AskDefine | Define jester

Dictionary Definition

jester n : a professional clown employed to entertain a king or nobleman in the middle ages [syn: fool, motley fool]

User Contributed Dictionary



from Latin geste exploits


  1. one who jests, jokes or mocks
  2. a person in bright garb and fool’s cap who amused a mediaeval royal court.



person in a mediaeval royal court

Extensive Definition

A jester, joker, fool, or buffoon are names of a profession that came into popularity in the Middle Ages. Jesters are always thought to have typically worn brightly colored clothes and eccentric hats in a motley pattern. Jesters have been featured on playing cards. Their hats, sometimes called the cap ’n bells, cockscomb (obsolete coxcomb), were especially distinctive; made of cloth, they were floppy with three points (liliripes) each of which had a jingle bell at the end. The three points of the hat represent the ass's ears and tail worn by jesters in earlier times. Other things distinctive about the jester were his incessant laughter and his mock scepter, known as a bauble or maharoof. In recent years, scholars including David Carlyon have cast doubt on the "daring political jester," calling historical tales "apocryphal," and concluding that "Popular culture embraces a sentimental image of the clown; writers reproduce that sentimentality in the jester, and academics in the Trickster," but it "falters as analysis."



The origins of the jester are said to have been in prehistoric tribal society. Pliny the Elder mentions a royal jester (planus regius) when recounting Apelles' visit to the palace of the Hellenistic King Ptolemy I. In ancient Rome, the rich employed balatrones, professional jesters.
Nowadays, jesters are mainly thought of in association with the European Middle Ages. The jester was a symbolic twin of the king. All jesters and fools in those days were thought of as special cases whom God had touched with a childlike madness—a gift, or perhaps a curse. Mentally handicapped people sometimes found employment by capering and behaving in an amusing way. In the harsh world of medieval Europe, people who might not be able to survive any other way thus found a social niche.

Political significance

In societies where the Freedom of Speech was not recognized as a right, the court jester - precisely because anything he said was by definition "a jest" and "the uttering of a fool" - could speak frankly on controversial issues in a way in which anyone else would have been severely punished for, and monarchs understood the usefulness of having such a person at their side. Still, even the jester was not entirely immune from punishment, and he needed to walk a thin line and exercise careful judgment in how far he might go - which required him to be far from a "fool" in the modern sense.
The position of the Joker playing card, as a wild card which has no fixed place in the hierarchy of King, Queen, Knave etc. might be a remnant of this position of the court jester.

Islamic world

In the Islamic world Sufi mystics tell tales of Mulla Nasrudin, the legendary 14th century mystic jester of Tamerlane.

Indian Kingdom Jesters

Tenali Ramakrishna was jester in Vijayanagara Empire. In the Islamic world , Jesters were refered to being a joke.

English royal court jesters

All royal courts in those days employed entertainers and most had professional fools of various types. Entertainment included music, juggling, clowning, and the telling of riddles. Henry VIII of England employed a jester named Will Somers.
During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I of England, William Shakespeare wrote his plays and performed with his theatre company the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later called the King's Men). Clowns and jesters were often featured in Shakespeare's plays, and the company's expert on jesting was Robert Armin, author of the book Fooled upon Foole. In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Feste the jester is described as "wise enough to play the fool." Indeed, to be successful in the job of King's Fool the holder had to be anything but a fool in the modern meaning of the word.
King James employed a famous jester called Archibald Armstrong. During his lifetime Armstrong was given great honours at court. He was eventually thrown out of the King's employment when he over-reached himself and insulted too many influential people. Even after his disgrace, books telling of his jests were sold in London streets. He held some influence at court still in the reign of Charles I and estates of land in Ireland. Charles later employed a jester called Jeffrey Hudson who was very popular and loyal. Jeffrey Hudson had the title of Royal Dwarf because he was very short of stature. One of his jests was to be presented hidden in a giant pie (from which he would leap out). Hudson fought on the Royalist side in the English Civil War. A third jester associated with Charles I was called Muckle John.

End of tradition

The tradition of Court Jesters came to an end in Britain when Charles I was overthrown in the Civil War. As a Puritan Christian republic, England under the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had no place for such fripperies as jesters. English theatre also suffered and a good many actors and entertainers relocated to Ireland where things were little better (see Irish theatre).
After the Restoration, Charles II did not reinstate the tradition of the Court Jester but he did greatly patronize the theatre and proto-music hall entertainments, especially favouring the work of Thomas Killigrew.
In France and Italy, travelling groups of jesters performed plays featuring stylized characters in a form of theatre called the commedia dell'arte. A version of this passed into British folk tradition in the form of a puppet show Punch and Judy. In France the tradition of the court jester ended with the French Revolution.
As late as 1968, however, the Canada Council awarded a $3,500 grant to Joachim Foikis of Vancouver "to revive the ancient and time-honoured tradition of town fool".

