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A Nest Of Ninnies: Will Somers And Other Fools (Part 2)

September 22, 2014

Will Somers outlived Anne Boleyn by about twenty-five years and, having no lingering cloud of accusations around his memory, started achieving posthumous starring roles much sooner than she did. He made first made it to the stage in Summers Last Will And Testament (1592) but his stage apotheosis was undoubtedly Samuel Rowley’s When You See Me, You Know Me (1605) a lively, jumbled account of Henry VIII’s court in which Anne Boleyn is a non-person to the extent that Cardinal Wolsey advises a king already married to Jane Seymour, and Somers (much like his original, if we believe Armin) devotes most of his time to antagonizing the Cardinal.

“Marry, they say he [the Pope] comes to crave thy aid against the great Turk that vows to over-run all France within this fortnight, he’s in a terrible rage belike, and they say on’s church at Mecca, his tomb fell down and kill’d a sow and seven pigs, whereupon they think all swines flesh is new sanctified, and now it is thought the Jews will fall to eating of pork extremely after this … I’ll go talk with the queen. How dost thou, [Queen] Jane? Sirrah Harry, she looks very big upon me, but I care not, an she bring thee a young prince: Will Summers may haps be his fool, when you two are both dead and rotten.

Wolsey, who has a tendency to press his luck, decides to challenge Somers to a “capping” contest, to see who can outrhyme the other. There are several verses, but the tone is set with the first one.

WOLSEY: Well, Will, I’ll try your rhyming wits once more: what say you to this: –
The bells hang high
And loud they cry,
What do they speak?

WILL: If you should die,
There’s none would cry,
Though your neck should break.

His anti-Catholic bona fides established, the audience now knows that it’s all right to laugh with him. Somers also turned up in a few later plays but his popularity as a character seems to have begun to slide even as Anne Boleyn was making her first starring appearance on stage in Vertue Betray’d (1682). It’s impossible to say just why this was, but my guess is that the explanation is a simple one: Somers had been dead for over a hundred years and the fashion in humour had changed. His tweaking of Wolsey, punning on “lemon/leman”, the bizarre power of being able to address Henry VIII as “Harry” and insult him to his face when his closest courtiers couldn’t dare to do such things — as Tudor times grew more remote and keeping fools began to look like a deviation, Somers and his ilk ceased to be amusing and became an uncomfortable distraction. So Somers entered a second retirement and didn’t begin to make his way out again until the mid-nineteenth century, when he appeared in Windsor Castle (1842), in which his primary role was to foil the villainous Cardinal Wolsey and assist Anne in any way possible, while at the same time pursuing a complicated vendetta against the jester Patch. In addition to throwing Thomas Wyatt a cue when Henry discovers the latter dangerously close to Anne’s bedroom door, he also tips Anne off as to the location of Wolsey’s incredibly secret and incriminating praemunire-related papers (they’re in a hollow leg of the desk he always travels with). Really, this Somers is about the most politically useful one of the bunch. Thirty years later he appeared briefly in Anne Boleyn: An Original Historical Burlesque Extravaganza (1872) which is so rife with terrible puns that Somers’ dialogue is impossible to distinguish from that of the other comic courtiers.

But even though Somers appearances were scarce in the nineteenth century, that doesn’t mean there were no other fools to read about. The first non-Somers fool I’ve found appears in Mystic Events: Or, The Vision Of The Tapestry (1830). His name is Ovidius, he’s employed by Thomas Boleyn, and is described as “a grotesque being, considerably below the middle size of man, whose figure was rendered comparatively more diminutive by his being mounted on a lofty and well-caparisoned steed, whose dress was gaudily splendid, in accordance with the fashion adhered to by the fraternity of which he formed a member, and whose countenance was stamped with a mixed expression, in the composition of which simplicity, knavery, vanity and presumption appeared to claim an equal share, but which was still tempered by a smile of good humour, which offered a slight apology for its association with qualities of a less persuasive nature.” (That’s quite a nuanced facial expression, incidentally. I couldn’t picture it at all).

