The Role of The Fool in King Lear

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23rd Sep 2019 English Literature Reference this

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Playing Dumb, or Playing God: Fool as visionary in King Lear

It is ironic that one who is supposed to be foolish turns out to be the greatest source of wisdom, especially for Lear. The Fool is a pivotal character, since he is paradoxically wise and proves to possess the deepest intellect of all. In his role as a court jester, he is privy to seeing what is going on from an outer perspective and offers a unique view on the harsh reality that confronts Lear. The Fool does much more than solely entertain: he also provides commentary that bridges the audience with the plot, reinforcing some of the insights offered by the play. He soon becomes Lear’s closest friend, harshest critic, and most importantly the voice of the king’s moral conscience. It is the Fool’s dual vantage point from inside and outside the hierarchy that allows him to serve as a vessel of truth and even a god-like visionary.

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Being employed by Lear as his official fool grants him an exclusive privilege of speaking the truth, through his folly and without repercussion. Unlike Kent and Cordelia, the Fool offers a voice of sheer honesty when he shares: “I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. They’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt have me whipped for lying, and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace” (1.4.179-181). Essentially, the Fool would rather be punished for telling the truth rather than not telling the truth at all, as if he is incapable of speaking falsified words. Similarly, the Fool continues to utilize his role to his advantage, overflowing with blunt remarks toward the king. When the Fool critiques Lear’s error of giving away his kingdom, Goneril fights back with, “this your all-licensed fool” (1.4.183-184). Goneril recognizes that he is immune from all punishment and becomes annoyed with his license to say anything, even if it is the truth. From this, the Fool comes to represent a symbol of truth and wisdom in a world of deception. As the Fool shares further insights on Lear’s decisions, he includes one of his wittiest metaphors of all, “Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out, when the Lady Brach may stand by the fire and stink” (1.4.109-111). Here, the Fool implies that Cordelia is treated like the dog, as Lear should be whipping the truth out of the eldest daughters rather than whipping the honesty out of Cordelia. Throughout the play, the Fool is aware of his inability to lie, to the point where he makes fun of his ineptness. He acknowledges his shortcoming to Lear when he states, “Prithee, nuncle, keep a schoolmaster that can teach thy fool to lie. I would fain to learn to lie” (1.4.167-169). From the Fool’s witticism, he is explaining that the only form of lying he could do is to pretend to learn how to lie. As a result of his candid quality, he acts as the mirror, reflecting moral and political insights that are above and beyond what the members of the court are able to acknowledge.

Moreover, the Fool acts as a visionary, foreshadowing the chaos through prophecy and connecting this to the reversals of the natural order that Lear has brought about. His ability to observe from the sidelines allows him to predict the turmoil beginning to occur and details England crumbling. He prophesizes its disintegration with his soliloquy:

  […] Then shall the realm of Albion

Come to great confusion.

Then comes the time, who lives to see ’t,

That going shall be used with feet.

This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time. (3.2.94-99).

Beyond being a soothsayer, the Fool bridges the gap with the audience, as he references the history that viewers already know yet foreshadows the future for Lear at the same time.  Additionally, the Fool continues to criticize Lear’s current faults and foresees the conflict those actions are about to bring. He does not critique chaos so much as embrace its evident inversions, asking, “May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?” (1.4.220-221). The Fool parallels the reversal of roles and inserts himself into the metaphor as an observer (the ass), which also parallels his view of the court. True to his character, the Fool always has his eyes and ears open to whatever situation is occurring yet is unseen by the others, who are in disarray. This is best represented when he entertains the audience with this riddle:

Fathers that wear rags

Do make their children blind;

But fathers that wear bags

Shall see their children blind.

Fortune, that arrant whore,

Ne’er turns the key to th’ poor. (2.4.55-60).

Here, he foreshadows the true attitude of Lear’s daughters: when there are ‘bags’ of money and fortune, children will be kind and yet Lear will not see the hidden, selfish nature of this kindness. Only when Lear is left in ‘rags’ will their cruelty become his new reality. The Fool draws on a seemingly omniscient power by anticipating and sharing what is about to unfold.

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In the midst of this chaos, the Fool develops a father-son relationship where he serves as a protector and moral conscience to Lear. Nowhere in the play does the Fool hold such control over Lear than in this particular scene. The Fool’s influence reveals itself through his imparting of wisdom in the form of this rhyme: 

Mark it nuncle.

            Have more than thou showest,

            Speak less than thou knowest,

            Lend less than thou owest,

            Ride more than thou goest. (1.4.115-119).

