Discuss the dramatic importance of the Fool in 'King Lear'
The Fool is by no means a major character in the play, and yet he has an impact far beyond his status. He only appears in the fourth scene, and exits never to return in Act 3, Sc. vi some say that the parts of Cordelia and the Fool were played by the same actor. Despite this relatively short 'life-span' Shakespeare uses the character to make prophesies, represent reality and be the catalyst for Lear's soliloquies in Act 3.
The Fool's first words, spoken to Kent at Albany's Palace in Act 1, Sc. iv instantly establish him as a self-confident, quick-witted character, as he implies to Kent that those who follow Lear are fools. This remarkably frank speech shows the Fool's ability to make incisive comments under a thin veil of humour. He tells Kent that 'this fellow' (i.e. Lear) has inadvertently 'banished' Goneril and Regan by giving them lands, and 'blessed' Cordelia by sending her away. Even at this stage, he predicts the chaos that will befall the Kingdom as a result of Lear's division. Perhaps the Fool's 'thin veil of humour' is too transparent at this point, as Lear threatens him with the whip. The Fool's determination is also shown at this point, as he tells the King quite openly that the truth must be told, further angering his master. Feeling the situation becoming dangerous, the Fool swiftly changes tack:
'Sirrah, I'll teach thee a speech'
Even this 'speech' has hidden meanings: suggesting to Lear that modest, wise living is the only way for him to prosper in the situation that he has now created for himself. Again, this is a prophesy of the arguments Lear has with Goneril and Regan in later Acts about the size of his entourage and behaviour at their courts. Kent's remark that the Fool's advice is 'nothing' leads the Fool back to the topic of Lear's division of the Kingdom, in which he points out that Lear is now landless and without income, skilfully using the 'nothing will come of nothing' maxim the Lear himself used against Cordelia earlier.
The Fool's next speech again insults the King, implying that only a fool would suggest the division of the Kingdom. It prompts Lear to retort:
'Dost thou call me fool, boy?'
and the astonishing reply from the Fool that:
'All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.'
Kent, in disguise, is present at this point, interrupts: amazed at the liberties being taken, and perhaps a little annoyed that under the auspices of humour, the Fool is able to be so frank, while he was banished for less. Alternatively, perhaps Lear is genuinely concerned that the Fool should not suffer the same fate that he did?
Lear's anger is perhaps reduced by a secret fear that the Fool's warnings may prove correct, especially when Goneril enters and 'encourages' him to leave. Lear's angry comments together with the Fool's negative remarks increase the drama of the scene and prompt Lear to make the mistake of trying to play one daughter off against the other. Goneril is clearly irritated at the Fool's impudence and influence, and tells him to use his intelligence in a more constructi ve way. The Fool himself makes the observation that he is threatened for speaking the truth, for lying or speaking nonsense as well as keeping quiet, ending with:
'I had rather be any king o'thing than a fool; and yet I would not be thee, nuncle'
In some ways, the Fool is Lear's closest adviser, and he is with him as Lear leaves Goneril to stay with Regan. The Fool recognises the King's anger, and tries to relieve the tension with humour, in a broken dialog that shows a different, less confident side to the Fool. Perhaps he can already foresee the consequences of Lear's actions, or perhaps he is just nervous at the King's new found wrath.
The Fool's next appearance is when he and Lear arrive at Regan's palace, and the Fool discovers the disguised Kent in the stocks. The Fool has little reverence for anybody, and he mocks Kent, while at the same time he answers his questions and fills him in on the events that have taken place at Goneril's court.
The Fool's final appearance is with Lear in the 'storm scenes' of Act 3. He is genuinely concerned for Lear, and tries to get him to shelter in a hut on the heath. So far, the Fool has been trying to get Lear to realise his mistake, and acknowledge his foolishness. At this point, reality begins to dawn on Lear, and he begins to slip into madness. Is the Fool surprised at the severity of the effect that this acceptance is having on Lear, and perhaps feeling a little guilty at having brought it on by constantly reminding the King of his mistake in previous scenes? At the end of Act 3, Sc. ii, the Fool makes his grandest prophecy and reiterates the play's message that turning Nature on its head can only result in chaos and suffering. When the pair of them meet Edgar, Lear is becoming more incoherent, with a mixture of emotions; betrayal, anger, revenge, acceptance. The roles have been reversed: the Fool is now Lear's sensible guardian, while Lear has started to talk nonsense, dream and act bizarrely. As Lear degenerates into madness, and Gloucester arrives to dispatch him to Dover, the Fool is no longer needed and can disappear from the plot.
We have seen the Fool's part in the play, but
what role does he serve? The Fool serves a definite purpose, in that he is the
King's closest friend and sharpest critic. His position and personal qualities
enable him to speak frankly to all those he meets, with a sort of 'humorous
immunity' from the punishments that Kent and Cordelia have to endure. It is
perhaps Lear's admiration for the Fool that enables the latter to speak so
frankly to his master. The Fool is able to tell the King uncomfortable home
truths partly because of his ability to run rings around Lear intellectually.
We discover that the Fool must also have a genuine affection for his 'nuncle'
as he follows him even when destitute and in the early stages of insanity. The
Fool is a 'jumpy' character in many ways; at times he has incredible confidence
in himself and his message and is able to express himself cleverly and with
humour, but when he becomes frightened by Lear's spectacular reaction to his
daughters' double rejection, his jokes lose their impact, and he becomes the King's
nervous companion. We see the Fool's wisdom, and skill in making the points he
intends with wit and brevity < throughout the play, we are never quite sure who
is the real master.