The Fool in King Lear
There has always been a perpetual jester in a kingly court. Often he has provided entertainment via his superficial jokes and has won the good graces of his master by creating an atmosphere of ebullience and joviality. Rarely has there existed a fool of such vivacious and rudiment cruelty, practicality and unprecedented common sense as the fool of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. This fool is blessed with a mellifluous voice of nonsensical reason, which he uses throughout the play as a function of perpetuating Lear’s madness to the point of a complete metamorphosis and the conception of clarity of mind.
The fool’s original and supposed role is that of entertainer; although Lear’s Fool is a more convoluted version, as he is an ironical paradox of love, cruelty and is filled with didactic perspicacity. One is able to see his practicality, as well as his affection for Lear when he urges the King to come out of the storm: ?Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters blessing.? (III, ii, 11) The Fool primarily recognizes the severity of the storm, and advises Lear to forget his pride, so that he may enjoy a comfortable surrounding. ?Here’s a night pities neither wise men nor fools? (III, ii, 12) is the subsequent line, which contains a subjective insult; whereby the distinction of who is the wise man and who is the fool is dubitable. A direct affront to the King, one that is immersed in truth and sagacity, occurs in Act I, Scene IV when the Fool proclaims to Lear: ?I had rather be any kind o’thing than a fool, and yet I would not be thee, nuncle.? (I, iv, 176) This comment is contrived due to Lear’s folly in partitioning the kingdom, his relinquishment of his land, and the sanction for his daughters to take power. The Fool attempts to make Lear ascertain his folly, but it is too early for such cognizance. When he realizes this, the Fool tells Lear: ?I am better than thou art now. I am a fool, thou art nothing.? (I, iv, 184) By pointing out his superiority to the King, he cruelly underscores Lear’s senility, while returning to the continuous theme of ?nothing,? constructed wholly by Lear. The gratuitous quality of his comments, as well as Lear’s seeming disregard for them and his continuous insistence of treating the Fool as though he were his child accentuate the Fool’s cruelty.
The Fool acts as a way to quantify the king’s sanity. Lear’s madness (increases) overtly throughout the play, and the fool’s presence emphasizes the moments where an alteration in Lear’s state of mind in revealed. At the end of Act 1, Lear almost strikes the fool after he tells the king: ?Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.? (I, v, 41) The Fool, however, is under the aegis of the gods as discussed earlier, so Lear would in fact be mad if he were to abuse him. Lear suddenly backs off, revealing a semblance of some sanity, and then professes: ?Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!? (I, v, 43) In a similar declaration, Lear says: ?O Fool, I shall go mad.? (II, ii, 475) after he speaks of committing revenge upon his daughters. The Fool has been silent for some time, as it seems that Lear owns the necessary insight to perceive the future – a role which the Fool has previously made his own.
Lear’s fool is untouchable as the insightful, wise and holy fool who is under the protection of the gods or some prophetic powers, and is the ?all licensed jester.? Child-like in his character, loved, pampered and indulged he enjoys the King’s good graces despite his continuous devastating remarks. He often tells Lear ?I’ll teach you? or ?you were foolish and still are.? This omnipresent exhibition of superiority of a jester over his king could be punished; instead it is embraced. The fool talks to the king as though Lear was his fool:
Fool: Dost thou know the difference,
my boy, between a bitter fool
and a sweet one?
Lear: No, Lad, teach me.
Lear joins in the game by allowing it and humors the Fool; which equates him with being the Fool’s entertainer, and therefore the Fool’s fool. Despite this twisted relationship, Lear also acts as the guardian of the Fool. In one scene, Goneril asks Oswald if her ?father [struck her] gentleman for chiding of his fool.? (I, iii, 1.) Lear institutes physical violence to protect the precious fool; a severe act of rebuttal in response to a rather harmless admonition. However, Since only a madman or an evil person would think of striking or scolding the Fool, it may be assumed that Shakespeare wished to emphasize that Oswald and Goneril are of that nature. Lear sometimes threatens to hurt the Fool: ?An you lie, sirrah, we’ll have you whipped.? (I, iv, 172) but those threats are never manifested. This is also the first mention of the Fool in the play, which emphasizes his importance and favoritism from the king, as he obviously enjoys Lear’s highest courtesy and protection. This is not the same relationship that exists between Kent and Lear. Although Kent also tells the brutal truth and is often less incisive, he is shunned and despised by Lear: ?If on the tenth day following thy banished trunk be found in our dominions, the moment is thy death.? (I, i, 178) This favoritism parallels that of Lear and his daughters, as though Goneril and Regan are Kent, and the fool Cordelia.
