William Shakespeare wrote King Lear in seventeenth century. It is one of Shakespeare’s most horrific and bloodthirsty tragedies, with most of the main characters dead at the end of the play, the Fool included. Many believe that the play is a compound of other texts, some originally written as early as 1135 A.D. The main source Shakespeare used is thought to be The Chronicle History of King Leir, which is very similar to Shakespeare’s version, but he changed genre of the play from a tragic-comedy to a tragedy.
Shakespeare’s main change from the Chronicle History is the ending, in all other accounts Lear is restored to the throne and his daughter’s lives are spared, instead Shakespeare makes Goneril and Regan’s jealousy of each other the cause of their deaths, and the political misconceptions between the other characters the cause of death for Cordelia. Lear also, in Shakespeare’s version dies, for no apparent reason other than that he has given up to all of the hatred and pain surrounding him.
Apart from the changed ending to other scripts, Shakespeare’s main change is that of the introduction of the Fool. The main role of the Fool in King Lear is to parallel character of a court jester, or so he is seen to Lear, other characters and the audience.
As Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen on stage, and performed for entertainment, the Fool’s appearance is of great significance to the play and how he is seen to others from the stage can show his real meaning and his true character.
The Fool primarily is seen for entertainment, he is light relief between the heavy scenes of death, adultery and jealousy. The Fool condescendingly laughs at other characters and their foolish ways,
he sees all that happens to them and mockingly does nothing to help them in the way they think they deserve to be helped but the Fool tells them the truth in the form of songs and rhymes, but as the other characters are preoccupied with matters concerning themselves and only themselves. His larger than life personality and his amusing clothes show the Fool’s presence on stage. The Fool is dressed like a Jester with a funny hat and shoes with bells on to mark his whereabouts, he can also be seen laughing, joking and dancing around the stage. The Fool has a skip in his step and a song in his heart for every occasion and doesn’t hold back from showing these traits in a time of desperation.
The Fool presides over the whole stage and doesn’t fade into the background; the Fool cannot be missed whilst he is performing. The main feature of the Fool would have been shown disability. He is physically disabled in some way with a probable limp; the Fool may also have a speech impediment and a different accent from the other characters. Many fools in the 17th Century were taken in by the rich and wealthy as their lives outside of the larger houses were poor, they often had no money and were usually social outcasts. Many fools were probably mentally deficient and/or physically deformed; they were exceptional in almost every respect, requiring the protection of powerful patrons to avoid social ostracism or abuse. Although the Fool is entertaining, audiences cannot but help feel sorry for him, he is disabled, poor, and often has problems with his intelligence, which are often focused on by other characters in the play.
This is a scathing remark from Goneril to Albany about the Fool’s intelligence and state of mind.
The other characters often see the Fool as a somewhat inanimate object, the Fool to the high-class Princesses has no purpose in their lives, has nothing they want or desire and he just gets in the way. The Fool is also seen as a madman who talks nothing but rubbish, who doesn’t understand their lives or desires. They also think he has no knowledge of anything or anyone with no respect for his betters.
The significance of the Fool is different for different characters in the play. For Lear, the Fool represents someone who is worse off than Lear in every way, he is poor, he is mad and he has no insight into how the world works.
This of course is put wrongly upon the Fool but he can clearly see all and understand all of the other characters ideas and faults. The Fool here sees how Lear is making himself insignificant, the metaphor of the O without a figure cleverly sums this up, as Lear does not understand this remark.
Lear can look down on the Fool and feel better than him, this is a role reversal for Lear as he is used to being looked down on by many of the other characters in the play, his daughters especially.
“Yes indeed, thou would make a good fool”
This is showing the role reversal to the extremes.
But also for Lear, the Fool is an accessible form of entertainment, which answers to Lear’s beck and call and does not answer back, or so Lear thinks. Lear does not expect the Fool to tell him things that he does not want to hear and he certainly does not expect to be comforted by someone who he believes to be mad.
“If thou follow him, thou must needs wear my coxcomb, how now nuncle? Would I have two coxcombs and two daughters”
The Fool’s response to Lear’s actions over his dividing of his kingdom, here the Fool is saying to Lear that he is an idiot, and if Lear continues to act this way then he might as wear the Fool’s coxcomb and become as bigger Fool as he is supposed to be.
