think, on some level. Maybe it helps to view a fool as an equivalent of a reality TV star because some of these people, they become celebrities. And they become laughed at. They become seen as amusing, sometimes without getting the joke themselves, if you know what I mean.
So, there is a sort of exploitation of the naivety or the unselfconscious behavior of some people in reality TV that I think is useful to look at, because this shows, a bit, how court fools might have been used or perceived.
That is also a bit what Shakespeare says when he has Hamlet dismissing clowns who laugh too much at themselves or who try too hard to be funny. He thinks it’s more funny with clowns that are unaware of their own funniness. That’s sort of penchant for that type of unselfconscious comedy is something that you can find in different periods in history. It’s interesting to join up these little dots and see what they have in common and if there might be some sort of common thread here.
BOGAEV: You’ve studied the whole history of comedy, so where do you see fool’s influence throughout history? I mean, do we see it in slapstick? Do we see it on Saturday Night Live?
ANDERSSON: Slapstick is interesting because I haven’t seen that many court fools indulging in slapstick jokes or anything like that. I mean, Will Somer, definitely, he was not a physical comedian in any way.
But maybe in other aspects, you can see parallels in, sort of, the proclivity for a type of comedy that is deadpan, that doesn’t sort of try too hard to make the audience laugh. You know, Stephen Wright, and that type of stand-up comedian who has a very sort of serious demeanor. It’s the same sort of taste there.
BOGAEV: Stephen Wright is one of my favorite comedians. Now I’m always going to picture him with a billion buttons. Thank you so much for this. Thank you. I really enjoyed talking with you.
ANDERSSON: Thank you.
WITMORE: That was Peter K. Andersson, interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. His book Fool: In Search of Henry the 8th’s Closest Man is now out from Princeton University Press.
This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Frida Anund [A-nund] in Sweden and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a review on your podcast platform of choice, to help others find the show.
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Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.