King Lear: The Roles Of The Fool Essay, Research Paper
The Roles of the Fool in King Lear
Fools in traditional royal households were seen as imbecils and jesters, nothing more. The older role of a royal fool, which Shakespeare adopted from the pagan setting of King Lear, was to correct minor faults and incongruencies in their masters. By detatching the Fool from a conventional fool’s role, Shakespeare allows for the crowd’s suspention of disbelief in the Fool’s ability to get away with the comments he makes to the King.
In the opening scenes, King Lear fails to arrouse pity from the audience despite the fact that he is the tragic hero. Enter the Fool in Act I, scene iv. The Fool’s original and supposed role is that of an entertainer. Soon vernturing from this role, he provides the dramatic irony nessasary to close the gap between Lear’s understandings and the audience’s. The explicit and underlying roles of the Fool allow this juncture to occur. The Fool is used as the deciminator of ultimate truth to Lear, a representation of the goodness in Lear, and a manifestation of Cordilia in her absence.
A gift of words is the Fool’s only power. He speaks bitter truths to Lear in hopes that Lear will realize his folly. The Fool’s commentary throughout the play is sad because he knows his statements are ineffective. The Fool attends to the King out of love and loyalty to him, “Nuncle Lear, nuncle Lear, tarry! Take the Fool with thee!” (I.iv.322). His concern is shown again when the Fool and Lear are exposed in the storm, “Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters blessing.” (III, ii, 11-13).
The Fool is laughed at, not because he is foolish, but because he speaks the truth. Lear is told he is a fool for not knowing the nature of his own daughters. Everyone laughs, but it is the truth. The Fool plays the role of the provider of painful truth, a friend who tells the truth but is ignored. He gets away with comments such as, “I had rather be any kind o’thing than a fool, and yet I would not be thee, nuncle” and “If thou wert my fool nuncle, I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time…Thou should’st not have been old till thou had’st been wise.” (I, iv, 176, I, v, 41-45). Eventually the Fool gets Lear to recognize the folly of his actions concerning his daughters, “But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter; or rather a disease that’s in my flesh, which I needs call mine . . . Mend when thou canst” (II.iv.220-228).
Not only is the Fool wise, but he is also committed to the side of good. His innate goodness allows him to portray the “good side” of Lear,
Lear: Who is it that can tell me who I am?
Fool: Lear’s shadow. (I.iv.236-237).
This indicates that Lear is incapable of seeing himself and solidifies the Fool’s representation of Lear’s “good side.” The Fool mysteriously disappears at the end of Act III, scene vi, supporting Lear. This represents the union between the Fool and Lear marks the end of Lear’s blindness to the truth. When Lear calls himself “the natural fool of fortune,” he has recognized the folly of his actions and realized that he has taken on the role of the fool, watching everything without having any control over it. (IV, vi, 193).
Lear’s level of sanity can also be represented by his interaction with the Fool. In Act I, scene v, as Lear gets close to madness, he nearly makes the mistake of striking the Fool. Lear shows some retention of sanity by stopping himself and saying, “Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!” (I, v, 46). This is to say that if Lear were to lash out, he would be labled as mad. Lear’s sanity can be measured again after he talks about taking revenge on his daughters, “O Fool, I shall go mad.” (II, iv, 285).
In Cordilia’s absence, the Fool takes on her role as the child. This acts as a constant reminder of Lear’s folly in banishing her. Lear treats the Fool with affection and protection just as if he were his own. He even exibits his parental instincts in Act III, “Come on, my boy. How dost my boy? Art cold?” (III, ii, 68). The most obvious connection between Cordilia and the Fool, though, is made at the end of the play. Lear has lost Cordilia and exclaims, “And my poor fool is hanged.” (V, iii, 307). This suggests the death of the Fool, even though the Fool’s fate is never explicitly explained.
The tragic fate that befalls King Lear is made perfectly clear through his interactions with the Fool on many different levels. At the end of the play, Lear appears as a father, a man, and something the audience can feel for and pity. The Fool plays an integral role in the manipulation of the audience’s evolution of feeling. Lear walks through a world of deceit; the Fool walks with him like a halo of truth.