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In Elizabethan times, the role of a fool, or court jester, was to professionally entertain others, specifically the king. In essence, fools were hired to make mistakes. Fools may have been mentally retarded youths kept for the court’s amusement, or more often they were singing, dancing stand up comedians. In William Shakespeare’s King Lear the fool plays many important roles. When Cordelia, Lear’s only well-intentioned daughter, is banished from the kingdom Fool immediately assumes her role as Lear’s protector. The fool is the king’s advocate, honest and loyal and through his use of irony sarcasm and humour he is able to point out Lear’s faults. Functioning much as a chorus would in a Greek tragedy, the fool comments on events in the play, the king’s actions and acts as Lear’s conscience. As he is the only character who is able to confront Lear directly without risk of punishment, he is able to moderate the king’s behaviour.
King Lear is not the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to contain a comical scapegoat; in the Merchant of Venice, Gobbo is used to bring comedy and irony to an otherwise serious play, although his supposedly comical exploitation of his father’s blindness in the first act may also prepare us for the theme of cruelty which is evident in the play. We may further suggest that the fool’s surreal and absurd comments in King Lear (“thy bor’st thine ass on thine back o’er the dirt”) imply the disorder within the hierarchy as a whole. However, as Touchstone in As You Like It is used as a comedic device by Shakespeare, so the fool is sometimes used for comic effect, employing the Elizabethan/Jacobean euphemistic “thing” as a synonym for penis. The fool in King Lear is an example of Shakespeare using the fool as a voice to bridge the gap between the audience and the stage. The “all-licensed fool” makes many of his quips at the expense of the king. Due to his role as Lear’s amusing sidekick, he was able to get away with this unlike any other, as is shown in the confrontation between Lear and Kent in act one scene one. Lear is the absolute ruler of the country – what he says is as good as God’s word – which reflects the Divine Right of Kings, a Medieval doctrine which was still extant in the early seventeenth century although it was beginning to come under significant pressure, a process which eventually culminated in the Civil War of 1642-50. Fool is also a rational man, commenting on Lear and foretelling his faults, However, characters who in other tragedies might contain comedic elements – such as the fool in King Lear or the drunken porter in Macbeth – are ultimately far removed from comedy as their quips serve a serious and often bleak purpose. The fool’s purpose is to make Lear laugh; yet in reality he makes serious remarks on the action and points out to Lear what is happening with his behaviour. Fool is paradoxically wise, typical of the Shakespearian ‘fool’.
The Fool often sounds cruel as he criticizes and speaks to Lear with such irony and sarcasm. Oftentimes, it appears that Fool is kicking a man when he’s down, but as the play progresses, one senses how much the fool loves his king, and just how protective he is of his master. The Fool makes his first appearance in act one scene four where his initial address to Kent clarifies that he sees Kent to be Lear’s ally. Lear, paying Kent says:
Lear: Now my friendly knave I thank thee; there’s earnest of thy service.
Fool: Let me hire him too, here’s my coxcomb.
In this the fool uses his coxcomb as a metonymic device to illustrate Lear’s foolish division of the kingdom and Kent’s idiocy in his will to follow Lear who is now without a kingdom or home. Fool can empathize with the loyalty felt towards Lear, yet Fool holds one power over Kent – his ability to point out the king’s faults. He serves as an unbiased advisor, providing Lear with many lessons that a more powerful being would not have attempted, due to fear of the king’s wrath. In scene one, Kent’s attempts to restrain Lear see him banished; whereas the fool’s more indirect criticisms avoid punishment. The king may threaten to have the fool whipped, and although it was not unusual for the king’s jester to be beaten in Shakespeare’s times, the audience sees such threats to be empty. Alternatively the fool may genuinely believe that Kent is being foolish for following Lear and it is certainly possible to suggest that there is little sympathy between them as Fool’s loquacities and obliquities contrast markedly with the blunt and direct idiom of Kent, the man who will “eat no fish”.
Throughout the play, man the fool is paralleled several times with Cordelia. Both assume the role of Lear’s protector, and when one is present, the other need not be. As the two characters never appear onstage at the same time, it is possible that the same boy actor took on both roles in an early-seventeenth-century performance, and thus the theatrical context had the potential to reinforce and underline the connections between the two characters. Fool uses various subtle tricks in order to keep Cordelia fresh in Lear’s and the audience’s minds. In the play’s opening scene, “Lear is irked when Cordelia states simply that she loves ‘your majesty according to my bond, no more nor less’ as a daughter’s love for her father should be. Angry and humiliated at her supposed lack of honour, Lear exiles her from the country. Through banishment, Lear intends to reduce her to “nothing”, this being the recompense that she had earned by answering “Nothing” to his demand that she demonstrate her love for him.” (Willeford 210) When speaking with the fool, Lear is cornered into echoing Cordelia’s “Nothing, my lord” from scene one with his own “nothing can be made of nothing”. At the close of the scene, the king has realized, through Fool, how poorly he has treated his only deserving daughter and admits his mistake for the first time, although this manifests itself as self-directed violence as he “beat(s) at this gate that let thy folly in.” Later, in acts four and five, his insight takes less destructive forms.
