Clowns have for centuries been regarded as subversive. Shakespeare thought them so, he uses clowns to express thoughts that others might not articulate. In the script of the closing act of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, the two gravediggers are called “First Clown” and “Second Clown.” They discuss the death of Ophelia, who had thrown herself into the river, pondering if Ophelia had drowned herself in self-defence and sceptical that someone from a less powerful family would have received the rites of the church. The Second Clown declares:
Will you ha’ the truth on’t? If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’ Christian burial.
Unaware that he is talking to Hamlet himself, the First Clown speaks of Hamlet being sent away. “Why was he sent to England?” asks Hamlet, and the First Clown replies,
Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits there; or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.
The modern clown developed from the peasant character he had assumed in Shakespeare’s time, taking on the appearance with which we are now familiar during the Nineteenth Century. Clowns were allowed the freedom to mock everyone, whoever they might be, expressing an anarchic egalitarianism. Make up, wigs and absurd clothes allowed an anonymity behind which the clown could find a freedom of expression.
Shakespeare understood that one could use comic characters to say otherwise dangerous things, it is a tradition that has continued through the four centuries since. While clowns now give performances of slapstick rather than speaking with the cutting wit of the gravediggers in Hamlet, comedy can still be subversive, challenging to the powerful. The works of writers like Dario Fo can fill theatres with laughter, while asking profound questions about the nature of the society in which we live. Those of us who grew up with the Batman stories of the 1960s will know that one of the reasons that The Joker seemed so sinister was that his behaviour contradicted his appearance. There is a touch of something biblical in the efforts of clowns to bring the mighty down from their seats.
In a political landscape dominated by men of arrogance – Putin, Trump, and Johnson, subversive figures are needed. The absurdity of politicians who exalt themselves, politicians incapable of acknowledging their deep flaws, needs to be pointed up. Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Great Dictator” ridiculed Adolf Hitler; similar clown-like figures in the present times would challenge demagoguery that has become conventional.