Despite this unpromising start, Ovidius bucks the then-current trend of dwarfs being malevolent creeps; he turns out to be loyal to the Boleyns, fond of horrible puns and Latin tags, and is of a reassuringly Protestant disposition (he was dismissed from his last job because he made cracks about how his very pious Catholic mistress was wasting her time praying to saints, as “working by deputy never prospers.”) When asked to share in one of the henchman’s bottles of wine, he says – “Take two, or I’ll not budge an inch to follow thee. One bottle between two men is like half an egg for a yeoman’s breakfast, or a single cabbage between two tailors. Ambo dexter, – give your left hand employment as well as our right – videlicet, take a bottle in each hand, and I’ll follow you as diligently as a hound at fault, my fidus Achates.” Unlikely as it may seem, Ovidius is actually the most readable character, since all the quality speak in a horrendously stilted way. A typical conversational gambit from the juvenile lead is “My spirits are at this time inadequate to the sustention of the conversation in which, did I possess the ability of calming those transports of my soul by which you cannot fail to perceive me agitated, I would wish to engage with you.” Obscure jokes about eggs positively shine in a context like this one.

Anne Boleyn: A Historical Drama In Five Acts (1861) actually features two fools, although neither one gets a name, they’re simply “The King’s Fool” and “The Queen’s Fool”, gender unspecified. The Queen’s Fool only has one scene and if it weren’t for the character’s title, it would be impossible to distinguish him (or her) from any other courtier. He (or she) has informed Lady Rochford that black jennet is now to be worn by royalty only. Lady Rochford, who apparently just purchased black jennet for herself, takes exception to this. The Fool reproaches her that “Her Grace, as all allow, shows sense of great / Propriety in dress” and Lady Rochford hits back by mentioning one occasion when Anne’s propriety wasn’t so obvious:

When my Queen Catherine, in Peterbro’,
Under the shelter of the golden keys,
‘Scaped to untroubled bed, and rose on high
To an unchallenged crown, all mourned alike.
The King himself was wet with unsluiced grief;
But one amidst the court no grief displayed,
One in her yellow livery mocking made.

“Fie, fie, my Lady Rochford, how you prate!” says the Fool, before launching into an exoneration.

Yellow, in France, is th’ mourning of the state …
My Lady Rochford, should you travel France,
You might pick sense and charity, perchance.

Lady Rochford gripes that as Anne’s brother’s wife, she should be treated a little better and also get a little more time with her own husband, who’s constantly dancing attendance on his sister, “as spaniel waiting on our Frenchy queen.” At which the Fool hits back with “My lady wears green spectacles, I see. / God save all husbands from wives’ jealousy!” I have to say, I was on Lady Rochford’s side here. The Fool’s condescending little lectures were definitely irritating and — more to the point — not even remotely funny. More traditionally foolish is the King’s Fool, who after Anne’s condemnation comes dancing into the king’s study and announces that “the musician that was, and is not” (meaning Mark Smeaton) “has left me, as legatee, his musical instrument …. on which, please your Grace, I am composing a solo for the late Queen, to be called `Away To Antwerp.'”

“Antwerp lies beyond the music of this world,” says Henry, picking up on the hint, but the Fool persists for a few more lines, pointing out that if Henry were merciful to Anne, he “would do more to scare [the devil] from your Grace, than the ringing of the city bells in concert.” Henry promptly throws him, to which the fool’s reaction is “Your Grace is wise. The devil is not always entirely wrong, for if he took both you and me together, he would be half in the right.” Since this last is marked as an Aside, the King’s Fool presumably lives on to fool another day.

