But gently pulls the strings
And smiles as the puppets dance
In the court of the Crimson King
A Stock Character in the Standard Royal Court, a Court Jester is a clown and funnyman who's rarely what he appears on the surface. His nominal role is to entertain the king and his courtiers with jokes, acrobatics, juggling, and pratfalls, while wearing a silly, brightly colored outfit and Happy Harlequin Hat.
The Jester's foolish appearance and demeanor means he's generally laughed at or not taken seriously. Many writers have noted that it's a great cover. No one would guess that the silly and seemingly harmless jester is really a bodyguard, assassin, or spymaster. Due to this reason and a combination of their silly antics with the ability to tell the king things he doesn't want to hear right to his face, the jester is often one of the most common examples of a Non-Ironic Clown still in existence.
It's worth noting that real jesters were the Trope Codifiers for most Clown Tropes. For example the reason modern clowns wear ruffs is because they were popular back when jesters were around, so the jesters started wearing them too, and they have since remained a part of clown costumes. Many techniques of clowning and circus arts have their origins in the craft of the Court Jester.
May overlap with Magical Clown, due to Real Life jesters in The Middle Ages using magic tricks as part of their acts, and Villainous Harlequin. May also overlap with Honest Advisor, especially if they use comedy to criticize the great magnates of the realm. Compare to Court Mage and The Bard; the Court Jester may overlap with either. Also compare Lethal Joke Character. Not to be confused with The Fool, a character who thoughtlessly blunders through adventures yet comes to no harm.
- In the Discworld of A.A. Pessimal, Alison Grose is one of the first women to graduate from the Fools' Guild. Forced by the machinations of Lord Vetinari to take a complement of female students, the Guild is at a loss as to what to do with them after they graduate. It is at pains to point out that while they have been forced by circumstances to liberalise, they are not that liberal. Alison, aware she is not especially wanted in Ankh-Morpork, gladly accepts an offer from King Verence of Lancre to become his Court Jester. Verence, a much-respected Guild graduate and a King, believes a female jester can't be any worse and may indeed be refreshingly different. The Fools' Guild, therefore, has to accept that like it or not, there is now a fully accredited Lady Jester out there. Alison takes full advantage of exile to a remote backwater Kingdom to begin to develop the skills of Clown, Jester and Troubador in excitingly new and novel ways - knowing the only other Guild member for several hundred miles around to notice this is Verence, and he is not likely to complain.
- Witching Hour: In this Invader Zim Historical AU set in Medieval times, this is Zim's role in King Membrane's court, with Gaz in particular enjoying making mockery of him and treating him like a slave. This ends up leaving him Beneath Suspicion as he carries out a plan to frame Gaz for witchcraft.
- Hawkins is forced to impersonate one to infiltrate the castle in the aptly named The Court Jester. The real court jester, Giacomo, is promptly knocked out and taken hostage by Jean, so he doesn't get very much screen time.
- In The Northman, Heimir's depicted as using his jokes to point out court intrigues (such as noting that Gudrun is quick to offer a drink to Fjölnir, foreshadowing Fjölnir's forced marriage with her), and more unusually also serves as something of a Court Mage to Aurvandill, as he oversees Amleth's initiation ceremony.
- Nikita Khrushchev is potrayed as one while Josef Stalin was alive during The Death of Stalin, able to integrate himself to Stalin's inner circle largely due to his zany sense of humor. As soon as Stalin bites it, he reveals the other half of being a jester, his genuine political insight - as well as dropping his goofier antics in favor of some very dry wit.
- Beldin from David Edding's The Belgariad and The Malloreon series; as a twisted, hideous hunchback, he can say and do just about anything he wants because everyone's staring at the hump on his spine. He's also an impossibly powerful sorcerer, however, and at one point magically disguises himself as a "standard" jester, nailing home the resemblance.
- The Poet from A Canticle for Leibowitz fills the role of the Shakespearean fool, as he points out hypocrisies in the form of jokes that go over the heads of the priests and barbarian lords in his company. He's a little to sardonic for his own good, leaving him unemployed and eventually sending him on the run from a barbarian lord who doesn't find the Poet's audition for court jester a little too insulting.