Other countries

Poland's most famous court jester was Stańczyk, whose witty jokes were usually related to current political issues, and who later became an important historical symbol for many Poles.
In the 21st century the jester is a character beloved of all with a passion for historical drama, and the cap'n'bells will often be seen worn by participants in medieval style fayres and pageants.
Tonga was the first Royal Court to appoint a Court Jester in modern times, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, the King of Tonga, appointing JD Bogdanoff to the role in 1999. He was later embroiled in a financial scandal.
In 2004 English Heritage appointed Nigel Roder ("Kester the Jester") as the State Jester for England, the first since Muckle John 355 years previously.
In Germany today, Till Eulenspiegel is a folkloric hero dating back to medieval times and ruling each year over Fasching or Carnival time, mocking politicians and public figures of power and authority with political satire like a modern day Court Jester. He holds a mirror to make us more aware of our times (Zeitgeist), and his sceptre or marotte is the symbol of his absolute and supreme rule.

Shakespearian jesters

The "Shakespearian fool" is a recurring character type in the works of William Shakespeare. Shakespearean fools are usually very clever peasants or commoners that use their wits to outdo people of higher social standings. In this sense, they are very similar to the real fools, clowns, and jesters of the time, but their characteristics are greatly heightened for theatrical effect. They are largely heterogeneous. The "groundlings" (theater-goers that were too poor to pay for seats and thus stood in the front by the stage) that frequented the Globe Theater were most likely particularly drawn to these Shakespearian fools or clowns. Shakespearian fools have included:


The costumes worn by Shakespearean fools were fairly standardized. The actor wore a ragged or patchwork coat. There were often bells along the skirt and on the elbows. They wore closed breeches with pantyhose, with each leg of the pants a different color. A monk-like hood, covering the entire head was positioned as a cape, covering the shoulders and part of the chest. This hood was decorated with animal body parts, such as donkey's ears or the neck and head of a rooster. The animal theme was continued in the crest worn as well.
The actor had props as well. Usually he carried a short stick decorated with the doll head of a fool or puppet on the end. This was an official bauble or scepter, which had a pouch filled with air, sand, or peas attached as well.
More common for the time was the long petticoat. It was composed of several different colors and expensive materials (such as velvet). It was trimmed with yellow.

Character Breakdown

Trinculo Trinculo is considered to be a jester, but as he is only seen with the drunken butler and Caliban, he does not have the stage time to act out the qualifications of a traditional fool. At the end of the play, however, it is revealed that he works for both Stephano and the King of Naples. He is a domestic buffoon, and is outfitted accordingly.
Launce and Speed Speed is a clever and witty servant, while Launce is simple and pastoral. There is no mention of specific dress, or any indications of the two being a domestic fool or jester.
Feste Feste is a hired and domestic fool for Olivia. He is referred to as "an allowed fool," "a set fool," and "the jester, that the Lady Olivia's father took much delight in." There is no mention of his dress.
The Clown - Measure for Measure While this clown is the employee of a brothel, he can still be considered a domestic fool. He should be dressed as such.
Costard This clown is referred to as a "fool" in Act V, scene ii, but the word in this context simply refers to a silly man. He is not simple enough to be considered a natural fool, and not witty enough to be considered an artificial one. He is rather just a man from the country.
Launcelot Gobbo Nowhere in the play does Gobbo do anything that qualifies him as an official fool or jester. Still, he is considered as such, perhaps because he is called a "patch" and a fool. It is possible that these terms refer rather to the idea of the clown. Either way, Gobbo is proof that Shakespeare did not necessarily constantly discriminate in his qualifications of clowns, fools, and jesters.
Touchstone Touchstone is a domestic fool belonging to the duke's brother Frederick, and is one of the witty (or "allowed") fools. Accordingly, he is often threatened with a whip, a method of punishment often used on people of this category. Further, he should be dressed appropriately, with a multi-colored outfit, bauble, and donkey's or ass's ears on his hood.
Lavache He is a domestic fool, similar to Touchstone.
Clown - The Winter's Tale He is simply a country booby.
The Fool - King Lear The Fool is a very basic domestic buffoon. While his use of sarcasm heightens his manner of speech for stage effect, he is still a genuine fool with a lot of cunning. He is very distinguishable from other Shakespearean fools (such as Touchstone). He should be dressed in many colors, with a hood decorated with either a cock's comb, head, or neck, as this is often alluded to. He should carry a bauble with a model of a grinning head like his own. He is also associated with the character Cordelia, in same play, and it has been suggested that they were the same character. This also suggests Fools in Shakespeares time were like women or young girls.

