In some of William Shakespeare's most well-known plays, often plays in which the lead character is crushed within the anaconda-like coils of the social and cultural bonds and duties and hierarchies and conventions, culminating in a final scene in which these powerful forces result in the death of everyone on the stage, Shakespeare will often employ an important character identified as the CLOWN or the FOOL to expose the artificiality of the very structures and conventions that are inexorably leading to the ultimate tragedy.
Two of the most famous examples of Shakespearean clowns and fools are found in the tragedies of Hamlet and King Lear. In each case, the character of the Clown (in Hamlet) and the Fool (in Lear) dare to speak truths which question, challenge, and subvert the "social constructs" upon which the societal order is built -- those artificial rules and mental structures which are created primarily by the force of unquestioning and uncritical belief among the vast majority of the populace.
In almost every play, it is these very "mental structures" which can be seen to be directly responsible for the oppression of the lower classes from which the Fool (and definitely the Clown) typically originate, and these very same artificial structures -- given the force of "reality" by the almost hypnotic obedience with which everyone in the society accedes to them -- are also generally responsible for the terrible dilemmas which tear apart the families of the kings and princes in the "noble" and "royal" classes in those very same plays.
Even as everyone else in society seems to treat these artificial barriers and facades as if they are solid and unbreakable, the Clown or the Fool ignores them altogether, or (even more damaging) walks around behind them (figuratively speaking) and points out the fact that they are nothing but false fronts, stage sets, clever fabrications.
Shakespeare's Fools and Clowns generally do this by their use of language -- especially through the use of words with two or more meanings, and by jokes in which a different meaning suddenly wrenches the audience's perspective from the conventional to the subversive (some of the characters in the play can perceive the subversive vision offered by the fool's new perspective, while others are blissfully impervious to seeing things from a different angle).
The main reason language serves as such an incredible tool for dissolving false realities is that these "realities" are themselves primarily constructed from language: the legalese language of (artificial) law, the modes of speech which declare one to be in authority (whether an airplane pilot, game-show host, president, prince or general), or which create the lines which define the various classes or identities which Shakespeare's plays demonstrate to be far more fluid and artificial than they first appear (even if they take on a terribly binding "reality" when collectively allowed to do so).
Like the Fool and Clown characters in the plays of Shakespeare, great comedians have the ability to expose the artificial barriers and facades in their society, using their own methods to wrench their audiences from their conventional perspective to a new paradigm, even if for just a second.
Perhaps no comedian's repertoire of skills for transcending boundaries, exposing "social constructs," offering new perspectives or paradigms, and playing with the "languages" that give identity or authority to various groups and roles can ever match that of the exuberant Robin Williams, who tragically left this material world only yesterday.
Above, in a clip from Whose Line is it Anyway, he plays along with fellow comedians Wayne Newton, Drew Carey, and Ryan Stiles to delight the audiences by giving them a rapid-fire series of new "perspectives" using a couple of props which the comedians successively "turn into" whatever their imagination can dream up. If you go back and watch any of his many stand-up routines available on the web, you will find numerous lines in which the joke requires the audience to see the sentence from a completely different perspective, based on a secondary meaning of one or more of the words (often using double-entendre which relies on some bodily function). And of course, in all of those routines he flexes his unrivaled protean ability to transform from one voice and speech pattern and way of walking and standing and gesturing after another, exploring the ways in which identities and groups are defined (or define themselves) with language, voice, and patterns of delivery and movement.
In doing so, he undoubtedly performed a Shakespearean role in holding these boundaries and constructs up for examination and critique -- but like the Shakespearean Clown who was allowed to speak truths that would never be otherwise tolerated, his skill as a comedian allowed him to offer iconoclastic or even subversive perspectives that those forced to operate "within society" (that is to say, within the artificial barriers) were not allowed to say (or rather, that they themselves would not allow themselves to say).
But it was in his movies that Robin Williams reached even wider audiences with his incredible demonstrations of the liberating power of language and its ability to demolish false boundaries and barriers and to explode the collective illusions which uphold injustice, oppression . . . even war itself.
In Dead Poets Society (1989), in a role that earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor in a leading role, his English-teacher character uses language and compassion to help a group of young men on the brink of adulthood begin to question the barriers and constructed roles they have uncritically accepted all their lives -- although, as in the plays of Shakespeare, the constrictor-like grip of those constructs is shown to have crushing and tragic consequences.
In Good Morning Vietnam (1987), in a role which also earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor in a leading role and for which he won a Golden Globe for best performance by an actor in a motion picture, his character demonstrates that the sanitized artificial reality that those in control of the Armed Forces Radio broadcasts wanted him to reinforce and portray on the air was far removed from the reality experienced by those who were actually risking their lives in the Vietnam War, and he subverts and calls into question that artificial "official" vision and in doing so enables his audience (including the audience of the movie itself) to question such societally-imposed and sanctioned "realities." Once again, Mr. Williams' primary weapon in the battle to wake up the hypnotized and mind controlled is . . . language (in this case, wielded through the microphone of disc jockey Adrian Cronauer).
Perhaps one of his most incredible performances was in the Walt Disney film Aladdin (1992), for which he won a Golden Globe special award for his truly virtuosic vocal performance as the Genie (and as the merchant who introduces the entire story as a literary "frame" at the beginning of the show). His ebullient shape-shifting Genie demolishes boundaries one after another as he transmogrifies into everything and everyone under the sun, and in doing so finally conveys to the film's young hero and heroine the truth that individual men and women actually do have the ability to create their own reality and to defy the voices who say "you can't do that," or "you'll never amount to anything," or even "without that Genie, you're nothing."
The role was perfect for Mr. Williams, and was in many ways a career-defining one -- because it revealed that he was in fact himself a very real Genie, using his own inimitable form of magic to change people's minds, show them new vistas, allow them to think new thoughts and challenge self-imposed limits . . . and in doing so to create new realities, break free of shackles, and change their lives.
Rest in peace. Respect.