In King Lear, theGodfather of its time, Shakespeare exposes the folly of power through his narrative of it slipping away. Lear’s Fool matches elusive power with a taunting dance of his own. He represents Lear’s conscience, but Lear ignores him. The Fool makes Lear’s madness worse, driving him crazy. He dances on the play’s mushrooming graves and uses his power of prophecy to make a critique of priests, brewers, nobles, squires, usurers, tailors, bawds, and whores. Time is his theme.
By definition and decree he has no power, but he has vision. He sees power as madness. Shakespeare further endows this uncanniest of characters with time travel abilities. Does that embolden and empower him to mock power without hesitation or fear? In his final lines, The Fool invokes “The prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time,”suggesting his ability to travel from Lear’s 8thcentury BCE to Merlin’s 500 AD.
Then suddenly he vanishes. The Fool provokes by his very absence. Freed from Lear’s endgame, freed of time’s bonds, the Fool drifts out of the play and into another era.
Lear’sFool has the privilege of speaking truth to power, but he wields none in the conventional/institutional sense. In mythology and folklore, Tricksters obtain power through trickery, not imperial conquest, or it is a First Principle. In his comic retelling of King Lear, Christopher Moore discovers the Fool’s divine potentiality and detached uprootedness: “The fool’s number is zero, but that’s because he represents the infinite possibility of all things. He may become anything. See, he carries all of his possessions in a bundle on his back. He is ready for anything, to go anywhere, to become whatever he needs to be. Don’t count out the fool…simply because his number is zero.”
Shakespeare’s political wisdom is that power is a fool’s game, and it takes a Fool to reveal this. Through the depth ofLear’s characters and the device of time travel, Shakespeare offers a narrow yet hopeful and shimmering lifeline to the possibility of a world based less on power and more on the lightheartedness that time travel inspires. Shakespeare’s Fool points to future possibilities. Though bound in the trappings of the court jester, time travel is his trump card, his prophetic transcendence of power.
What about the more fully formed Trickster character, Bugs Bunny? In 1944’s The Old Grey Hare, Bugs and his foil Elmer Fudd time-travel to the year 2000, where, in their creaky twilight years, the comic antagonists play out their eternal routine. ‘Eh, what’s up, prune-face?’ hails old Bugs, who is suffering from lumbago.
In a tour de force of phony sentimentality, Bugs fakes a mortal wound when shot by Elmer’s Buck Rogers Lightning-Quick Rabbit-Killer. He whips out a scrapbook he’d apparently been keeping and we time-travel again, back to their first chase as infants. After re-enacting the “What’s up, doc? I’m looking for a little baby bunny. What’s he look like, doc? He looks…just like you!”routine, the chase ensues, but is suddenly halted. Baby Bugs says “uh-oh, time for little babies to have afternoon nap.” The two curl up together and snooze. “Okay nap over” declares Bugs, and the chase resumes.
Sure, it’s a typical smart-aleck gag, but it also means Bugs’ creators are traveling back to their own infancies, lighthearted and child-like and broadly playful.
Bugs Bunny stewards the ethos of time-traveling tricksterism. He does not lack compassion, but he also refuses to take anything seriously. He remains detached, he floats above situations, and like a time traveler, gains the perspective of the long view. Consider the play of animals, of cartoon characters, and of infant and toddler humans, and how, in the real world, adults who can recall and re-live their childhood frolics refresh their psyches by time-traveling back and forth from their own early childhood to the present.
But how does this play out in the real world, a real world of waning playtimes? [Watch this space for Part 3]