- In Wyrd Sisters, the Fool is a classic jester who spends most of the book reluctantly advising the usurping Duke. He later becomes king himself, and is shown to be a kind Reasonable Authority Figure, and optimistic by Disc standards.
- In one of the diaries, it's revealed that all court jesters are actually spies for their guild. They send everything they overhear back to the chief clown, who profits enormously.
- The Fool, of course, in Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy. As noted above, being a court jester means you can speak your mind more freely than others ... but it should also be noted that this only works while your king protects you.
- Christopher Moore's Fool stars a King Lear's jester, and his ability to speak truth to the powers that be is one of the biggest themes in the book.
- A more benevolent version of this occurs in Alan Gordon's Fools' Guild mystery novels, in which the eponymous Guild are essentially a continent-spanning spy ring who try to manipulate their patrons into averting war, or running damage-limitation if that doesn't work. The main character, Theophilos, is stated to be Feste from Twelfth Night, and is heavily implied to be the Fool in King Lear. Oh, and he's Laertes from Hamlet, as well. Sort of. Look, just go read the books, they need the love.. Some of Shakespeare's other jesters, such as Yorick and Lavache, pop up too, if only in flashbacks.
- Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series: In the third chapter of "The Mule", the court jester of Kalgan joins the protagonists. Bayta notices him first, walking around on his hands. He tells them about having to recite extemporaneous rhymes and dance for the Mule and his court. But it ultimately turns out to be a ruse to get the Foundation's leaders within range of his mind control powers, for in truth he is the Mule.
- In the Chivalric Romances Gowther and Robert The Devil, the title characters work as jesters for kings, in a position of penance for their many crimes; they appear three times as knights to save the kingdom but remain the jester inbetween.
- In the I, Richard Plantagenet Series, Rob Percy hires a dwarf jester to entertain and Richard and Anne's wedding feast. The jester sings sings bawdy songs, at one point dresses in drag and sends Richard off to his wedding night assuring the young man that while he is small in stature, he's got a reputation for being big where it counts.
- "Sir" Dagonet (he was knighted as a joke), jester to King Arthur. In Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, he mocks Tristam's affair with Isolt and says that only Arthur and himself really understand what the Round Table is about. Tristam tries swapping barbs with him, but comes off worse, and realises that arguing with a fool just makes him look foolish.
- Towser, the jester to King Prester John in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, who was the king's confidante and takes to drink after his master's death and succession by The Evil Prince.
- Onimi from the New Jedi Order series is the slave jester to Supreme Overlord Shimrra of the Yuuzhan Vong. His position as Shimrra's 'pet' allows him to mock the Elite mercilessly in a way no one else can, and he seems to take great pleasure in being as offensive as possible. He's also the true power behind the Yuuzhan Vong throne, using Mind Control to speak his wishes through the practically brainless Shimrra's mouth.
- Gideon Gleeman from the RuneScape novels Return to Canifis and Legacy of Blood. Though he looks like a harmless fool, he's actually a very powerful mage tasked with protecting King Roald.
- A Song of Ice and Fire plays with this in all the usual ways George R R Martin plays with things (horrifically).
- Jesters or "Fools" aren't generally held in high regard in Westeros, being stuck somewhere between street performers/ mummers and the gladsome minstrels or bards nobody trusts. Yet, on the plus side, a badly judged shtick is unlikely to mean a fate as horrible as a too-clever Wandering Minstrel can (and, in this series, often does) earn for themselves. Also, many seem to find work as double-dipping spies; Moon Boy, Butterbumps, Dontos, Mushroom and others are pretty much taking coin from and notes for others as they crack jokes and caper about. Though, others like Jinglebell and Patchface? Probably not: they are what are called "lackwits" and are there basically to be the designated Chew Toy of the powerful.
