Most people have a good idea of what a fool is; indeed, most people have dated one or two. The term wise fool, however, is something else altogether. In spite of a lack of education, intelligence, or even common sense, even fools can stumble upon truths that are both poignant and deep. This fool might appear to be simpleminded or dull, but another kind of intelligence is filtered through his or her actions or words.
A wise fool is not the same as an idiot savant. An idiot savant is truly lacking in mental facility but has an inexplicable talent, even a genius, for something. Some idiot savants are brilliant artists; others have mathematical skills that defy logical explanation. A wise fool may behave foolishly or may be uneducated, but his or her pearls of wisdom are often not entirely accidental.
The metaphor of the wise fool gained popularity during the Middle Ages when certain behaviors or manners began to become codified. The fool would be someone who persistently acted in a contrary manner, either through lack of understanding or through intention. By the Renaissance, the fool had become a party staple through the character of the jester, who was permitted to mock members of the court and even the king himself, behave rudely, and otherwise cavort to the shock and delight of onlookers. This type of fool could get away with wry or piercing social commentary that would get other men hanged.
This particular fool is one who understands that violating social rules is permitted to those who appear to have childlike vulnerabilities. In some circles, it was believed that such a fool was actually a bit closer to God than other human beings. Should a fool blurt out a cutting truth regarding an individual, the words would be met with the laughter of those who recognized just how accurate the truth was; even the subject of the joke would be forced to chuckle or become the fool in turn.
The great Bard himself, William Shakespeare, had a special fondness for fools. This fondness was shared by the commoners who flocked to the Globe Theater to find foolish characters who were most often social underdogs who outsmarted the wealthy and powerful and were champions of their own society. Among Shakespeare’s most famous wise fools were Hamlet’s gravediggers, King Lear’s fool, and the delightful, naughty Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream.