On the character and the dramatic function of the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Lear’s relationship with the Fool is no mere static pictorial contrast, but part of the tragic movement of the play: the movement downwards towards that ultimate exposure and defeat when the king is degraded to the status of the meanest of his servants. It is the presence of the Fool which reinforces the meaning of Lear’s loss of sanity. As his wits begin to leave him, Lear begins to see the truth about himself; when they are wholly gone he begins to have spasmodic flashes of insight in which during the momentary comments on the storm in revengeful personal resentment, he sees the truth about the world. It is important to remember that it is the Fool who points out at the beginning of Lear’s misfortune—“Thou would’st make a good fool”. In saying so the Fool also speaks as a prophet. Here Shakespeare makes the fullest possible use of the accepted convention that it is the Fool who speaks the truth, which he knows not by ratiocination but by inspiring intuition.

Hooker has said that “they that seek reasons for all things do destroy reason”. This is the kind of intellectual premise which helps us to consider the Fool’s role in more impartial light. The Fool in King Lear is the instinctive judgement of normal humanity raised to a superhuman stature; his remarks indicate that feeling has not been divorced from the mere reason which the judicious Hooker had condemned. The Fool sees that when the match between the Good and the Evil characters is being played out across the heath, the intellect alone cannot give proper judgement, but the heart must join in the game so that the decision is final. This is the wisdom that the Fool confers on Lear:

“ I will tarry, the Fool will stay

And let the wise man fly”.

It is clear then that in the scheme of King Lear there is nothing contemptible in a motley coat. The Fool is justified chiefly because he gives an indirect answer to his own question: “What is folly?” It turns out that, as the Fool shows Lear, to be foolish is to be mistaken about the nature of things, or to mistake the proper method of attaining to one’s desires. On one level, the Fool is seen to point this ethical value in terms of remarks which derive from the deeper cosmology or theology of the Renaissance. The Elizabethan playwright made conventional use of the inherited belief in thunder as the voice of divine judge. The thunder suggests the speech of God, but the apparently simple utterances of the Fool are no less profound because the Fool’s remarks also have the testimony of the human heart:

“He that has a little tiny wit,

With hay, ho, the wind and the rain,

Must make content with his fortune’s feet,

For the rain it raineth everyday.”

Lear’s tragedy is finally the investing of the king with Motley; but it is also the crowning and apotheosis of the Fool.

The language of the Fool should be analyzed in order to understand the mode of his truth-telling. The Fool is a model court-fool: a sage without laurels, obscuring, trivializing and blunting home truths in order to forestall the blows that he would receive as traditional reward. The more telling his insight, therefore, the more quirky its statement. As much as Kent, the Fool rebels against and clings to a king who denies his kingship. His obscurities are ironic, for irony is a way of being at once angry and kind. Even as he guides Lear through the storm he tells him:

“Nuncle…good nuncle, in ask thy daughters’ blessing;

Here is a night pities wise men nor fools” (Act III, scene ii)

The suggestion that Lear asks his “daughter’s blessings” is a keen thrust, recalling the earlier illusions to his daughters’ flattery and to the benediction Lear refused Cordelia, so mistakenly conferring it on Goneril and Regan. This obscurely aggressive truth-telling is the primary content of the Fool’s speeches. When the mad and anguished Lear falls exhausted and the last word seems pathetic: “We go to supper in the morning”, the Fool’s comment is “And I will go to bed at noon”. This is the Fool’s irony which is directed against Lear’s illusion. It declares that polite formulas cannot cover the great revolution in Lear’s condition. This ironic empathy is small but prophetic, for at lat Lear will be as undeceived as his Fool.

One reportorial or dramaturgical reason which has been cited to explain the disappearance of the Fool after the third Act suggests that the same actor played the roles of Cordelia and the Fool. It becomes a dramatic imperative therefore that the Fool should recede once it is realized, that Cordelia will have to enter the stage in the fourth Act, extending her comforting hands to the suffering king.

But this seems to be only a strange rationalization for the Fool’s disappearance. It is clear that the tone and seriousness of the tragic action does not require the presence of the Fool any more. Once Lear has seen through the imbecility of his actions and has acquired the vision or insight appropriate the wise old man, the Fool’s company becomes redundant proposition for the action of the play. In a sense, therefore, this deliberate pulling off of the figure of the Fool helps to reinforce the theme of the education of Lear indicating once and for all that the blind Lear has finally received the insight of the Fool.

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