From Shakespeare to Berlusconi: The rebirth of the fool in politics

Berlusconi is both a cultural and political embarrassment for Italy, writes author.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been sentenced to seven years in prison for abusing his office [AFP]

On June 24, a court in Milan sentenced former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to seven years in prison for having sex with an underage prostitute, and banned him from holding public office. This followed an earlier verdict: in May 2013, he was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to four years in jail.

This may sound like things are changing in Italy, but since Berlusconi has numerous options to appeal against these court decisions and delay further trials, in all probability he will never see the inside of an Italian state penitentiary.

Normally, if someone is found guilty of tax fraud and sexual contact with underage women, that would mean the end of his political career and the beginning of his time in jail. Not in Italy. Even though Berlusconi’s party did not win a majority of the vote in the last general and local elections, Berlusconi continues to be the single most influential man in Italian politics.

How is this possible?

Peer Steinbruck, the leader of the German Social Democratic Party, thought he knew why: he called Silvio Berlusconi a clown, and Italians highly value humour. As a matter of fact, Berlusconi often expressed his desire to make people laugh and tried to make that happen as much as possible, on occasions appropriate and inappropriate alike.

For example, during an official meeting with EU leaders, he once put two fingers behind the head of Spanish foreign minister Josep Pique, laughing at the cameras, because he wanted to joke with some Boy Scouts present at the ceremony (or so he told the press).

A couple of years ago, he praised two young women for their political engagement in his party, telling them: “Compliments, you are so good that I would like to invite you to bunga bunga” – referring to the notoriously sexual parties he is said to hold at his house near Milan.

Although Steinbruck may be onto something, in my opinion it is probably more accurate to compare Berlusconi not with a clown, but rather with a fool or a jester. As it happens, the role of fools in our cultural tradition has not been limited solely to making people laugh. As Michel Foucault pointed out in his book History of Madness (1961), foolery also has cultural and sociopolitical implications. So: what and who have actually been the fools – and how can this term be applied to Berlusconi?

Most theorists agree that there’s a distinction between a “natural” and an “artificial” (or artistical) fool. The so-called natural fool is characterised by physical or psycological impediments. Having no juridical or social position in society, natural fools have historically been forced to wander from one place to another, living in complete poverty. Clearly, this label does not apply to Berlusconi, with his vast wealth and business empire.

And what about the artificial-artistical fool? They were travelling actors, magicians, acrobats, dancers or musicians, who performed on the streets and in marketplaces in exchange for money or food. An important weapon for artificial fools was language: they were famous for making jokes and ambiguous wordplays.

Berlusconi uses this weapon himself, and has an impressive arsenal of witticisms. The cavaliere, or “the knight”, as he’s known, seems to make everybody – regardless of class, age or gender – the butt of his jokes. For instance, he described Barack Obama as “young, handsome and tanned” and suggested that Martin Schulz, the German president of the European Parliament, would be good at playing the role of a Nazi concentration camp guard. Berlusconi has also claimed that Benito Mussolini never killed anyone, but only sent his opponents into exile so that they could have a holiday. And you could fill a book with his remarks about German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In this sense, Berlusconi might be considered a fool, were it not for Foucault who pointed out that the fool played a different role in the Renaissance. This can be seen in many works of Shakespeare; in both King Lear and As you like it, the court jester was free to say and to do what was normally forbidden and thereby showed the spectators a different and perhaps refreshing perspective.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, in his famous book The Praise of Folly (1509), distinguished two types of fools. He called the “normal” people wise-fools, because they cared only about appearance, money and earthly pleasures. The people usually considered fools because of their “unnormal” way of living were for Erasmus the fool-wises. They were the only real wise men: for them money and power were insignificant, they searched for truth and authenticity and didn’t fit in society.

Even with all his joking, Berlusconi cannot be considered a fool in the Shakespearean sense, because his jokes don’t serve the goal of revealing forbidden truths. As Berlusconi seems only interested in money and power and the defence of his own interests, he can’t be seen as a Erasmus-like fool-wise, but most definitely as a wise-fool. Like the kings and popes of Erasmus’ time, Berlusconi literally lays down the law to defend his own interests. If all the world is a stage full of fools (fool-wises that is), Berlusconi could be casted in the role of king.

In his book History of Madness, Foucault argued that in the modern era fools have been completely separated from society and confined to institutions that, althought they had different names, were actually prisons. Unfortunately, we cannot continue this very interesting discourse here, because at this point we do not need to say anything regarding Berlusconi: magistrates and judges are trying to put him in prison for more than 20 years – so far, without any success.

So Berlusconi, the joking king of the fool-wises, is unlikely to end up behind bars. He will continue to make jokes that stopped being funny a long time ago, showing nothing beside the empty wisecracks they are. He is no clown and he is no jester. Steinbruck’s explanation was far too easy – and an insult to all the clowns of the world.

Silvia Mazzini is a lecturer at the Humboldt University and a guest fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin. She is the author of Für eine mannigfaltige mögliche Welt: Kunst und Politik bei Ernst Bloch und Gianni Vattimo (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2010), and of numerous articles on aesthetics, dramaturgy and political philosophy.