April 1st is widely known as April Fools’ Day, when it’s customary for people to play pranks and sometimes quite elaborate hoaxes on unsuspecting ‘victims’.
But when and where did the practice start? And what’s the connection with Shakespeare’s England?
The origins and history of this foolish day are uncertain. Some people regard it as a light-hearted celebration related to the turn of the seasons from winter to spring; others believe it stems from the confusion caused by the adoption of the Gregorian calendar.
These days, those who carry out April Fools’ Day pranks are rarely punished because the whole point of them is that they should be harmless fun. But it would have been a different story in medieval times when anyone who committed even a minor offence was put in the stocks for several hours to endure public humiliation.
Many of the market towns scattered around Warwickshire had a pair of town stocks, usually in a prominent location like the market square. Unfortunately only a few of these relics survive today, including the ones seen in the photo from the Cotswold town of Stow-on-the-Wold.
Records show that the Market Square in Warwick previously housed a pillory and stocks. There’s no recorded use of the pillory, but the stocks were used frequently until 1872, when an Act of Parliament made their use illegal. In the early 1800s the fixed stocks were removed and movable stocks on wheels were kept at the Police Station instead.
William Shakespeare, the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, made a different type of fool famous. Usually a clever peasant or commoner who used their wits to outdo people of higher social standing, the Shakespearean fool was a recurring character type in his plays. It’s believed their role was to provide comic relief because the clowning scenes in Shakespeare’s tragedies mostly appear immediately after an upsetting scene, e.g. the Gravediggers in Hamlet after Ophelia’s suicide.
Other well-known Shakespearean fools include Puck and Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Falstaff in Henry IV, Costard in Love’s Labours Lost and Feste in Twelfth Night.