Dawn from Traverse City wrote: “I told my son the other day that I didn't have time for his "tom foolery." He wanted to know what it was and where it came from. I told him I would have to ask the professor!”
Starting in the 16th century and then accelerating, Tom Fool was a stereotype for a half-witted person. He became a stock character in plays, much like the drunkard or the scolding wife. There is a tradition that the name and the role originated with Muncaster Castle’s court jester, Thomas Skelton. There is also a tradition that Skelton was the model for the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear.
King Lear, Act 3, scene iv, begins with this stage direction: “Enter KING LEAR, KENT, and Fool.” The Fool later runs in panic from the hut when he encounters Edgar disguised as a madman. Asked what he has seen, he replies, “A spirit, a spirit: he says his name's poor Tom.” The irony of the name transfer would not have been lost on an Elizabethan audience.
Tom Fool was also a standard figure in morris dancing. Morris dancing (possibly from the word Moorish) was performed in formation by a group of dancers in distinctive costume. They often carried staves or swords or long scarves which they waved about to emphasize the rhythm and movement. An integral part of the dance was a costumed character who represented a symbolic or legendary figure, such as the Fool, the Hobby Horse, a beast, Beelzebub, etc. The tradition continues to this day, particularly in Christmas plays.
Tomfoolery is also Cockney rhyming slang for jewellery (jewelry in American English).
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