These paternal instincts begin to truly flourish when the Fool calls upon Lear as ‘nuncle’, a term of affection, but also solidifies him as the king’s ethical teacher. The Fool also serves as a vigilant guard as he attempts to protect the king from the raging storm.He guides Lear away from the impeding danger as he advises, “O nuncle, court holy water in a dry house is better than this rain out o’ door” (3.2.10-11). With this, the Fool continues his paternal tone, imploring Lear to take shelter from the elements. It is evident that the Fool is not only protecting the king from nature’s ferocity but from Lear himself. The Fool breaks into song as speaking is simply not enough and provides enlightenment with:

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. (3.2.71-74).

Lyrically, the Fool acknowledges Lear’s wits are turning and how he will remain by his side, guiding the king into his darkest moments. In addition, the Fool also acts as Lear’s conscience, resembling the influence from that of a higher being. An exceptional example of when this god-like quality appears is after the Fool declares himself, “Lear’s shadow” (1.4.227). With this short yet clever response, it demonstrates that the Fool is a mirror image of the king himself. Right up until the Fool’s last line in the play, he continues to foreshadow, but this time it is about his own end and not Lear’s. Mockingly, he responds to Lear with, “And I’ll go to bed at noon” (3.6.86). With noon being the only time when a shadow is not cast, the Fool is signalling that the absence of Lear’s shadow means he can depart. Furthermore, the close tie between both the king and the Fool depicts the irony that the one with the lowest social status is the most substantial in this tragedy.

The Fool is merely an observer, however, from the bottom he is able to look down upon the chaos in the royal court. This perspective allows him to provide honest, clear-sighted commentary into the past, present, and future. His position allows him to clearly see the reality that everyone else lacks to acknowledge. Metaphorically speaking, he is a vessel of truth that is overflowing with insights. Throughout the play, the Fool’s omniscient quality is used not just to see more than others, but also sets him above them. Lear’s path to insanity is also his path to wisdom, as the King only returns to clarity with the Fool, the mirror image of a shattered king. Ultimately, the paradox of this play is that those who are perceived as foolish are indeed wise and those who are regarded as wise are the greatest fools of all.

Works Cited

Playing Dumb, or Playing God: Fool as visionary in King Lear

It is ironic that one who is supposed to be foolish turns out to be the greatest source of wisdom, especially for Lear. The Fool is a pivotal character, since he is paradoxically wise and proves to possess the deepest intellect of all. In his role as a court jester, he is privy to seeing what is going on from an outer perspective and offers a unique view on the harsh reality that confronts Lear. The Fool does much more than solely entertain: he also provides commentary that bridges the audience with the plot, reinforcing some of the insights offered by the play. He soon becomes Lear’s closest friend, harshest critic, and most importantly the voice of the king’s moral conscience. It is the Fool’s dual vantage point from inside and outside the hierarchy that allows him to serve as a vessel of truth and even a god-like visionary.

Being employed by Lear as his official fool grants him an exclusive privilege of speaking the truth, through his folly and without repercussion. Unlike Kent and Cordelia, the Fool offers a voice of sheer honesty when he shares: “I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. They’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt have me whipped for lying, and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace” (1.4.179-181). Essentially, the Fool would rather be punished for telling the truth rather than not telling the truth at all, as if he is incapable of speaking falsified words. Similarly, the Fool continues to utilize his role to his advantage, overflowing with blunt remarks toward the king. When the Fool critiques Lear’s error of giving away his kingdom, Goneril fights back with, “this your all-licensed fool” (1.4.183-184). Goneril recognizes that he is immune from all punishment and becomes annoyed with his license to say anything, even if it is the truth. From this, the Fool comes to represent a symbol of truth and wisdom in a world of deception. As the Fool shares further insights on Lear’s decisions, he includes one of his wittiest metaphors of all, “Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out, when the Lady Brach may stand by the fire and stink” (1.4.109-111). Here, the Fool implies that Cordelia is treated like the dog, as Lear should be whipping the truth out of the eldest daughters rather than whipping the honesty out of Cordelia. Throughout the play, the Fool is aware of his inability to lie, to the point where he makes fun of his ineptness. He acknowledges his shortcoming to Lear when he states, “Prithee, nuncle, keep a schoolmaster that can teach thy fool to lie. I would fain to learn to lie” (1.4.167-169). From the Fool’s witticism, he is explaining that the only form of lying he could do is to pretend to learn how to lie. As a result of his candid quality, he acts as the mirror, reflecting moral and political insights that are above and beyond what the members of the court are able to acknowledge.

