Full version The Role And Function Of The Fool In King Lear

The Role And Function Of The Fool In King Lear

This print version free essay The Role And Function Of The Fool In King Lear.

Category: English

Autor: reviewessays 09 April 2011

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Explore the role and function of ‘The Fool’ in ‘King Lear’

The Fool in ‘King Lear’ is a William Shakespeare creation. Shakespeare has the ability to reveal a human character with an exceptional use of language. He allows us to see more than just words on the paper; we’re given a multi dimensional insight into a character. Usually his characters aren’t as straight-forward as black or white, they are invariably more complex. Edmund for example, it’s easy to present him as the villain but Shakespeare also shows us a sorry side to him as he attempts an apology before he dies. Shakespeare has given us concrete images of things that are inexpressible, such as love. To articulate a multi- faceted view of a person and present it concisely with words is certainly a gift. The Fool himself is one of these characters; he is not simply there to serve one purpose, but to serve many. He acts as Lear’s conscience and trusted guide, yet he is also a critic of Lear, a truth teller. In effect this makes a true friend, however some believe it was the Fool’s constant remarks that drove Lear to madness. Some critics argue that The Fool actually is Cordelia or a representative of her. Others consider him to be an aspect of Lear’s alter ego. Technically Shakespeare seems to use the Fool as a vehicle for pity or as a dramatic chorus. The Fools songs, riddles and jokes are a source of comic relief, used to break up the intensity of scenes. The Fool appears to have a deceptively simple part in the play when in actual fact his role is of key significance.

The Fool and Lear have a fascinating relationship throughout the play. Lear seems to depend on his Fool increasingly to be his voice of reason or his conscience, because he reminds Lear of all his mistakes and manipulates his feelings into realising them. This is a great irony as the king who is supposed to be wise is in-fact a fool, yet the Fool himself is full of wisdom. The Fool’s character is a tool Shakespeare has used to help us better understand King Lear, as he works as an external critic and internal conscience. Lear’s madness seems to start with his lack of conscience after he banishes Cordelia whom he compares unfavourably to ‘the barbarous Scythian’. The Fool tries to help him regain some sanity by exposing his wrong doings. ‘No more of that’, Lear snaps as he cannot bear to hear Cordelia’s name. Even the Fool’s introduction, before he has spoken has reminded Lear of the situation with Cordelia, like a conscience reminds us of our sins. ‘Why this fellow has banished two on’s daughters and did the third a blessing against his will.’ He is pointing out that it seems he has banished Goneril and Regan rather than Cordelia, as they will turn their backs on him now. Cordelia has gone to France having found love. The Fool uses language as an art form, verbally tying Lear in knots, eroding his self assurance and pushing boundaries yet seeming not to cross them. ‘Dost thou call me fool boy?’ is Lear’s reaction after the Fool’s riddle about the ‘sweet and bitter fool’. Although the Fool says this indirectly, it is enough to get Lear questioning himself. ‘Thou can’st not smile as the wind sits, thou’lt catch cold shortly.’ The Fool was warning Lear about his decisions, he must back the stronger side or he will suffer the consequences. The Fool’s foresight is very acute; he can see that both Goneril and Regan are bad. Again he warns Lear of this. ‘Shalt see thy other daughter will use thee kindly as she’s as like this as a crab’s like an apple.’ Many of the Fool’s comments are warnings or cautionary advice, which Lear cannot see for himself. As well as this the fool acting as Lear’s conscience teaches him valuable lessons. ‘Mark it Nuncle:

Have more than thou showest,

Speak less than thou knowest,

Lend less than thou owest…’ Therefore the Fool is also Lear’s teacher.

LEAR: ‘When were you want to be so full of songs sirrah?

FOOL: ‘I have used it Nuncle ever since thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers.’ The Fool is using wit to tell Lear that ever since he gave his daughters the power to keep him in check he will be there to act as his conscience and remind him of it! The Fool also likes to remind Lear that he has not only failed himself but his people too. ‘So out went the candle and we were left darkling’ Lear was the light of the state now he has abdicated the light has gone out and he’s let his people down by leaving them in the incapable hands of his two daughters. Eventually the Fool gets a glimmer of hope back from Lear when he realises his mistakes. ‘I did her wrong’ he says about Cordelia. At this point the Fool switches back to being light hearted as he realises stressing the point would only bring Lear down. Some critics say The Fool is responsible for pushing Lear over the edge. I like to think it was necessary for Lear to go through madness so he can truly appreciate the consequences of his actions. The Fool was helping Lear to ‘see better’. Finally Lear’s conscience catches up with him at least to an extent when he says ‘poor fool and knave I have one part in my heart that’s sorry for thee.’