- Stannis Baratheon has a jester who was brought from Essos because of his reputation as an incredibly talented tumbler and wit; until the ship bringing him to Stannis's court foundered, leaving the boy severely brain-damaged. Now, well... Patchface is stuck playing nursemaid, thanks to creeping most adults out to some degree with his nonsensical, inane "rhymes" few can take seriously and sloppy clumsiness.
- Joffrey's jester is an old man who used to be a knight until he got incredibly drunk and spoiled a tourney. Now he spends all his time riding a wooden horse, wearing mock tin armor, and drinking; he tries to use his position to good effect, but usually fails (see above re: drunkenness). Poor Ser Dontos Hollard.
- Historically, Mushroom survived the utter insanity that was Court during the Dance of the Dragons and went on to pen the most scandalously lurid Targaryen "chronicle" which not even popular kings like Baelor the Beloved could suppress. As it turns out, being easily ignored as a background Fool gives you plenty of dirt to rake if most of the people you take the piss out of wind up far too dead to try dragon-burning you alive over your slanderous libel. Not to mention giving you a will to spread the dirt as evenly as you can over as many of the parties who likely annoyed you as possible.
- Finally, we have Tyrion Lannister, a highly intelligent dwarf who fits most of the tropes of the Jester and would have been a jester if he hadn't been born to one of the most powerful houses of Westeros. He uses the "privilege" generations have won to speak blunt truths to powerful people. But, he doesn't always escape unscathed.
- The Stormlight Archive: The Alethi king has a position known as "the King's Wit" who insults people in the king's stead so that the king doesn't have to sully himself. His primary role is to humiliate and humble the various "lighteyed" lords and ladies by mocking them, which he does with relish and gusto. He does hide his genuine criticisms in a lot of straightforward insults, but they are there. It's technically legal for a slighted lord to kill the Wit, if he is willing to revoke all his lands and titles.
- In Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana: The court jester is magically bound to the King, acting out his subconscious urges, but there's a twist.
- In The Ugly Princess and the Wise Fool, the "wise fool" in the title is Jasper, a wise man who pretends to be stupid to get a job as the king's court jester after the king bans wise men from his kingdom.
- In Edgar Allan Poe's "Hop-Frog," the title character is a deformed little person who was abducted from his home and forced to become the court jester of a king. He plays his "final jest" on the king and his ministers for abusing his only friend.
- Subverted on Babylon 5: The jester is mocking Emperor Cartagia behind his back during a monologue. The Emperor turns around in time to see this, and after giving the jester a moment to dwell on this, laughs it off. One scene later, we learn that Cartagia had the jester killed.
- Henry VIII:
- Somers from The Six Wives of Henry VIII, based on a historical person. He was the only one in the court who could speak frankly to Henry without fear of reprisal (and that's something Henry wouldn't even allow his own wives to do).
- Somers also appears for an episode in The Tudors, where after Jane Seymour's death he is the only man Henry will speak to at all in his grief. At the end of he episode, Sommers is shown sitting on Henry's throne, wearing his crown, and chuckling to himself... but he doesn't appear again in the series.
- Somers appears on Horrible Histories, where courtiers rely on him to tell Henry Bad News in a Good Way. Henry's on his fifth wife, and someone has to tell him that Catherine has a lot of "boyfriends".
- Merlin on Merlin plays this role to Prince Arthur, quick to call him an idiot (or a prat, or a clotpole) when he thinks he's being one, and getting away with it because of Arthur's barely-hidden affection for him. Arthur often gives as good as he gets, and at one point jokes that if he ever becomes king, he'll make Merlin into his court jester.
- Julie Taymor's episode of the anthology series American Playhouse, "Fool's Fire," is a heavily stylized adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "Hop-Frog." The title character is a deformed little person who was abducted from his home and forced to become the court jester of a king. He plays his "final jest" on the king and his ministers for abusing his only friend.
- Easily one of the most iconic examples of this trope to date would be the Fool from William Shakespeare's King Lear, who accompanies the eponymous Lear even after he is left wandering with no crown, protection or shelter in the wilderness, offering both wise and scathing criticisms of the king all throughout that is always delivered comically enough as to not reach his ears.
