, Research Paper
Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear is comprised of many distinct themes. His contrasts of light and dark, good and evil, and his brilliant illustration of parallels between the foolishness of the play’s characters and society allowed him to craft a masterpiece. Just as well, Shakespeare’s dynamic use of linguistic techniques such as pun and irony aid this illustration of the perfect microcosm, not only of 16th century Britain, but of all times and places. By far the theme that best allowed the furthering of this superb contrast between Victorian England and Lear’s own defined world is Shakespeare’s discussion of fools and their foolishness This discussion allows Shakespeare to not only more fully portray human nature, but also seems to illicit a sort of Socratic introspection into the nature of society’s own ignorance as well.
One type of fool that Shakespeare involves in King Lear is the literal fool. This does not, of course, necessarily mean that they are fools all the time; or fools in the denotative sense of the term. Edmund, for instance, may definitely be seen as a fool in the sense that he is morally weak. His foolishness derives from the fact that he has no sense of right or justice. He discusses this as his father, Gloucester, leaves to ponder the “plotting” of his son Edgar. Edmund states that, “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that / when we are sick in fortune../…we make guilty of our disasters / the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains / on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion” seemingly for the soul purpose of illustrating his wickedness (I, ii, 32). Edmund realizes that his evil was borne by himself. This soliloquy shows the audience Edgar’s foolishness in his mistaken belief that evil, or malevolence, is the force that drives one to greatness and/or prosperity. It also illustrates “the bastard’s” mistaken belief that by fooling his father, he might be able to eliminate his competition for Gloucester’s title, Edgar, and possibly rid himself of his father in the same token. This is a prime example of literal foolishness in King Lear, and Edmund is an excellent example of a literal fool, both in his beliefs and his actions…both of which are foolishly evil.
Another prime example of literal foolishness can be found in the foil characters of Regan and Goneril, the daughters of the King. These two women, much like Edmund, find foolishness in evil thoughts and evil deeds. As they plot to usurp Lear’s power, their foolishness is illustrated in their single-minded decisions. Goneril states to Lear, “Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter…” in her insidious attempts to gain her father’s land (I, i, 11). This is obviously a lie, as the audience can very well see. And it clearly illustrates her foolishness. Not to be outdone, however, Regan endeavors to use the same method in the theft of power from her father’s hands. She attests that Goneril has named her “very deed of love” but that…ironically once again, “she comes too short.” (I, i, 11) perhaps in this respect, Shakespeare was attempting to draw a parallel between Lear’s daughter’s, Edmund, and society. He appears to be attemptingAnother type of fool in King Lear is the ignorant fool. Whereas characters such as Goneril, Regan, and Edmund were fools because of their refusal to follow in the path of good to illustrate the connections between foolishness and the darker side of human nature. The foolish are not necessarily driven to evil, however, the evil are most always driven to foolish actions.
and right, Character’s such as Lear and Gloucester fools because of their refusal or inability to see the truth of their stations in life. Gloucester, Lear’s foil, puts forth an interesting perspective in the play. His character is presented as one who is blind to that of the truth, and ironically, one who becomes blind in the end. In actuality, it is his blindness to the truth of Edgar’s love, and Edmund’s greed and apathy that ultimately brings about his demise. When he says, “I have no way and therefore want no eyes, / I stumbled when I saw” he seems to be illustrating his realization at his own foolishness (IV, i, 173). Gloucester illustrates, through this use of verbal irony, that his foolishness lied in the fact that, while he had eyes physically, he never really saw anything (e.g. the true nature of Edmund or Edgar). Another example of Gloucester’s foolishness, shown through irony, is the fortune he predicts at the beginning of the play. He says:
These late eclipses in the sun and moon / portend no good to us. Though the
wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds / itself scourged by
the squent effects. Love cools, / friendship falls off, brothers divide…in palaces,
treason; and / the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father (I, ii, 35).
This statement, ironically, predicts the vast majority of the play with uncanny accuracy. Shakespeare seems to be using Gloucester as a tool to provide more insight into the nature of foolishness, and even how it relates to the wheel of fortune. Foolishness Shakespeare states implicitly, is a part of the wheel of fortune. While it may not be accepted, it is ever present. This is illustrated in the play by Gloucester’s fortune telling, illustrating the characters’ inescapable destiny. The fool seemingly understands this goes so far as to call fortune an “arrant whore.” (II, iv, 101)
Another ironic fool, and obviously one of the most important, is King Lear himself. His character is a foil to that of Gloucester on many levels. On one hand Lear is literally like Gloucester in that his children plot his death, or at least hope for it. Lear is blind to this almost to the very end, only then realizing his folly in betraying his love to the fair Cordelia.
Unfortunately, his realization comes all to late. Noticing the feather stirring in the air of her death, Lear cries, “She lives, If it be so, / It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows / that ever i have felt.” (V, iii, 257) Shakespeare deliberately uses Lear as a representation of the darker side of human foolishness. He appears to be illustrating the folly of not listening to one’s inner voice, as well as discussing the corruption of power and wealth. He first demonstrates his foolishness by saying to his daughters, “Only we shall retain the name, and all the addition of a king.” (I, i, 15) His wish is to maintain the kingship without all the accompanying responsibility of the crown.
However, in a more complicated manner, Lear’s foolishness derived from his inability to see that, although he was king, he was a simple man as well. As a king, he wished to have his daughters openly display an undying affection for him. He shows, in this decision, that his practices were derived from that of a king, in that he could only see life through the eyes of a king, not a simple man. Unfortunately for Lear, his reason comes to him, ironically, in madness. He states “When we are born, we cry that we come to this great stage of fools” as if he finally had come to realization that everyone is a human being, be they king or beggar.
But by far the most influential medium used by William Shakespeare in the illustration and thematic development of fools and foolishness is the fool himself. This character is extremely dynamic throughout the play. He is seen by Lear and others as a simple minded idiot, in the court seully to entertain the king and his daughters. However, as the play progresses, the fool is seen, at least by the audience, as the wisest character in the play. Shakespeare uses this seemingly to illustrate the reality of actual society as well. One, he appears to say, ought to never judge wisdom by office. Some of the most insightful words in the play are spoken by the fool. He says to his “n’uncle,”"Thou had’st little wit in thy bald crown when thy gavest thine golden one away.” The fool here shows profound insight into the position of the king, telling him that there was no justification or intelligence in Lear’s giving his properties to his eldest daughters. In King Lear, the play seems to revolve around the “wisdom” of the fool. He expresses his concern to Kent, stating, “Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following it.” The fools use of metaphor, for that of the “wheel of fortune” most certainly expresses his cognizance of the events taking place in the play.
Shakespeare’s use of fools and foolishness in King Lear represents an insight into popular wisdom, not only in his day, but in ours. The character of the fool presents many clues as to our own intelligence. Do we, for instance, know for a fact that he who holds the highest office is the most intelligent or wisest man for the job? The thematic use of foolishness also defines much about human nature. Shakespeare, displaying an excellent of knowledge in this arena, brings up many interesting points about the role of evil in foolishness, implicitly stating that it is not necessarily foolish deeds that lead to evil, but evil that leads to foolish deeds. The truth of the play is that the only way one can avoid playing the fool is to take care to heed one’s own inner voice. As Edgar says in the last line of the play, “The weight of this sad time we must obey / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”(V, iii, 261)