Send in the clowns

One of the cool things about reading Renaissance Plays is the presence of the clowns. At first I did not understand what the clowns were doing. It is like, I am reading along in Marlow’s Dr. Faustus, and the play completely shifts gears, and there are these clowns … I mean “What’s up with that?” Or I am reading Shakespeare's Hamlet, and suddenly there is this moron in the middle of the action, “William what were you thinking?” I will admit that at first I had a tendency to skip the clown action, and get back to the story. Later, I came to realize that the clowns served a couple of useful purposes. In the first place, you cannot spend three hours reading or watching a play that is a complete downer … the phrase “comic relief” springs to mind. As I learned to empathetically read the plays, I realized that I NEEDED the comic relief to give me a breather … to allow me to return to the action with my sanity.

But the clowns also serve a secondary purpose, one that is a bit more subtle than just allowing the audience to get a grip on their nerves before tearing out their heart, and that is the clowns comment on the main character. What I mean is, that by carefully scrutinizing the  clowns I can learn things about the play itself –the clowns tell us about the main character. For example, in Dr. Faustus we see a person who has become disillusioned with scholarship and has decided to pursue other directions, the clowns in parodying the plot are telling us how foolish Dr. Faustus really is becoming. In Midsummer Night’s Dream one of the clowns actually sprouts long flannel ears and has a sudden craving for hay – a rather obvious, but funny critique.

In the same way the clowns in Renaissance Plays tell us something about the main characters in Renaissance Plays, I think our reaction to the clowns we meet in everyday life also tell us something about ourselves. Consider this scenario—one is forced to sit through a second red-light because the clown in the car in front of you is yammering away on the cell phone and not paying attention to driving. Your reaction to this two minute minor annoyance can be rather telling. What if you receive an email at work from some clown that wants a meaningless report that will require at least two hours of work to produce—and of course the clown has given you next to no time to prepare the report?

Just as in the plays, clowns are not always funny, but they can often be revealing. Whether we pay attention or not, is of course optional.

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