Slapping the Jester
When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, he was rejecting the idea that comics shouldn’t be held accountable for the things they say.
When Will Smith walked across the Oscars stage and slapped Chris Rock across the face for having made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, it spawned a deluge of takes on Twitter (many of which are collected here), and, in the days since, innumerable think pieces. But in all the arguments over whether what Smith did was justified or at least understandable, one obvious, and important, aspect of the story got surprisingly little attention, namely that Chris Rock was not a random person in a bar who insulted another guy’s wife. Instead, he was someone who had been assigned, and was playing, the role not just of comedian, but of court jester. And that makes — or should have made — all the difference.
The figure of the jester, or the Fool, has existed in many cultures in many different eras, and though that figure has taken many different forms, one of its key characteristics is that jesters do not have to follow the same rules everyone else does, particularly when it comes to speech. They can say the things that others may be thinking but are too afraid to say, and can say them (usually) without fear of punishment. This is what defines the most famous jesters in Western culture, Shakespeare’s Fools, including Feste in Twelfth Night and the Fool in King Lear. In Lear, the Fool is the only character whom the old king allows to speak honestly to him, and he sees all the things about Lear that Lear refuses to see, or at least, admit about himself. And while Lear banishes his loyal servant Kent when Kent insists on telling him his treatment of his daughter Cordelia is wrong, Lear threatens his Fool with whipping only if he does not tell the truth.
The jester who’s allowed to tell the rich and powerful what others will not is not just a creature of Shakespeare’s imagination, but was in fact a common figure at courts around the world, as Beatrice Otto explains in her book Fools Are Everywhere. The 19th-century Persian Shah Nasredin, for instance, had a jester named Karim Shir’ei, who mocked not only the shah’s courtiers, but also the shah himself. Like other jesters, Shir’ei had no real power and exercised no authority. But because of this…