Ironically, the fool and the king begin to swap places. Fool has always been quick to grant Lear helpful understanding of his decisions; this establishes the question of which of the two is now the real fool. Lear asks, “Dost thou call me a fool, boy?” to which Fool replies, “All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with”. The “king has been openly debased to the level of the fool” (Willeford 218)
In the brief scene five, the fool attempts to distract Lear with silly remarks, but as per usual, their content ironically mirrors Lear’s actions. He continues to remind the king of the mistakes he has made and of the precarious position in which he now finds himself. Lear feels great remorse for his treatment of Cordelia and for the first time – a premonition – a concern for his sanity:
Lear: O let me not be mad, not mad sweet heaven:
Keep me in temper, I would not be mad.
The fool’s parting comment shows once again his loyalty, as well as offering a lighter end to an otherwise heavy scene. He warns those virgins in the audience who found the situation amusing that they are imbeciles and – making the audience laugh – won’t remain virgins unless penises are cut shorter:
Fool: She that’s a maid now, and laughs at my departure,
Shall not be a maid long, unless things be cut shorter.
In act three scene one, Kent learns that Lear and his Fool are out in the storm. The audience also learns that the fool is to share his master’s fate – whatever that may be. In the fool’s previous appearances, his primary function was to inform. He pointed out Lear’s mistakes and commented on the action and events of the play to the audience. Fool’s new job becomes evident in this act, his purpose is to protect Lear from the elements, enemies, and perhaps most importantly, himself. Scene two is when Lear begins to realize his sanity is slipping, but for the first time too, he shows unselfish concern:
Lear: My wits begin to turn.
Come on my boy. How dost my boy? Art cold?
This is a key moment in the development of Lear’s character and it is significant that the fool is the recipient of his new found generosity of spirit; it introduces a new role for the fool, that of a facilitator in Lear’s voyage of self-discovery. The fool tries to make light of the situation, for Lear’s sake, singing that one should be satisfied with what one has:
Fool: He that has and a little, tiny wit,
With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
Though the rain it raineth every day.
The fool finishes his song and as Lear exists the stage, he turns to the audience to proclaim his prophecy:
Fool: …When priests are more in word, than matter;
When brewers mar their malt with water;
When nobles are their tailors’ tutors,
No heretics burn’d, but wenches’ suitors;
When in every case in Law, is right…
His speech contrasts the reality of the world which Lear and himself are experiencing – where religion is hypocrisy, business is crooked, aristocrats are vain, venereal disease is rife and the judicial system is corrupt – to an ideal world where good conquers evil. The challenge for Lear is to recognize that the highest wisdom often comes in the humblest of forms. The fool represents this humble form of wisdom exactly.
With the arrival of Edgar disguised as Poor Tom – who may be read as a three dimensional representation of the king’s downfall (Lear repeatedly articulates Poor Tom’s plight in terms of his own) – the fool becomes fearful and exclaims:
Fool: Come not in here, nuncle, here’s a spirit, help me, help me.
A spirit, a spirit, he says his name’s Poor Tom
The king is joined in his real madness by Edgar’s feigned insanity and mirrored with Poor Tom’s poverty as he is now stripped of all royal pretensions; he inadvertently gains wisdom by being reduced to his bare humanity.
Indeed, Lear reaches the peak of his insanity in this act, and carries forth a mock trial of Regan and Goneril in act three scene six. This is possibly the most chaotic of all Shakespeare’s scenes – onstage we physically see Lear, who is now utterly mad, Edgar who is disguised and likely to be mad, Kent in disguise and Fool who speaks as a madman – Regan and Goneril are arraigned but then, within Lear’s diseased imagination, they escape, demonstrating that reality punctures even this, the most surreal of Lear’s fantasies to date. The fool’s departure from the play at the crest of Lear’s madness may suggest that he is now superfluous in the context of a kingdom in which the king is a deranged lunatic. Lear has so many unanswered questions in this scene, he hasn’t fully understood why all this has happened to him. If he can find the truth as to why his daughters treated him so cruelly, perhaps he will be able to regain sanity. The king appoints his fool as one of the judges of the trial, where he implores the judges to “anatomize Regan: see what breeds about her heart.” Lear’s words are so cold and angry that even Fool is unable to make any comment.
The Fool never reappears after this scene. The world has been turned upside-down, his master has now slipped into absolute madness and is beyond the fool’s help. He no longer serves a purpose to the king, and predicts both his, and – as he has shared his fate to this point – Lear’s death with his final line in the play:
Fool: And I’ll go to bed at noon.
It is never clear whether the fool actually dies, but the lines spoken of Cordelia’s death:
Lear: And my poor fool is hang’d: no, no, no life?
Once again parallel Cordelia with the fool.
It would be impossible to label all the roles that Fool plays to his king. His only assigned brief – an entertainer of the court – is most likely the fool’s least important. Fool acted far more importantly than a mere source of entertainment, being Lear’s informative protector and friend. By far his most significant role was that of a moral instructor to his king. Fool teaches Lear that humans are unable to know themselves completely.
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