The jester as a symbol

In Tarot, "The Fool" card of the Major Arcana (card 0, in Rider-Waite numbering, card 22 in Belgian decks, and sometimes unnumbered) represents the Spirit, God, the Monad; The Lord of the Universe; the Absolute Being. Other permutations include: Eternity, Life Power, Originating Creative Power, the Will of God, the Essence or Essential Self, Tao, Aether, Prana, Akasha, the Void, the White Brilliance, the Radiant Field of God, Omnirevelation, the Universal Light, Boundless Space, Superconsciousness, the Inner Ruler, the Plenitude, the Unmanifest, the Ancient of Days (repeated in manifest form within Key 9, the Hermit), Mysterium Magnum, the Sun at a 45 degree angle in the Eastern Heaven—always increasing, never decreasing.
The tarot depiction of the Fool includes a man, (or less often, a woman), Juggling unconcernedly or otherwise distracted, with a dog (sometimes cat) at his heels. The fool is in the act of unknowingly walking off the edge of a cliff, precipice or other high place. This image represents a number of human conditions: innocence, ignorance, heterodoxy, freedom, great cheer, freedom from earthly desires or passions but also perversity, audacity, truth, confidence, or cultural power.
The root of the word "fool" is from the Latin follis, which means "bag of wind" or that which contains air or breath.
In literature, the jester is symbolic of common sense and of honesty, notably King Lear, the court jester is a character used for insight and advice on the part of the monarch, taking advantage of his license to mock and speak freely to dispense frank observations and highlight the folly of his monarch. This presents a clashing irony as a "greater" man could dispense the same advice and find himself being detained in the dungeons or even executed. Only as the lowliest member of the court can the jester be the monarch's most useful adviser.

Use of the term in Israeli politics

At political debates in contemporary Israel the term "court jester" (Hebrew: ליצן החצר) is used (especially on the Left side of the spectrum) as a term of abuse for supposed dissidents who keep their criticism within limits set by the political establishment. Specifically, it is used for those who express criticism of government policies while also seeking government budgets for artistic or academic projects.


In similar vein, Buffoon is a term for someone who provides amusement through inappropriate appearance and/or behavior. (In Australian colloquial slang Buffoon can be used affectionately like the term dag). Strictly, a buffoon describes a "ridiculous, but nevertheless amusing person." In broader terms, a buffoon is a clown-like, publicly amusing person, such as a court jester. In the more modern sense, the term is frequently used in a derogatory sense to describe someone considered a public fool, or someone displaying inappropriately vulgar, bumbling or ridiculous behavior that is a source of general amusement. The term may originate from the old Italian "buffare", meaning to puff out one's cheeks. Robin Williams's character conjectures in the movie Toys that the word "is a combination of the words 'buffer' and 'fool.' Or perhaps 'buffamotus,' he who carries the pickle."

Historical quote

A "tired and emotional" Earl of Rochester was involved in an amusing incident concerning a poem presented to the king, when he said: -

The jester in other media

In writing and theatre

(see Shakespearean fools below)

In film and television

  • Giacomo "King of Jesters, and Jester to the King" played by Danny Kaye in the 1956 film musical The Court Jester
  • Timothy Claypole, a character in the BBC children's television comedy programme Rentaghost of the 1970s/80s, was a Jester (played by the late Michael Staniforth).
  • The Photojournalist from Apocalypse Now is often seen as a harlequin figure.
  • Funnyman, A UK horror movie about a demonic jester, The Funny Man, with a varied and imaginative repertoire of homicidal techniques and an irreverent sense of humour.
  • Jester, the Court jester of King Cradock in the TV series Jane and the Dragon.
  • Jester - The puppet in the Puppet Master films