The Fool’s sarcasm is blunt and hard hitting, just like Cordelia’s truth was in the ‘love test’. ‘I am better than thou art now I am a fool thou art nothing’. The Fool is one of the Truth tellers in the play. Cordelia and Kent being the other two. However the fool doesn’t get punished for it like the others do. This is mainly due to the way he articulates himself and what traditionally the role of the fool is. The main role of the fool was to entertain. Yet they were often asked to give analysis of contemporary behaviour, political decisions etc. to remind the sovereign of their humanity. Fool: ‘All thy other titles thou hast given away that thou wast born with’ Kent: ‘this is not altogether fool my lord’. Although the Fool mainly gives his opinions to help Lear, rather than to entertain him, he is able to shield himself with humour. Never the less Lear and the Fool must have a closer relationship than just King- Servant for the Fool to feel he has the authority to say the things he does. ‘Take heed sirrah the whip’. The Fool runs the risk of punishment; he perseveres because of his strong loyalty to his king. ‘Truths a dog must to kennel.’ The Fool realises that Lear needs to hear the truth as it’s more valuable. The Fool also tells Goneril exactly what he thinks of her, she calls him Lear’s ‘All licensed Fool’. ‘I marvel what kin thou and thy daughter’s are: they’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt have me whipped for lying and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace’ It seems the Fool will always speak his opinions and suffer because of it. Even though this is a dig at Lear how can he be punished for it as it’s true. It’s not the Fool that pushes Lear over the edge it’s the truth behind what he speaks.

The Fool acts as a social commentator throughout the play, occasionally making references to the wrongs of the world. This may have been a way for Shakespeare to have his say on what was going on in the world around him. The biggest form of social commentary from the Fool is the prophecy made at the end of Act 3 Scene2. The Fool wants to get across that Lear has not only wronged himself but the country too. Within the prophecy he draws attention to the chaos Lear has caused, the injustices and corruption of Lear’s reign and predicts bitter time to come. To begin with the Fool speaks of sinners. ‘When priests are more in word than matter’, suggesting priests talk of virtue but don’t practice it themselves. Then it changes to describing Britain where evil doesn’t exist and criminals turn virtuous. ‘when usurers tell their gold I’th’field’ meaning when loan sharks count their money in public. ‘that going shall be used with feet’. He talks of a time when everything will be as it should. Sadly the last few lines sum it up. ‘This prophecy Merlin shall make as I live before his time.’ The prophecy can be taken to mean that the good will triumph in Britain eventually or it could men that nothing will change; going is already done on foot!

The Fool is a great vehicle for Pathos. However it depends today on how the part is being interpreted. For example Alec Guinness

played the Fool as a vindictive fool; he played the pathos down to extinction. On the flip side Richard Goolden played the Fool 1902-68, his plaintiff voice gave great sadness to the part. In the play even Goneril realises how hard the fool works for Lear. ‘You sir more knave than fool after your master.’ This allows the audience to empathise with the Fool. ‘Since my young lady’s going into France the fool hath much pin’d away’. The Fool follows Lear despite being angry about the disinheritance of Cordelia, the Fool functions admirably as a good friend. The Fool says a ‘fool’ would run away when times get hard but the honourable thing to do is stay. ‘But I will tarry the fool will stay and let the wise man fly the knave turns fool that runs away’ The Fool has premonitions, he probably knew he wouldn’t make it through the storm, yet loyalty to the king was more important than life. This is what I believe makes him one of the most tragic figures in the play! Did he go to all that trouble for nothing? We don’t really know what happens to the Fool, Some critics say he dies through mental weariness as Lear has learnt nothing; others say he couldn’t physically handle the storm. Many believe the Fool leaves Lear as he isn’t needed any longer.

The Fool can sometimes be described as Lear’s alter ego. He has been played using ventriloquism to best show this. The sudden and abrupt leaving of the fool makes us wonder whether the fool was really there all along or whether he was just a figment of Lear’s imagination. The Fool not having a real name makes this more plausible. This suggests that Lear may have been schizophrenic. Another example of this is the Fool’s notion about the sweet and bitter Fool. ‘The sweet and bitter fool, will presently appear the one in motley here the other found out there.’

