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A fool is generally a person who is wanting in wisdom, judgment and sense. Such persons
were the part of the ancient courts of the kings. Their main purpose was to entertain the
king and the courtiers with their funny remarks. But in Shakespeare “The Fool” is a title
used for a person who is witty in folly. His purpose is to amuse the audience and point out
the follies of the king with his witty remarks. He is the last, and at the same time, the
noblest creation of the kind in Shakespeare; he is by far the most intellectual and noblest of
his Fools.
Although all Shakespearean tragedies are very famous for their tragic heroes, yet some
other major or minor characters have their own part to play. The Fool in “King Lear” is
one of the most important characters, and a mysterious one. F.S.Boas has observed:
“Unlike his fellows in other plays, he is nameless, with no more distinguishing badge of
individuality than plain ‘Fool’. He is scarcely a person, a unit to be counted. He is a
wandering voice--- the voice of Lear’s conscience, taking outward form in this grotesque
yet wistful figure.” Fool is the only character in the play whose wit keeps the things warm
in the play. His tongue has undoubtedly the sharper edge. In spite of all his witty remarks
we come to listen from his mouth the pathetic dialogues also. Fool in “King Lear” has been
highly praised by one critic after another. A. C. Bradley remarks, “Fool is one of
Shakespeare’ triumphs in “King Lear” adding that without him we will hardly know the
tragedy.” He is also regarded as the “soul of pathos in a comic masquerade.” In spite of all
his importance, he seems to be out side the play and does not contribute much to proceed
into the story or action of the play. He never affects the action. Even we do not know his
name; age, whether he is mad or sane. The Fool is introduced in act-I and scene IV while
Lear s spending his first month after giving away his entire kingdom to his two daughters.
The fool appears, offering his cap to Kent: “Let me hire him too: here is my coxcomb.”
Perhaps what is really meant is that the fool represents what would have been Lear’s
conscience if he had one.
He is really a fool but a privileged person. The Fool keeps reminding Lear of the folly that
he has committed. For, instance he goes on to recite a few verses the meaning of which is
that Lear was an absolute and bitter fool for having given away his entire estate. When
Lear asks about Fool’s habit for reciting verses he replies:
“I have used it, Nuncle, ever since thou mad’st thy
Daughters thy mothers; for when thou gayest them
The rod and putest down thine own breeches.”
He attacks the king with his short songs and epigrams. He ironically says that the king has
banished two of his daughters, and did the third a blessing against her will; he had little wit
in his bald crown when he gave away his golden one away. In a fit of anger at the rude
behaviour of her daughter, Lear asks if anyone can. tell who he is, the Fool ironically says”
Lear’s shadow” (Lear without power).
There may be another explanation of the function of the Foot. When we recall the
tempestuous character of the king, the Fool throughout is saying things that would cause
such an outbreak of temper had they been said by any one else in the play. It is only
because they originate with the Fool that Lear is able to control himself. Sometimes his talk
is too rude to be borne as he says:
“Prithee, Nuncle, keep a school master that
Can teach thy Fool to lie: I would fain
Learn to lie.”
These words offend Lear and he warns him not to talk in this irresponsible manner and
threatens to whip him as: “And you lie, sirrah, we’ll have you whipp’d.” But in spite of this
threat the Fool goes on talking in this manner and evokes king’s anger. Lear’s Fool is a
tragic chorus on the action. He is not without worldly wisdom. He realizes what is
happening to the king while Lear is still entirely oblivious of his loss of power. The
deflating common sense of the fool contrasts with Edgar’s assumed madness and adds
grotesque comedy to Lear’s ravings. When the king suspects that Edgar’s cause of
madness, like him, is that he has given all his property to his daughter, Fool’s remark is
witty: “Nay; he reserved a blanket, else we had been shamed.” Again, when Lear tries to
tear off his clothes to become like Edgar a “poor bare”, forked animal, be contented, the
Fool’s tasteless jokes are often in reality comments on the action. The Fool puts king’s
action in perspective. It is the Fool alone who from the first points out the true nature and
the extent of Lear’s folly: How remarkable are his two remarks: (1) “May not an ass know
when the cart draw the horse?” (2) “Thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers.”
In the first scene of the play, Lear has described Cordelia’s fortune:
“Nothing will come of nothing.” Fool asks Lear in his turn: “Can you make no use of
nothing?” Again and again the speeches of the Fool put Lear’s action in their true light.
It seems hardly possible that Lear’s character should be properly developed without the
Fool. In deed, he serves as an exponent of all the characters about him the mirror in which
their finest and deepest lineaments are reflected. In his grief for Cordelia’s banishment, the
Fool has almost forgotten his part. Hence the fool makes the folly of the king the target of
his humour. The fool in “KING LEAR” emphasizes the tragedy of the events and relieves
it. His aim seems to induce Lear to resume his power. He harps continually on the folly of
what Lear has done. The Fool assumes the roll of comforter and soon Lear realizes that he
had done wrong. But Lear’s injuries are beyond the Fool’s power to alleviate, and as such
he ceases to be necessary to the scheme of the play
Afterwards, the Fool accompanies Lear and the others into Gloucester’s farm-house where
the fool makes only one or two remarks which, however, do not show much wit or wisdom
and which almost fall flat. Finally, the Fool makes his exit from the play with the remark:
And I’ll go to bed at noon.” which implies that the dear fellow is dying and this, too, purely
for others’ sorrows, which he feels more keenly than they do themselves. The fool has no
suffering of his own to move us. Yet rightly seen, he does move us and deeply too. His
anguish is purely the anguish of sympathy. His feels being perfectly engrossed with the
sufferings of those whom he loves. His training of mind to assuagement upon other’s woes
has fairly beached the citadel of his life. But the deepest grief of all has now overtaken him:
his old master’s wits are shattered. To prevent this, he has been toiling his forces to the
utmost; and now that it has come in spite of him, he has no longer anything to live for.
The chief function of Fool is to educate Lear and to remind him of his folly. Except Fool, no
one else is allowed to criticize Lear, as we find Lear feeling angry with Kent when wants to
speak in Cordelia’s favour: Lear’s famous taunting sentence is:
“Come not between the Dragon and his wrath.”
It is only fool who serves the purpose of a critic. Sometimes, his comments are very bitter
as on the question of Lear as to who he is, the fool says that he is “Lear’s shadow.”
Through such criticism, he performs the role of a teacher of Lear. When Lear becomes
aware of his error, his education is completed and there is no need of Fool. With Lear’s
madness, the Fool’s role ends.
So to sum up we can say that it is the most interesting character in the play. He has many
functions to perform. He may be in the hot soup or in good days, he is always with the
King. He is a good and jolly fellow. His talk is practical wisdom; but he himself is very loyal
to the king; he suffers with the king. He is the advisor of the King .The remarkable
function of Fool in Shakespeare is to add to the general atmosphere of the ceaseless
brightness. He delights and gladdens the audience by his witticism and songs, and so adds
gaiety to the play. Miss Wellford says: “Lears’ tragedy is the investing of the King with
motley; it is alone the crowning and glorification of the fool.”
Written&Composed By:
Prof. A.R.Somroo