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The Clown in Othello: Character Analysis & Quotes

Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

The lesson briefly introduces the clown as a dramatic type and provides an analysis of the Clown who appears in William Shakespeare's 'Othello.' A short quiz follows the lesson.

Shakespeare's Clowns

Let's face it, clowns have picked up a pretty bad rep. They have been made synonymous with childhood nightmares and, thanks to Stephen King and others, become the designated form for supernatural serial killers. We immediately picture them in their otherworldly makeup, their outrageous (and rather disturbing) outfits, and we cringe. Send it back to William Shakespeare. Virtually all of his best known works include a clown figure, either one denoted by name, or a character who fills the literary type. Clowns fulfilled a vital function in many of Shakespeare's works, bringing a degree of balance and sometimes even wisdom through their outsider perspective. In the darkly tragic work Othello, such a clown makes a brief but meaningful set of appearances without honking a single horn or squirting any water.

Shakespeare's clowns are predominantly of two types, the rustic/bumpkin, and the professional fool. The first type has lasted well into modern times. In fact, a popular sitcom of the 1960s, The Beverly Hillbillies, inserted a whole family of them in Burbank, CA. The comedy revolved around the fish-out-of-water contrast between these country-folk and the wealthy L.A. elite. Much like Shakespeare's Costard in Love's Labour's Lost, these clowns are funny on their own terms and funny by comparison, but also noble in their simplicity.

Shakespearean Bumpkins from a production of A Winters Tale
Bumpkins

The professional fool, or jester, is the prevailing type in Shakespearean tragedies such as Othello. These fools are the servants, and sometimes the companions, of aristocrats and kings. They are marked by their clever word play, their scathing insults, and their ability to bring down braggarts and bullies, often through tricks and deception. They also mirror key themes in the play and voice important insights--a touchstone and a reality check in funny clothes. The jester's humor is typically bawdy, meaning sexually suggestive, and scatological, concerned with bodily functions. These career fools are something like messenger-buskers with a permanent gig. Rather than having a set wage, they are paid at the whim of the wealthy based upon their entertainment value in the moment. Sometimes, in fact, their best tactic is to be so obnoxious that they are paid to stop. These jesters also enjoy what amounts to diplomatic immunity to insult and antagonize their social betters and get away with it.

Professional Fools running wild at court in an 1872 painting
Jesters gne wild

Othello's Clown

While many of Shakespeare's professional fools have names and fully developed characters, the clown of Othello is just that, a Clown. He appears only twice (in the first and last scenes of Act III) and delivers a total of fourteen lines. In a five act play, however, the Clown is inserted at a structural fulcrum point; straddling the pivotal moments that bring Iago's scheming to fruition.

In 3.1, the Clown, performing his messenger function, is sent down by Othello to silence the musicians Claudio hired to serenade him. The humor operates on multiple levels here, and the Clown helps emphasize for the audience that they can enjoy a moment of levity as dire plot points hang in the balance. First, Cassio, who drunkenly shamed himself in Act II, is giving Othello a musical wakeup call in the wee morning hours. There is a high level of absurdity to the premise: a military officer seeks to regain good standing by essentially wooing his commander with music, like a love-struck suitor, and at the crack of dawn no less! The Clown appears, like the disgruntled father, to shoo them away, showing no sympathy for his fellow performers. He first implies that the musicians don't know what orifice to use in playing their instruments and that they are syphilitic. The musician in the exchange is a perfect straight man, which is typical of Shakespearean clown scenes--either they or their victim tends to be oblivious to being the butt of the joke.

Clown:

'Are these, I pray you, wind-instruments?'

First Musician:

'Ay, marry, are they, sir.'

Clown:

'O, thereby hangs a tail.'

First Musician:

'Whereby hangs a tale, sir?'

Clown:

'Marry sir, by many a wind instrument that I know.

But, masters, here's money for you, and the general

so likes your music that he desires you, for love's

sake, to make no more noise with it.'

The pun 'thereby hangs a tail' confuses the musician, who doesn't recognize that their music is being compared to farting. Shakespeare is also borrowing from himself, since this famous expression appears repeatedly in earlier work, and perhaps enjoying a private joke by referring to his earlier play, Twelfth Night, in which the drunken clown Feste, who is also a musician, is shushed by a another servant, whom Feste will later trick and humiliate in retribution. As a final irony, Cassio courteously engages, and pays, the Clown to deliver a message to Emilia, indirectly using the Clown who silenced his serenade to carry his voice in a way that will bring about his downfall.

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