The Fool acts as a representative of Cordelia. Some critics are rigid in their belief that Cordelia stays instead of going to France in the disguise of the Fool. The Fool is very affectionate towards Lear, ‘Nuncle Lear’. So whether he physically is Cordelia or not he still acts as a form of compensation, he is there for Lear when Cordelia cannot be. Cordelia and the Fool never appear on stage together. The Fool disappears without explanation after act 3, coincidentally for the return of Cordelia. Although this makes it possible, in Shakespearean times the same boy actor probably played both roles. The Fools last line, ‘and I’ll go to bed at noon’ is often interpreted as a form of apology for returning as Cordelia. The Fool and Cordelia’s relationship has already been accounted for. ‘Since my young lady’s going to France, sir the fool hath much pined away.’ ‘No more of that, I have noted it.’ However other Shakespearean heroines disguise themselves as men. It is hard to explain “Cordelia’s” choice of jokes. Some are vulgar, bitter even hard hitting criticism. Surely Cordelia wouldn’t want to rub her fathers face in his own stupidity. Cordelia does make a reference to the severity of the storm that night on the heath. She remembers it to have been bad enough to have saved ‘mine enemies dog, though he had bit me, should have stood that night.’ In the last scene when Lear delivers the line ‘my poor fool is hanged’ it can be interpreted as Lear finally identifying the Fool as Cordelia. On the other hand it could be just a saying such as ‘darling’. As well as this it may just have been a case of Lear identifying the similarities between the Fool and Cordelia, and his delayed reaction to the loss of his Fool. But it seems very playable; it would have been a big audience pleaser having Cordelia reveal herself.

The Fool in many ways is an image of genuine hope, in the tragedy of King Lear. He is a peripheral character, acting as a narrator pointing out the foolishness taking place around him. Shakespeare uses the Fool to be a commentator of the play as well as a character within it. This way he can be the voice of the audience, as both are aware of things Lear is not. The Fool provides the audience with the foreshadowing of events too. ‘Winter’s not gone yet if the geese fly that way’. It is necessary for the Fool to be this source of reason in the play because otherwise the audience could be waiting forever for Lear to figure out his folly. It seems that character after character is a disappointment, having short sightedness or ulterior motives but in the Fool we have a character who can articulate our feelings. In Ancient Greek plays the ‘chorus’ was a group of people who represented the ordinary people in their attitudes to what they witness. The Fool functions as a choral character commenting upon events and the kings actions.

In many Shakespeare plays the comedy is hard to understand today. In King Lear this is not altogether the case as the fools witty comments aimed at certain characters are still amusing today. The Fool uses comedy to entertain Lear the audience and on occasions himself. ‘If thou were my fool id have thee beaten for being old before thy time’. The Fool uses sarcasm to make points, which often go over Lear’s head but are funny to the audience. At times Lear ignores the fact he’s being called a fool because he likes to be entertained. Also the Fool makes more out right remarks, such as the one about Poor Tom’s clothing. ‘Nay he reserved a blanket; else we had been all shamed.’ This broke the intense scene and gave the audience a break. Although not all of the Fool’s jokes are funny, he always seems to lighten the mood with his songs and sayings. ‘Woop jug I love thee!’ ‘Mum, Mum: he that keeps crust nor crumb weary of all shall want some.’ The Fool always manages to use inappropriate analogies, his metaphors and similes are outrageous that you have to laugh. He calls Lear at one stage a ‘shealed peasecod.’ A comical scene I think is when Lear, Poor Tom, Kent and The Fool are running through a pretend court hearing for Goneril. The Fool is a good sport to play along. Fool: ‘Come hither mistress. Is your name Goneril?’ Lear: ‘She cannot deny it’ Fool: ‘Cry you mercy I took you for a joint stool.’ (It actually was a stool.)

Isaac Asimov once said “That of course, is the great secret of the fool –that he is not really a fool at all.” Although the Fool doesn’t add a lot of action to the narrative or conjure many events in the play, he is a subtle yet key figure in making the play work. He gives the audience a cathartic release, allowing them to let out their emotions through him, as they would have built up throughout the play. The audience is helped to interact with the play by the Fool. He acts as their voice, and guide through the world of King Lear. His humour entertains the audience and for the sake of the storyline, Lear too. The Fool allows us to see what is happening inside Lear’s mind. He is a physical representation of what Lear is going through allowing the audience to be closer to him. The Cordelia conspiracy he creates adds spice, controversy and ambiguity. The key thing being that it is left to personal interpretation. The Fool gives the play a heightened sadness, as he portrays Lear as a lost cause, with his disappearance we realise that there isn’t much the Fool could have done. It is sad because justice doesn’t always prevail in the way we want it to. The Fool gets played in a range of different ways, always depending on how he has been interpreted and what aspects of his character people choose to magnify. I have identified the Fool’s roles and functions in the play; however he is also an art form. Outside of the play the Fool is a well written creation. Shakespeare has given the character many clever lingual devices, which we cannot help but marvel at. The Fool ‘shapes and moulds words like putty’, he has a unique way of expressing everything. These same things have been said about Shakespeare himself. Maybe The Fool was a vehicle for the voice of Shakespeare himself.

Bibliography

www.rsc.org.uk

www.123helpme.com

www.cliffsnotes.com

York notes

And casey’s brain