King Lear is one of the most famous plays written by William Shakespeare. It is thought to be written in 1605-1606 and focuses on the character of King Lear developing madness after deciding to retire from the throne and dividing the land of Britain among two of his daughters. The major themes of the play are family, power, loyalty, and mental illness. The work ends tragically, with Lear and his third daughter dead, and it is unclear who will rule the kingdom or what would become of it in the future. Throughout the play, Lear makes some risky decisions powered by rage and madness, which contribute to the plot’s progression. While most characters avoid criticizing Lear or his decisions openly, the Fool is the only character who is allowed to do so. The present paper will discuss the role of the Fool in King Lear and relate his image to Shakespeare’s interpretation of foolishness.
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The Fool first appears in Act I Scene 4, where he mocks the King for giving away his land: “Dost thou call me to fool, boy?/All thy other titles thou hast given away; that/ thou wast born with” (Shakespeare I.4.152-154). It is essential to acknowledge the fact that the Fool enters after Cordelia’s leave, and she does not return until the Fool disappears in Act III. This caused a lot of speculation on the similarity between the two characters, and some scholars even went so far as to say that the fool is Cordelia (Stroup 127). The parallel between the characters is supported by Shakespeare: it is unknown what happens to the fool, but after Cordelia’s execution, Lear states: “And my poor fool is hanged” (V.3.369).
The similarity between Cordelia and the Fool is critical to understanding the latter character. Out of Lear’s three daughters, Cordelia is the only one who is faithful and truthful to him. Similarly, the Fool shows his loyalty consistently throughout the play by trying to reason with Lear and prevent the King from making more mistakes. The Fool’s interactions with Lear are deeply personal, which is particularly evident in scenes 2 and 4 of Act III. In both of these scenes, the Fool attempts to calm down Lear and prevent his further descent into madness. In scene 2, the Fool urges Learn to make peace with his daughters instead of acting upon his rage: “O nuncle, court holy water in a dry house is/ better than this rainwater out o’ door. Good nuncle,/ in. Ask thy daughters’ blessing. Here’s a night/ pities neither wise men nor fools” (Shakespeare III.2.12-15). Similarly, scene 4 depicts the fool trying to reason with Lear who begins tearing off his clothes: “Prithee, nuncle, be contented. ’Tis a naughty/ night to swim in. Now, a little fire in a wild field/ were like an old lecher’s heart—a small spark, all/ the rest on ’s body cold” (Shakespeare III.4.117-120).
As evident from the analysis above, the Fool is one of the wisest characters in the play and shows sincere concern for Lear’s future and health. This might seem paradoxical for contemporary readers, but during the period covered by King Lear, Fools were rarely persons with intellectual disabilities. Instead, as Metzler explains, Fools were entertainers who enlightened parties with their jokes and songs (186). In Shakespeare’s writings, fools do not comply with this image, acting as wise characters providing valuable comments to characters instead (Lippincott 243). Hence, in King Lear, Shakespeare portrays foolishness as one’s refusal to comply with their assigned role and willingness to help those in power to make the right choice. This view on foolishness is conveyed through the Fool’s character and his actions throughout the play.
- Lippincott, H. F. “King Lear and the Fools of Robert Armin.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 3, 1975, pp. 243-253.
- Metzler, Irina. Fools and Idiots? Intellectual Disability in the Middle Ages. Manchester University Press, 2016.
- Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Web.
- Stroup, Thomas B. “Cordelia and the Fool.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 2, 1961, pp. 127-132.