This early 17th century painting of two jesters and a marotte (fool’s head bauble or stick) taps into the theme of ‘Who’s the missing fool?’ in which an image posed a visual quandary. The painting is entitled ‘We three loggerheads’, but there are only two jesters … and a wooden carved fool’s head. Ah, you say, the marotte is the third ‘loggerhead’, surely. But maybe not, perhaps it is you, the viewer. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night the jester Feste greets Sir Andrew and Sir Toby with a reference to this kind of numeric trickery:
How now, my hearts? Did you never see the picture of ‘we three’? (2.3.14-15)
Other examples of this theme include a stone-carved jester’s head in the Town Hall of Nördlingen in Germany, which is referred to as a ‘fools’ mirror’ (‘Narrenspiegel’) suggesting that the viewer, far from simply looking at a stone-carving of a fool, is seeing their own ‘reflection’. To underline this, the inscription says, ‘Now we are two’.
There is also a 16th century engraving of a grimacing fool where the mystery missing fools are said to be seven, see our comments on this, along with references to an excellent research paper.
Returning to ‘We Three Loggerheads’, there seems to be a view that the two (human) fools featured are portraits of known jesters, namely Tom Derry (the one on the left) and Muckle John (to the right of him). Derry was the jester of Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), James I’s queen, who is said to have commissioned several portraits of him, including one held in the National Galleries of Scotland (see also alongside). Muckle John was the successor to Archy Armstrong at the Stuart court.
John Southworth, whose meticulous history of fools at the English court I salute and will celebrate as a key work in the fools’ canon, also makes this attribution, but like others he gives no other source or reasoning. I am left to simply compare the known portrait of Tom Derry with the ‘loggerhead’ said to be him to conclude that the attribution may well be unfounded.
Pending new information, I therefore incline towards an assumption that both jesters are allegorical rather than being portraits.
Credit: ‘We Three Loggerheads’ (early 17th century), oil on panel; Shakespeare Birthplace Trust; photo by Shakespeare Birthplace Trust; copyright CC BY-NC-ND
John Southworth, Fools and Jesters at the English Court (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1998), pp. 150-51; see also Victoria Jackson’s commentary as part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s ‘Shakespeare in 100 Objects: We Three Loggerheads’.