This is a reference to the gullible and jealous husband in Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale.” My student is right: the point of the Tale is the cleverness with which his young wife Alisoun and Alisoun’s inamorato, “hende [clever, courteous] Nicholas,” trick John into not only ignoring but also actually facilitating their tryst. There’s a lot more to the tale, some comic moments that amaze modern students (who assume scatological jokes were invented shortly after their own birth), but the subplots involve making fools out of others—the vain and randy cleric Absolom and then Nicholas himself.
If you haven’t read “The Miller’s Tale” lately, you should. If Middle English scares you, just read it with a German accent and you’ll understand almost every word. Otherwise, there are numerous modern-English translations online of this great and witty tale.
Anyway, the meaning of my student’s sentence is accurate.
But some verbs play better in the active voice: to make a fool of would be one of those. And the intrusion of “out” into the proper phrase “to make a fool of” makes the sentence even odder, because when you make something out of something else you are usually constructing it using something else that already exists. My student’s sentence would then imply that John isn’t actually a fool: Alisoun used John as raw material to make something new, a fool, out of.
Okay, to begin: Alisoun made a fool of John. But my student says Alisoun made a fool out of John.
So, similarly, thus: I am making a braided rug out of old blue jeans.
The blanket was made out of yarn she spun out of her dog’s shed undercoat.
Scarlett O’Hara made an impressive visiting gown out of the old velvet drapes.
He’s trying to make something out of nothing.
Now, if we grant my student permission to use the “out” and make John into something else, we run into more problems, because the other sentences above, similarly constructed, really cannot be made passive:
The old blue jeans have had a braided rug made out of them.
The dog’s shed undercoat has had yarn spun out of it, and the yarn has had a blanket made out of it.
The old velvet drapes have had an impressive visiting gown made out of them by Scarlett O’Hara.
Nothing has been tried to be made something out of.
These sentences are absurd because, for one thing, the raw material has no agency. A sentence such as “I have had a rug made for me out of old blue jeans” works because when I had this done, I had it done by somebody at my behest. John was made a fool of by somebody, but not at his behest, and so the “has had” works in a completely different manner because “has” means something else.
The only way my student’s statement can stand, I’m afraid, is if it means that John the carpenter hired someone to make a fool using him as raw material.
But, dupe though he was, facilitator though he proved, it was all without his intent; in fact, it was completely contrary to his intent, the jealous old cuckold.
Alisoun and Nicholas made a fool of him, sure enough. But my student has made a fool of himself with a sentence that should have adjusted its garb before venturing into the light of day.