The ancient tragedians - Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – have as a central theme in their works the element of hubris – overweening pride – that afflicts each of their protagonists.
Hubris has a habit of afflicting many of those who accrete power; even those who accrete fame or notoriety. It is usually the cause of their undoing, as I have argued several times on the cat – see here, here, here, here, here, here, here (about Stephen Conroy being hubris personified), here, here, and here among some others. Perhaps I have an undue obsession with hubris?
Notwithstanding, in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare wrote that
… some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them
yet all tend to suffer more or less from hubris.
Successive generations have tried to guard against this affliction – by retelling the tragedies, by education, by civil behaviour and manners and by fazing.
During the Roman Triumph, for example, where the victorious general paraded through the streets of Rome, painted in blood and wearing purple, riding on a chariot drawn by four horses, a slave whispered into his ear: “memento mori” (remember, you are but a man).
Herodotus tells of the fabulously rich King of Lydia, Croesus, who asked the wise Athenian statesman, Solon, whether he, Croesus, was not the happiest man in the world. Croesus was displeased that Solon answered with reference to three others who he deemed happier than Croesus.
Solon pointed out that a man cannot be said to be happy until the last moment of his life. In this his wisdom hinted to the fate that awaited Croesus: to be defeated by the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, and thrown onto a pyre to be burned alive (there are various accounts of whether he survived this and lived to be Cyrus’ slave).
Solon had spoken of the fickleness of good fortune, and the likelihood that hubristic behaviour will inflame the passion of the gods.
In later times, for example under Elizabeth I, the Court employed a fool. A person who is licensed to say the unsayable and to mock the ruler mercilessly. The fool, frequently dressed as a clown or a harlequin, entertained the Court but warned by the use of satire. A great example of the wise fool – an apparent contradiction but clearly a Shakespearean normality – was the 16th century Polish clown Stańczyk.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the fool is the only person who not only speaks wisely but is not punished for doing so.
The Royal Shakespeare Company says this of the fool
In ancient times, courts employed fools and by the Middle Ages the jester was a familiar figure. In Renaissance times, aristocratic households in Britain employed licensed fools or jesters, who sometimes dressed as other servants were dressed, but generally wore a motley (i.e. parti-coloured) coat, hood with ass’s (i.e. donkey) ears or a red-flannel coxcomb and bells. Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558–1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her. Excessive behaviour, however, could lead to a fool being whipped, as Lear threatens to whip his fool.
Where was the fool under Kevin Rudd? Not only was Rudd badly affected by hubris, but he sought to reduce our freedom of speech. Yet there was no fool who could mock him at Cabinet meetings. Rudd’s regime was brought low by himself, but also by the lack of a fool.
Bring back the fool!