A king’s jester: rarely has character been so imperative in an occupation.
The line between good humour and bad must be paper-thin in a King who wields power like a broadsword. It must surely have been a tightrope walk between life and death every day.
The jester’s trade came sharply to mind when I saw the strangest of portraits commissioned by a tyrant king and featuring his beloved fool.
Around 1545, when Henry VIII was married to Kathryn Parr, he had the oddest painting commissioned.
It hangs in Henry’s apartments in Hampton Court these days, and looking at it leaves a strange aftertaste. It depicts Henry, in all his finery, portly but not obese, with fine calves shown to their best effect. At his side is his dead wife, Jane Seymour.
On the other side is Edward, strapping and lusty, ready to face a lifetime of ruling a country. Jane died when Edward was three weeks old.
Henry’s daughters are there, but at a distance. They stand estranged, at arms length from the eerie little nuclear family, identically dressed, grave, possessed and Henry’s possessions, but not permitted into that little inner trinity.
Behind them, at both far ends of the painting are arches; doorways through which two final figures can be seen.
One, I do not know: the other, though, is unquestionably Henry’s fool, Will Somers, and his monkey.
Somers was a sharp wit. He arrived at Henry’s court, and was presented by a Calais merchant, in 1525. Henry engaged him on the spot and he outlived the monarch, dying in Elizabeth’s reign.
He poked fun cleverly, even at Wolsey. He did step over that line once or twice:ten years after his arrival Henry threatened to kill him, after he called Queen Anne a ribald and the Princess Elizabeth ‘Henry’s bastard.”
Yet he was the only one, increasingly, who could raise Henry’s spirits as his health deteriorated. Wit is a powerful weapon indeed.
Still, all good things end. On June 15, 1560, one Will Somers’ death is recorded in the records of St Leonard’s Parish, Shoreditch. His dazzling wit lasted a matter of decades.
Shakespeare highlights how important the fool can be to a leader, again and again. And to illustrate the brittle quality of our mortal coil he chose a jester. Yorick, whom Hamlet knew well.
It must be strange to hold the skull of a childhood figure in one’s hands. What a lesson in mortality. Hamlet lists his qualities and says: here hung the lips I have kissed.
Yet, though all standing at the graveside knew the much-loved jester, there is never any attempt to read the skull, and imbue it with the qualities of its previous owner.
That comes later.
It began with an Austrian physician called Franz Jozeph Gall, some time at the beginning of the 19th century.
The mind, argued Gall, has an organ: and that organ is the brain.
Because the mind has different facets, so, he reasoned, must the brain. And the brain gives the skull its shape. Thus different elements of our psychological tendencies can be mapped out on different parts of the skull.
It’s called phrenology; it’s a bit like reflexology: and time has rendered much of it utter, total quackery.
But back then at the dawn of the nineteenth century it seemed an eminently sensible suggestion to many, albeit they may have been a little ill-informed.
There were 27 faculties, ranging from fidelity to murder and carnivorousness. By massaging the head one could determine whether an area was enlarged; and thus the personality could be read through the skull.
One might have a big benevolent bump, or a huge mound where the mechanical skill area was. Much as old wrinkled women read palms. men styling themselves phrenologists read skulls. Then they would tell you your personality.
It may have been quackery, but the Bohemians adored it. This idea that one could sum a character up visually was a sugared comfit to the artist or writer. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes both referenced phrenology, and those singular grave Bronte sisters too: Charlotte’s Jane Eyre had a kindly teacher called miss Temple whom she asserted had “a considerable organ of veneration’ – meaning a great capacity for love. Even Professor Van Helsing used it, though by the time Dracula was published, the discipline’s star was waning.
The great American nation adored it, too, and even invented an automatic machine for reading the personality using the skull: the Automatic Electric Phrenometer.
Advances in brain science separated the wheat from the chaff. Yes, the brain has different areas dedicated to different functions; but no, one cannot read the brain’s contents through the skull.
Yorick is as inscrutable today as he would have been, 400 years ago.