For many other characters in the play, the Fool holds no significance. He to them is insignificant; he has no valid opinions, not thoughts and no intelligence. Of course none of this is true, but that is the irony of the Fool, by the end of his play he is the only character left with any of these traits, although he disappears before the final act, his thoughts are carried through with both Edgar and Lear, in their thoughts and their actions. The Fool’s replacement by Edgar, in disguise as a madman, also shows the overwhelming need for only one mad person in the play; here Edgar carries through the Fool’s actions and Lear accepts Edgar as this. Lear’s reasoning by the end of the play is only lessened by the madness of others. J L Halio’s description of Lear is as follows; “By the late middle ages, the Jester was a familiar figure, and in the Renaissance the fool had become as domestic servant in the homes of many aristocrats, in Britain as well as on the continent. The motley coat, eared hood and marotte, were traditional, but fool’s may also be regarded as pets or mascots, expected not only to amuse but also to criticise”. Halio writes that Lear’s Fool enjoys a privileged status, much to Goneril’s annoyance,
“Not only, sir, this, your all-licensed fool, but other of your insolent retinue”
and his characteristic idioms suggest that he is a natural fool not an artificial one, though his perceptiveness and wit show that he is far from being an idiot or a moron, however touched he may otherwise be.
During the play, the Fool’s speech alters from plain talking to rhyming or singing.
“Mark it, Nuncle:
Have more than thou showest
Speak less than thou knowest
When this happens we can see the Fool’s true feeling’s on a situation become apparent and realise, even if Lear doesn’t, that he is showing his full truthfulness. When the Fool is talking, he is playing the part of the expected court jester, he is amusing Lear and adding his own opinion to the ideas but is only telling Lear what Lear wants to hear, so as not to be in the wrong so he cannot be punished.
shows the Fool’s wilfulness to always tell the truth, no matter what the consequences. When the Fool starts to sing however, his whole reason for conversing with Lear becomes apparent; the Fool is seeing the whole situation and giving Lear his own, whole opinion, and telling Lear the truth about his actions and decisions. When the Fool is singing, his speech rhymes, this gives Lear something to remember and something to think about, it sticks in his mind and makes him not use just his judgement but his mind as well. Also read about role of the fool in King Lear essay
“Then they for sudden joy did weep
And I for sorrow sung,
That such a King should play Bo-Peep
And go the Fools among”
The Fool, in the play, mostly represents the sheer irony of the whole play. The Fool shows the irony of Lear’s madness. The Fool is supposed to talk nonsense, which no one understands, but during Lear’s ultimate descent into insanity, he finally understands what the Fool is trying to say. The irony of this is of course is that the Fool has spoken sense from the start of the play but Lear only understands him clearly when he himself is finally mad. The Fool, though, is the only character that is willing to tell Lear the whole truth, or actually understands the extent of Lear’s troubles.
“If I speak like myself in this, let me be whipped that first finds it so”
By the time the Fool disappears, Lear sees him as the complete voice of reason.
“Can you make no use of nothing nuncle?”
So, does the Fool present the voice of reason? To Lear he does, but this is only shown when Lear himself is mad so he does not understand reason or truth. To the viewing audience, the Fool ultimately presents the voice of reason, he sees all the character’s flaws and misconceptions of each other and themselves, he continually tells the truth, and does not lie to himself about his situation or his future. He frequently condescends to other characters and criticises them for their poor decisions and actions as he is not involved with any of the other plot lines and watches intently from the sidelines.
“Why to one’s eyes of either side’s nose, that what a man cannot smell out, he may spy into”
The Fool does not only speak the truth to Lear, he also gives him advice on different situations, but with Lear’s reluctant ness to not see problems and the Fool’s poor position of a supposed madman, the advice is taken lightly and with no guts.
“..I can tell why a snail has his house.
“Why, to put ‘s head in, not to give away to his daughters and leave his horns without a case”
Here, the Fool is giving Lear the most useful piece of advice that he will receive in the entire play, he uses the metaphor of a snail to show Lear how he is viewed to other characters as small and weak, but also telling Lear that his decision to divide up his kingdom was not a wise one.
The Fool does present the voice of reason because he is the only character who is able to see every situations from every angle and able to weigh up the plusses and minuses before making a decision, he is also the only character to evolve through the play with is eyes fully open and an insight into anything and everything.