The Fool is an extension of Cordelia, and she, an embodiment of the Fool. In her absence, the Fool acts in her role of child, and once she is returned, he is no longer present, so that she may fulfill her role appropriately. Lear exercises his paternal instincts on the Fool in Act III: ?Come on, my boy. How dost my boy? Art cold?? (III, iii, 78) Lear treats him with utter affection and is preoccupied with his well being, just as he would Cordelia. A psychological analysis of his subversive action would reveal that Lear’s guilt and regret of banishing Cordelia are manifested in attempts at reconcilement through the Fool, who is a representative of Cordelia. Her truancy leaves him void, as she is his favorite and similarly to the Fool, all licensed in her actions. After her exile, Lear immediately misses her presence, and since he cannot have the original Cordelia, he calls forth his fool: ?Where’s my knave, my fool?? (I, iv, 42) Throughout the general mayhem of the scene and more pressing matters at hand, such as his other daughter’s refusal to see him, Lear’s main preoccupation is his fool, and he calls for him five subsequent times. One Knight responds: ?Since my young lady’s going into France, sir, the fool hath much pined away.? (I, iv, 72) The Fool’s despair is caused by Cordelia’s absence, which suggests their separation as unnatural; they are meant to be one, even though they are never on stage simultaneously. This is also the first mention of Cordelia since the opening scene, and the Knight’s comment strongly links the Fool to her. The Fool, as a representative of Cordelia, also acts as a constant reminder of Lear’s folly in expelling her. In one jesting session, among the Fool’s various random jokes, Lear comments: ?I did her wrong.? (I, v, 24) The Fool brings with him a forced sense of realization, which Lear cannot control, so his mind gives in to the Fool’s subliminal reminders of his folly. The most obvious connection between Lear’s daughter and his fool, however, is made by Lear himself at the culmination of the play, when he has already lost both the Fool, and Cordelia. ?And my poor fool is hanged? (V, iii, 304), Lear exclaims, referring to the hanged Cordelia in a term of endearment, but also suggesting the death of the Fool, although his disappearance is never explained in actuality, and is continually vexing.
The Fool vanishes after the mock trial scene because he has executed his function; Lear has become the fool. He makes defoliating remarks that are part of a necessary corrective system based on the purging of Lear’s false pride, partly manifested in his banishment of Cordelia. The Fool serves as Lear’s teacher in throwing away his false pride and the delusion of continuous authority. At the culmination of the play, Lear realizes he must forget this kingly preoccupation and accepts his daughter Cordelia: ?I am a very foolish, fond old man?as I am a man, I think this lady to be my child Cordelia.? (IV, vii, 68) He is no longer a King rapt with division, partiality and the quantification of love, but a father, a subject and a man. This is the image of a reconstituted land, in which the Fool has no role, so he departs cryptically and becomes a castaway. In the Fool’s final scene, he exits holding Lear up: [Exeunt?the Fool supporting Lear.] (III, vi.) A subjective meaning of this action is Lear and the Fool becoming one, as the Fool ceases to be the wise fool and Lear becomes the Fool with an incredibly salubrious clarity and common sense. The Fool’s action is preceded with Lear uttering his last words of madness: ?So, so, so; we’ll go to supper i’the morning so, so, so.? (III, vi, 81), nonsensical gibberish, before reappearing as the newly emanated fool much later in the play; ironically marking an end to his folly as King, and a beginning of insight as the Fool.
A knave and a fool are sometimes equated to each other in this play, although their actual meanings differ substantially. A knave is of an evil nature, a rascal or a vagabond while a fool is a simple jester, supposedly good hearted with a jovial sense of humor. Lear’s fool, however, is a paradox. Shakespeare always allots more intellectual ability and shrewdness to the evil characters in his plays that he does to the righteous. Edmund, for example, is so astute that he practically causes the audience to dispense sympathy for his atrocities. Since the Fool is very sagacious, it may be assumed that he is of an evil nature as well; yet he is the one who ultimately ?saves’ Lear by purging his delusions and his pride from him. It is this differentiation, or lack thereof, that is the partial cause of such unadulterated chaos in King Lear’s Britain.