Moreover, the Fool acts as a visionary, foreshadowing the chaos through prophecy and connecting this to the reversals of the natural order that Lear has brought about. His ability to observe from the sidelines allows him to predict the turmoil beginning to occur and details England crumbling. He prophesizes its disintegration with his soliloquy:

  […] Then shall the realm of Albion

Come to great confusion.

Then comes the time, who lives to see ’t,

That going shall be used with feet.

This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time. (3.2.94-99).

Beyond being a soothsayer, the Fool bridges the gap with the audience, as he references the history that viewers already know yet foreshadows the future for Lear at the same time.  Additionally, the Fool continues to criticize Lear’s current faults and foresees the conflict those actions are about to bring. He does not critique chaos so much as embrace its evident inversions, asking, “May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?” (1.4.220-221). The Fool parallels the reversal of roles and inserts himself into the metaphor as an observer (the ass), which also parallels his view of the court. True to his character, the Fool always has his eyes and ears open to whatever situation is occurring yet is unseen by the others, who are in disarray. This is best represented when he entertains the audience with this riddle:

Fathers that wear rags

Do make their children blind;

But fathers that wear bags

Shall see their children blind.

Fortune, that arrant whore,

Ne’er turns the key to th’ poor. (2.4.55-60).

Here, he foreshadows the true attitude of Lear’s daughters: when there are ‘bags’ of money and fortune, children will be kind and yet Lear will not see the hidden, selfish nature of this kindness. Only when Lear is left in ‘rags’ will their cruelty become his new reality. The Fool draws on a seemingly omniscient power by anticipating and sharing what is about to unfold.

In the midst of this chaos, the Fool develops a father-son relationship where he serves as a protector and moral conscience to Lear. Nowhere in the play does the Fool hold such control over Lear than in this particular scene. The Fool’s influence reveals itself through his imparting of wisdom in the form of this rhyme: 

Mark it nuncle.

            Have more than thou showest,

            Speak less than thou knowest,

            Lend less than thou owest,

            Ride more than thou goest. (1.4.115-119).

These paternal instincts begin to truly flourish when the Fool calls upon Lear as ‘nuncle’, a term of affection, but also solidifies him as the king’s ethical teacher. The Fool also serves as a vigilant guard as he attempts to protect the king from the raging storm.He guides Lear away from the impeding danger as he advises, “O nuncle, court holy water in a dry house is better than this rain out o’ door” (3.2.10-11). With this, the Fool continues his paternal tone, imploring Lear to take shelter from the elements. It is evident that the Fool is not only protecting the king from nature’s ferocity but from Lear himself. The Fool breaks into song as speaking is simply not enough and provides enlightenment with:

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. (3.2.71-74).

Lyrically, the Fool acknowledges Lear’s wits are turning and how he will remain by his side, guiding the king into his darkest moments. In addition, the Fool also acts as Lear’s conscience, resembling the influence from that of a higher being. An exceptional example of when this god-like quality appears is after the Fool declares himself, “Lear’s shadow” (1.4.227). With this short yet clever response, it demonstrates that the Fool is a mirror image of the king himself. Right up until the Fool’s last line in the play, he continues to foreshadow, but this time it is about his own end and not Lear’s. Mockingly, he responds to Lear with, “And I’ll go to bed at noon” (3.6.86). With noon being the only time when a shadow is not cast, the Fool is signalling that the absence of Lear’s shadow means he can depart. Furthermore, the close tie between both the king and the Fool depicts the irony that the one with the lowest social status is the most substantial in this tragedy.

The Fool is merely an observer, however, from the bottom he is able to look down upon the chaos in the royal court. This perspective allows him to provide honest, clear-sighted commentary into the past, present, and future. His position allows him to clearly see the reality that everyone else lacks to acknowledge. Metaphorically speaking, he is a vessel of truth that is overflowing with insights. Throughout the play, the Fool’s omniscient quality is used not just to see more than others, but also sets him above them. Lear’s path to insanity is also his path to wisdom, as the King only returns to clarity with the Fool, the mirror image of a shattered king. Ultimately, the paradox of this play is that those who are perceived as foolish are indeed wise and those who are regarded as wise are the greatest fools of all.

Works Cited

  • Shakespeare, William, and Eric A. McCann. King Lear. Canadian School Book Exchange, 1996.

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