Much less sympathetic was the dwarf Will Somers portrayed in Anne Boleyn (1912), who begins the story by rashly announcing that he can ride a horse and joust as well as anyone, and nags Henry Percy into lending him (Somers) a horse so he can answer a challenge from Cardinal Wolsey’s dwarf fool Sir Witty-Pate. Percy pulls a nasty prank and signals for the horse to sheer away while Somers is trying to charge, and Somers is thereby both unhorsed and gets walloped repeatedly with a stick by the other fool. Everyone laughs it up while Somers rages, Malvolio-like:

“I could carve that ape to goose-livers! Oh, that fool horse! I will be revenged — the devil witness it! I will injure you — you foresworn upstart of a cardinal’s puppet! You Northumberland hound!” And sputtering out his malice he crept from the lists crestfallen and revengeful.

Somers’ subsequent vendetta against Percy — and by extension, Anne — involves spying on them, hiding in their luggage, foiling their planned elopement, and not a whisper of a suggestion that maybe Percy wasn’t entirely in the right during that initial episode with the joust.

This is, as far as I know, the only time when Somers himself was portrayed (inaccurately) as a dwarf; he’s never described as such in contemporary records, and the sixteenth century was not shy about blunt descriptions. However, his appearance here did foreshadow one changing aspect of his character during the next hundred years — at least, whenever a fool character receives substantial attention, which still isn’t often. It’s his lack of actual fooling; apart from a few obligatory puns at the beginning and then the joust, almost nothing he does is intended to be humourous either to the other characters or to the reader. He’s not there to be funny, he’s there to push the plot forward, and the jokes are a slightly embarrassing sideline if anything.

This is true even in the two books I’ve found which feature Somers as a narrator: The King’s Fool (1959) in which the entire story of Henry and his wives is told from Somers’ perspective, and The Autobiography of Henry VIII, With Notes By His Fool, Will Somers (1986) in which, as the title indicates, Somers interpolates his notes and opinions with Henry’s. Both books’ authors have clearly read their Armin, and they faithfully include the episodes which show Somers in a charitable or heroic light; petitioning to save a woman’s son from the gallows, preventing the enclosure of land in his old village, tweaking Wolsey about how much money he’s making off his ecclesiastical career. Somers is in both cases presented as a voice of reason who has a lot in common with a modern-day reader; he’s mildly skeptical about the competing claims of different religious sects, and fond of Henry but exasperated by him. Frustratingly, both books leave Somers as a pleasant nonentity since they refuse to come to come to grips with anything that might make him look less than entirely sympathetic. Neither Somers is the type who would throw milk in someone’s face, and neither one makes the infamous joke about Anne Boleyn the “ribaude” and Elizabeth “the bastard.” It’s especially annoying in The Autobiography of Henry VIII since Will keeps coming close to actually saying or doing something interesting or unsympathetic and then he just ducks out. A reference to Catherine of Aragon being “the only one of your wives who [loved you]!” has no follow-up, not even when Henry is rhapsodizing over the memory of Jane Seymour. Somers’ straight-faced description of Anne Boleyn as “the witch” doesn’t lead to a justification of the “ribaude” joke, or even an acknowledgement of of its existence. Both books are full of missed opportunities and not at all full of jokes.

It’s hard to blame authors for the latter lack, though. Humour changes so quickly and is often so topically dependent that reproducing too many genuine sixteenth-century jokes would quickly exhaust and frustrate most readers, and the effect on them won’t be at all what their effect on an actual Tudor king would have been. This is sent up in The Concubine (1963) in which Anne Boleyn endures a less-than-thrilling entertainment from an unnamed fool.

Towards the end of the meal Henry’s new jester came in. She detested him; he was almost, not quite, a dwarf, big-headed, squat and ugly, but he had been born like that, so although his appearance evoked repulsion in her, she did not hold it against him. What she hated was the slyness of his patter, the innuendoes which he produced under cover of near idiocy. Henry doted upon him and allowed him the utmost liberty. She had once voiced a protest about his jokes, “They are an attack upon your dignity.” Henry said, “After supper, at my own table, my dignity can take care of itself.”

Tonight he did his tumbling and his juggling and his acrobatic tricks, interspersed with stories and comments which were or were not amusing, depending on whether you were aware of their reference. At one point he said, in the bucolic drawl he sometimes affected:

“Life’s funny, ain’t it? Funny but fair. Oh yes, you must admit, everything work out very fair. Fr’instance I know a man, got a nice kennel, but no dog to put in it, and I know another man, got a nice dog, and he ain’t got no kennel.”