In comic books and animation

In video games

  • Jester is a character class in the MMORPG Flyff and in the RPG Gauntlet: Dark Legacy.
  • Malcolm, the mad jester of The Legend of Kyrandia adventure games
  • Harle, a character in Chrono Cross who jests at expense of reality itself.
  • Dhoulmagus, an evil jester in the Dragon Quest VIII game by Square Enix.
  • Hecklar, an insane and sadistic court jester in Kronos Digital's fighting game Cardinal Syn.
  • A nameless jester helps and hinders the player in the Infocom game Zork Zero.
  • Jester, an alter-ego of Arkham, one of the main antagonists of Devil May Cry 3.
  • Nights into Dreams... featured two brightly colored jesters. Nights, the main protagonist, who wore a purple jester outfit with a purple hat, each with carnival and dream like designs on them, and Reala, Nights' nemesis, who had a clownlike face, and wore red and sky blue, and red and black striped shoes with a red- and black-striped jester hat.
  • Kefka Palazzo, the main antagonist in Final Fantasy VI, wears typical outfit and makeup of a jester.
  • Zorn & Thorn are a pair of court jesters that serve as recurring antagonists in the RPG Final Fantasy IX.
  • Dimentio is an evil magician in Super Paper Mario who wears a stylized jester costume and creates clever similes. He also wears an Italian Comedy Mask.
  • There is also a Jester in the tower in the 2007 Xbox 360 game Overlord. The player can kick the jester, knocking him a great distance, making cowbell sounds when he hits the floor. The Jester also follows the player around the tower, and in the tutorial he taunts the player. The player must repeatedly hurt the jester to finish the tutorial.
  • Jester, A.K.A Sarah Hawkins in the game UT3, fitting her name by making jests about the opponent or team mates.
  • Umlaut - He is a petrified Jester Skull in CarnEvil who gives a brief rhyme to describe what's in store upon selecting a level. He is also a sub-boss at the final level of the game.
  • Trivet - the royal jester in the adventure game Blazing Dragons


  • A jester, based on the Shakespearean jesters and unofficially named Elvis, is the logo of the financial website The Motley Fool.
  • James Root, guitarist for metal band Slipknot, wears a Jester-like mask on stage.
  • The Jester, a poker term used to describe a suited Jack/Seven - named after the poker player "The Jester" as it is his favourite hand.
  • Lee Civico-Cambell (poker player and actor - star of "A Jester's Tale", "Gaylon Peglegg: Exorcist" and "The Harvest") is known as The Jester.
  • Jesters Honorary Social Club is a 2-year social club at Mississippi University for Women, at Columbus, MS.
  • Bob Dylan is often referenced as the 'jester' who stole the 'king's (Elvis Presley's) crown in the song American Pie.
  • "Script for a Jester's Tear" is the title of the first LP (1983) by a British rock band Marillion.
  • "The Jester Race" is the title of an album by the Swedish melodic death metal band In Flames. Since this album they also use a symbol called "Jesterhead" as their mascot, appearing on almost every album-cover.
  • The Fool is the main and title character of a series of 12 books called "The Fool Series". He has also been used in over 200 role-plays over the internet.
  • The Fool is a Trump card in a Tarot deck.
  • The Jester is the mascot for Finnish ice hockey team Jokerit based out of Helsinki, Finland.
  • "The Jester" is a song on the Sum 41 album Underclass Hero.
  • Kourt Jester is the name of an underground Hip Hop artist.
  • Jester is the name of a famous alternative indie Italian band formed by members of Elfoguelfo.
  • The Jester is the mascot of St. Joseph's High School, a private all-girls Catholic school in Lakewood, CA - they are known as the St. Joseph's Jesters - "Fools for Christ", and were founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ) in 1964. Their colors are Orange and White and their motto is "Love, Hope and Zeal".
  • "The jester from Leicester" is the nick name of snooker player Mark Selby



  • Welsford, Enid: The Fool : His Social and Literary History (out of print) (1935 + subsequent reprints): ISBN 1-299-14274-5
  • Otto, Beatrice K., “Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World,” Chicago University Press, 2001
  • M. Conrad Hyers The Spirituality of Comedy: comic heroism in a tragic world 1996 Transaction Publishers ISBN 1560002182
  • Doran, John A History of Court Fools, 1858
  • Billington, Sandra A Social History of the Fool, 1984

External links

jester in German: Narr
jester in Spanish: Bufón (cómico)
jester in Esperanto: Bufono
jester in French: Bouffon
jester in Hindi: विदूषक
jester in Italian: Giullare
jester in Dutch: Nar
jester in Norwegian: Narr
jester in Polish: Błazen
jester in Portuguese: Bobo da corte
jester in Russian: Шут
jester in Finnish: Hovinarri
jester in Swedish: Narr
jester in Chinese: 弄臣

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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