- Dungeons & Dragons:
- One of the 2nd edition expansion books had a Jester playable class. This was mainly for "theatrical" players — it could taunt and distract enemies with insults, but lacked the combat abilities to survive the consequences. There's also a homebrew 3.5 edition version that is quite a bit more capable, as well as a Dragon magazine version that physically damages people with cutting insults.
- A Forgotten Realms article in Dragon had a lengthy footnote concerning Jeremmer Hardree, the "Mad Jester", court jester to King Naether of Ormpur, Naether's nephew King Askuldur, and Askuldur's foster daughter Queen Maerildarraine. After Maerildarraine killed her evil foster father, led her knights against his loyalists, and burned down the temple of Tiamat, Jeremmer quipped that he hoped she wouldn't find the next day boring by comparision ... and the fact he survived doing so is held as evidence of how much affection they had for each other. He died defending her against a counter-coup by Tiamat worshippers some time later.
- According to goblinoid religion, the hogboblin deity Maglubiyet conquered the goblin pantheon, which is why all goblins are obligated to serve hobgoblins when a legion marches to war, and even the lowliest hobgoblin is able to give orders to a goblin chief. But while only one goblin god survived this divine conquest intact, their nameless trickster deity persists in a shattered state, and is able to possess any goblin to give them strange powers - especially if said goblin has been abused by their hobgoblin masters. These "nilbogs" can charm those who would wish them harm, heal from attacks meant to injure, and generally cause chaos in the brutally-ordered goblinoid society. As such, hobgoblins can't afford to be too harsh toward their goblin underlings, and one lucky goblin in each hobgoblin host is appointed as an official jester, given the freedom to do and say whatever they want, lest an even more disruptive nilbog arise.
- In Warhammer 40,000, the Laughing God was this to the Eldar pantheon. This is also the reason he is one of the only Eldar gods left. His mocking nature distanced him from the decadence that birthed Slaanesh and doomed most of the other Eldar gods. His worshippers, the Harlequins, operate in troupes that function as this to the other Eldar factions and dress the part.
- Aspire: Ina's Tale: One of the first characters Ina meets in the game is a jester calling himself "Joker".
- Baldur's Gate II: Bards had access to the Jester kit, which traded in the normal bardic abilities of buffing the party in favor of applying debuffs to enemies. It was widely considered to be among the weakest of kits in the game.
- A character class you can make in Dragon Quest III. While not an especially powerful character type, they had the highest luck in the game and often managed to find useful items and gold after the fact. They were also the only class capable of freely transforming into a powerful Sage without use of a special item.
- Super Paper Mario has Dimentio, one of Count Bleck's elite minions. Compared to the attitude the rest of the count's higher-ups regard him with, Dimentio often expresses snark and doubt in the Count's plans, and occasionally chimes in with hints of knowledge that on one occasion even bewilders Bleck himself, but he always manages to play it down as simply the light-hearted observations of a jester. He's firmly of the treacherous variety, and in the final act of the game he demonstrates himself to be a far crueler evil than the Count ever was.
- Cicero from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Despite his cheerful-insane demeanor, he is secretly a member of the Dark Brotherhood, and is not to be trifled with.
- Persona 4 Golden introduces the Jester Social Link that corresponds with Adachi and serves as an alternative look at The Fool Tarot card (which symbolizes the protagonist). Both the Fool and the Jester symbolize ignorance and freedom, but the Jester stands for suppressed stupidity along with freedom misused for trouble-making and finding the easy way out of situations. All of this foreshadows that Adachi is the serial killer the heroes are hunting down.
- Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time: The Dark Ages introduces the Jester Zombie who seems like a goofy enemy but has a very dangerous ability to Catch and Return almost all projectiles shot at him, causing those plants to damage themselves instead.
- Town of Salem features a Jester class, whose objective is to get the town to publicly execute him. Many players achieve this by acting buffoonish and deliberately obnoxious.
- Darkest Dungeon has the Jester party member who exacted revenge on his abusive Decadent Court, but uses his song-playing and jokes to heal stress and buff allies while having a deadly Finishing Move.