There was some scattered laughter, a little overhearty, laughter that said, Oh yes, we see the joke, we’re in the know! Anne wondered what was amusing there. Was her sense of humour defective, or was this little freak too subtle for her understanding, as Henry had once suggested?

Anne’s lack of amusement was also shown a few years earlier, in The Queen’s Confession (1947). The Somers portrayed there is a throwback — he probably rattles off more puns than most other modern Wills combined. He makes jokes about Bess Darrell’s attachment to Thomas Wyatt, to Anne’s displeasure, but Henry doesn’t mind and says irritably that Will doesn’t mean it any more than a child would. “You are a fool,” Anne tells Will, unnecessarily, but “With a fool’s privileges,” Will agrees.

“But Harry understands. Great Harry and little Will, we be huge hunters together …. You were saying that poor Bess Darrell cannot help loving poor Tom Wyatt. Therefore, let them go to it, say I, and have them confound the mathematicians by showing that two make three.”

“And have her shamed, sirrah?”

“By proving herself a very woman? Then were all mothers whores; nay, all women! For they have babies in their eyes, when they have not daggers.”

This Somers, like most of the characters in the book, is a very melancholy sort; you get the impression that keeping up the patter is the only way he keeps from drowning himself in a barrel of malmsey and ending his sorrows once and for all.

While Somers receives glancing references in numerous books — for example, in Anne Boleyn And Me (2004) when the fictional jester Valjean dies and is replaced by Somers — he’s often omitted from the story altogether. This isn’t surprising; he’s a difficult character to write (unless he’s serving as a stand-in for the reader) and he’s not really essential to the plot. There was one omission which surprised me, though, and that was in Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up The Bodies (2012). Both books are so packed with different people and handle changes of milieu so well that Somers’ disappearance stood out as it wouldn’t in more conventional books. This isn’t to say that fools are overlooked, though — Thomas Cromwell acquires his own fool, Anthony (who was real, albeit here Cromwell acquires him a few years before he actually did). Anthony has been cast off from his old household and, in a passage Armin readers would recognize, offers to sleep with Cromwell’s spaniels if he’ll only give him a place to live. Cromwell gives him a bit more than that, and soon Anthony is entertaining the household with verses and satirical imitations of various courtiers.

Anthony isn’t the only fool to upstage Somers here, though. Anne Boleyn has a fool as well — a mentally retarded dwarf woman who speaks in gibberish and is regarded none too tenderly by her mistress. Cromwell serves his reader stand-in function the first time he sees this fool: “She should be in a hospital,” he thinks. Later, as he passes through the queen’s household while Anne is having her last miscarriage, he gets another look at the fool.

At evening, outside the queen’s suite, the dwarf sits on the flags, rocking and moaning. She is pretending to be in labour, someone says unnecessarily. “Can you not remove her?” he asks the women … The dwarf scrambles to her feet. Watching him, holding his gaze, she pulls her skirts up. He is not quick enough to look away. She has shaved herself or someone has shaved her, and her parts are bald, like the parts of an old woman or a little child.

The contrast between Cromwell’s fool and Anne’s is perhaps a little obvious. Anne’s fool is never named; she may perhaps be Jane Fool — the mention of shaving, and her obvious “naturalness” makes me wonder — except that, again like Somers, Jane Fool was never described as a dwarf.

As it happens, I was wrong in what I wrote last week about Jane Fool never having had an unequivocal appearance in fiction. She actually makes a brief, tantalizing appearance in The King’s Fool, in which she’s described as “the Princess’s pampered female fool, who was in some ways no fool at all,” and then promptly disappears stage left. As of now, this is the only novel I’ve read which actually mentions her name. Anne has not been totally bereft of female fools, however. Apart from the unnamed dwarf woman of Bring Up The Bodies, Anne has had women fools in several other works, most notably The Secret Diary Of Anne Boleyn (1997) and Head: The Musical (2006). The former is fairly negligible — a mysterious woman named Ninane who appears only a few times and seems to exist mostly so we can see Anne forming a bond with another woman; something at which she does not appear to have been particularly gifted in real life.

