Discuss the dramatic importance of the Fool in 'King
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
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:
thou call me fool, boy?'
and the astonishing reply from the Fool that:
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:
had rather be any king o'thing than a fool; and yet I would not be thee,
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.