The role of the fool is an ancient one. While in more recent years the title has come to mean someone acting unwisely or in a silly manner, it used to refer to the court jester or a member of an aristocratic house charged with both amusing and criticizing their master or mistress. Perhaps this function of the past is best described by a single anecdote (or likely more accurately, legend): At a time when speaking out of turn was punishable by all manners of awfulness, Queen Elizabeth is said to have once chastised a fool for not being harsh enough in his denigrations of her.
Yes, one imagines that Jeffrey Ross would have done especially well in the Elizabethan era. However, the fool was more than merely an insult comic. While it may be exaggerated in modern retellings, the fool was able to speak the harsh truth at a time when no one else could. While their speech was protected by decree, they still had to tread carefully between critical amusement and snide comments that would result in whippings.
In the Sixteenth Century, distinctions were made between “natural” fools – those who were quite literally insane – and “licensed” fools – those who played the part for the sake of privileged employment. I am not sure which would better describe Canadian hockey icon Don Cherry, but I am certain that, in the most classical sense of the word, he is a fool.
Beyond the motley costumes comprised of outlandish colors and unpleasant designs, Cherry is quite like the most famous fool of all: The Fool from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Both clowns hold their audience in suspense in an unusual way. We are never aware of exactly how much of their act is an act. At times, they seem to be playing the part of the raving lunatic, and then suddenly, their lunacy seems genuine.
In Cherry’s case, this is best seen in how effortlessly he transitions from the role of Nationalistic Canadian on his country’s premier cultural television broadcast – Hockey Night In Canada – into xenophobic bigot. One minute, he’s providing insight in his customary bullish and abrupt manner, the next he’s spouting off about the dirty play of European and French Canadian hockey players hiding behind their visors, or else, criticizing Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke for building a roster without players from Ontario.
It’s all quite a good show, assuming that’s what it is. A performance is easy to dismiss, but the senile ranting of a racist from a public television platform is something that’s best not viewed at all, and if you must, at least through fingers over eyes.
Much like Goneril and Regan’s amazement that their father, King Lear, keeps the fool around to torment all of them, we are left to wonder why Canadians in general, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation specifically, would allow Cherry such an enormous outlet for his vocalized insanity. An unfamiliar idiom is one thing, senescent hate speech is quite another.
There is one glaring difference between Lear’s Fool and Cherry. While the Shakespearean character has the good sense to leave the stage as the kingdom over which he lays his scorn begins to crumble, never appearing again after Act Three, the hockey commentator can’t stay out of the public eye despite his sport doing all that it can to deteriorate right in front of its audience.
Less than a week after talking about the function of his Twitter feed with the Globe And Mail’s James Mirtle – wherein Cherry revealed that he telephones a Hockey Night In Canada producer to dictate his tweets – the former National League Coach expressed the following through social media to his 90,000 followers:
Usually I don’t read the news, just the sports but I happened to pick up the paper and read the front part the other day. First, there was a photo fo a jogger kicking and destroying Canadian flag and gives a woman the finger. Then it continues, my buddy the mayor getting sued, Oliva Chow next mayor, man slits wife’s throat, kills her. Vandal desecrates monument war memorial, photo of a guy who sexually assaults women, vet is robbed of his war medals, guy shot and killed in 48th murder, other buddy Chief Blair ripped in column… What happened to Toronto the good? Remember we couldn’t get liquor on Sunday’s? Poor us. What should we call Toronto now? All this crime and people want the Police budget cut. Go figure.
The first ten words of his rant are a perfect example of Cherry enacting his condescending shtick. It’s as if he’s saying, “I’m just a regular guy, as proud of my ignorance to things that don’t involve sports as you.” Of course this is later revealed to be false when the television personality uses his last sentence to reveal knowledge over proposed plans to flat-line Toronto’s municipal police budget. The only more disingenuous moment of the rant is when he hearkens back to yesteryear while spouting off about a mayor and his likely competition in the next election, ignoring one of the main adages of the time for which he apparently feels so much nostalgia: In order to remain friends, don’t discuss religion or politics.
This brings to another point of comparison between the two fools. Just as Cherry rages against the imaginary enemies to what he supposes Canadian culture to be, it is the Fool in King Lear whose fear of the resulting turmoil chastises his master for bringing about change to the structure of his kingdom.
The entire paragraph of tweets from Cherry, when we format it for this structure, is completely nonsensical, but the content is perfectly manicured to match the way that we generally assume how people in a small town speak to one another. It’s full of references to important people that he knows, and then a yearning for a simpler and more wholesome time from the past that probably never really existed. It’s manipulation.
It’s almost impossible to believe that something so well-crafted could be so stupid, but this, in essence, is Don Cherry. He’s a witless, Friday The 13th version of Lear’s Fool who will not go away or remain out of sight for the final acts of the play, even as everything crashes down around him. Canadians, tolerant even of intolerance, seem stuck in the role of enablers, keeping him in his position of honor as though forced to participate in a play that they did not write. It’s a cruel form of theatre: An uncontrollable wind storm that centers around the national buffoon. It’s perhaps more than reminiscent of another part of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
The Tragedy Of King Lear. [Google Books]
Cherry Half-Right On Visors. [CBC Sports]
Don Cherry Goes Off On Leafs General Manager. [CBC Sports]
A Q&A With Grapes. [CBC Sports]
Don Cherry’s Twitter Feed. [Twitter]