Ninane, my fool, makes high jest round my pregnancy. Methinks she must have borne children of her own to know with such perfection all the inward rumblings, weird cravings, painful pleasures that condition brings. One evening when she and I were quite alone in my bedchamber she jumped upon my bed and curling small into a ball, became the babe inside my belly, squalling, kicking, quite spoiled and demanding crisp apples, sugared newts’ toes and lullabies be sung to him. “I am the little Prince!” he cried (or so she cried for him). “I am Prince and future King and I am tired of the darkness. Bring me light! And sweets! And much jewels and gold, for I am my father’s son and desire above all else to be rich!”

Anne’s woolly ruminations in which she “wonder[s] often on this woman” aside, I rather liked this passage. It’s the kind of semi-affectionate audacity I could picture in a place where throwing food at people, mulcting cardinals of large sums of money, or otherwise grievously insulting someone was all part of being on the clock.

The Fool in Head: The Musical is a far more important character — she’s Anne’s shadow in several senses. Not only does she follow Anne everywhere, usually against her better judgement, have the same first name, and die at almost the same time, but she shows Anne a darker reflection of herself than Anne wants to acknowledge.

“What do you have to live for? You love no one, take joy in nothing …. You had life’s treasures laid out before you yet you took no delight. Hoarding future happiness you squandered present joy, and now you die in misery …. She will approach her death as she approached life: in fear and dread, with a bellyful of resentment consuming her, in blind ignorance to the sacrifice of the ones who truly loved her. Who continue, despite all provocation, to love her!”

This may make her sound like the female counterpart to the anodyne Somerses of the past few decades, except for her saving grace: she puns relentlessly and often horribly. “Lady King’s-Cunt” she calls Lady Kingston, and sings a very, um, double-edged song about the Swordsman of Calais. She puns from the moment she appears onstage to the moment she leaves. It gets exhausting to read, I can only imagine what it’s like to watch, but she definitely makes her mark as a character and it’s good to see a fool who, like the Will Somers of early days, manages to both have a starring role and keep on fooling to the end. I would still like to see Jane Fool in the spotlight one day — she who never seems to have said anything thought worth recording, who never went to prison, and who outlived Anne by decades — but in the meantime, I’ll happily read about this imaginary one.

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From → Essays

4 Comments
  1. Philippa Gregory gave Anne a female fool at least once–I just read “The Queen’s Fool,” and there the fool of the title is a young Jewish woman with psychic visions of the future. She doesn’t do much fooling, being kept (unwillingly) as a “holy fool” rather than a witty Somers kind, but Somers himself makes a couple of appearances and actually cracks some jokes.

    I’m surprised the fictional Somers doesn’t do more joking these days; a little comic relief in the middle of all the conspiracies and death would be welcome, wouldn’t it?

    • sonetka permalink

      Are you sure she’s Anne’s fool? I looked up the book and the summary says it begins in 1548 and is about Queen Mary’s female fool (OK, she made a special pet of Jane Fool, but she certainly had other entertainers). And while comic relief is certainly welcome, the trouble is that sixteenth-century comedy is pretty far removed from ours, and too much of the former would be tedious and too much of the latter would feel untrue to the period. It really is a bind.

      • Whoops! That one was my mistake, sorry. There’s multiple mentions of Anne in the text, which confused my recollection. She’s fool to King Edward, then Mary, then Elizabeth. So just a little bit too late for your period, I think.

        Maybe Somers is permitted to be funny when Anne isn’t in the book?

      • sonetka permalink

        He does get to crack the occasional joke in modern books, it just usually isn’t his primary reason for being there, and with a book that focuses on — or at least includes — Anne, there’s that awkward issue of his joke about her being a “ribaude” and Elizabeth being a bastard. NOBODY wants to deal with that one.

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