Shakespeare's clowns weren't anything like modern day clowns. On the old English stage a clown was a privileged laugh provoker. He usually had no real part in the drama, but carried on his jokes and tricks, sometimes addressing himself to the delighted audience instead of confining himself to the stage action.
Early clowns were portrayed as simple-minded, ignorant fools. In reality, many were quite witty with enough wisdom to speak profound truths in the guise of humor. An example of this would be Touchstone in "As You Like It" and Feste in "Twelfth Night."
The Bard elevated the clown as none before had done, giving him a speaking part, often using him as a “comic relief” to ease the tension in his tragedies. This blending of comedy and tragedy played well to both the seated audience and those who could afford only to stand on the ground at the foot of the stage.
The grave diggers in "Hamlet" are clowns. "Othello" had his clown, although he wasn't very humorous! Launcelot Gobbo was Shylock's famous clown in "The Merchant of Venice."
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