- Dragon's Dogma has Feste, a short ugly man in tights whose first cutscene has him introducing you to court while sneaking a silly hat on you. Talking to him causes him to make wisecracks about everyone (mostly you). Outside Materials describe him as a slimy bastard willing to work with anyone though in-game this never actually comes to play and he never actively antagonizes the player.
- Marco is the Royal Fool, Valona's equivalent of a Court Jester, in Fooled
- Jester, from Jane and the Dragon, is a historical example, and a fairly accurate one at that. He was left at the castle by his traveling parents so that he would be educated and raised well, in exchange for him filling the role of court jester. He sings, dances, and tells all manner of jokes, though sometimes his big mouth gets him in trouble.
- The SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Dunces and Dragons" features Squidly (a distant ancestor of Squidward who just so happens to look exactly like him). While he's employed as King Krabs' jester, his performance is mixed; he's first introduced being kept in the dungeon for causing the king to have a stroke with his unfunny wisecracking. Once released, he tries to criticize King Krabs in song for his weakness in stopping Planktonamor's dragon (a giant jellyfish), but since he doesn't have enough clout to get away with it, he very nearly gets executed.
- In the Looney Tunes short "Knighty Knight Bugs", Bugs Bunny plays court jester to King Arthur. When his knights are too afraid to retrieve the Singing Sword from the Black Knight, Bugs quips "Only a fool would go after the Singing Sword!" Arthur decides to take him at his word and forces him to fetch the Sword under penalty of execution.
- Truth in Television: Stanczyk, the court jester of Poland, became a Polish national hero two centuries after his death, during the period when Poland was no longer an actual nation, for his ability to speak the truth in couched terms. He was also pretty much the only person in the higher echelons of the Polish royal court who actually kept tabs on what was going on in their crumbling empire, while the rest of the court were to busy carousing and partying.
- By one account, King Philip VI's jester was the only person in court who dared to inform him when the French had lost the naval battle of Sluys in 1340. He exclaimed "Oh, the cowardly English, the cowardly English!" and when asked why he replied, "They did not jump overboard like our brave Frenchmen!" This is featured in Horrible Histories.
- The Motley Fool, a financial advising company best known for its newspaper column, plays to this trope. Unusual for the industry and befitting the moniker, their advice tends to be of the "invest in solid companies and funds and hold onto them for a long time" variety rather than promising easy money if you buy loads and loads of particular "sure thing" stocks.
- King Matthias of Hungary had a legendary court jester who appears in several folktales and novels (though it's unclear whether they were all the same person). More notable deeds include proving that doctors are the most common profession by pretending to be sick, prompting the entire staff in the palace to try and cure him, impersonating the king and negotiating a highly disadvantageous treaty with the Turks, but including a clause that makes it inapplicable, and wrestling the jester of an enemy king, in a failed attempt at Combat by Champion.
- The doctor part (and probably others) is also told about Gonella, a legendary Italian jester predating Matthias by about two centuries.
- Archibald Armstrong, the court jester of James VI, who relentlessly castigated other members of the court; at one point, the duke of Buckingham threatened to have him hanged, to which he replied "Dukes have often been hanged for insolence, but never fools for talking."
- William Sommers, court jester of Henry VIII, who frequently used his jests to call attention to extravagance and waste within the royal household.
- Thomas Skelton, a.k.a. Tom Fool, was the last jester of Muncaster Castle and is believed to be the origin of the phrase "tomfoolery". He was a steward of the estate and a trusted servant to the Penningtons. He was said to have known Shakespeare and is believed to have been the inspiration for King Lear's fool. However, Skelton is also believed to be a Villainous Harlequin, as people say he was also a tyrant to those beneath him - and a suspected murderer, to boot.
- The Japanese equivalent of a jester, the Taikomochi, doubled as an entertainer and a military strategist and was expected to fight alongside his lord in battle, making them literal Lethal Joke Characters. The overlap in roles makes more sense when you realize that both require similar skillsets: Quick wit and the ability (and close relationship with their lord) necessary to speak truth to power.