An Important Contribution Of Fool in King Lear Story
‘Shakespeare’s introduction of the Fool is his most important contribution to the Lear story.’
By considering the dramatic presentation of the Fool in King Lear, evaluate this view.
Throughout Shakespeare’s King Lear, the Fool is presented as a form of comic relief, abating the dramatic tension with his witty insults, aphorisms and prophecies such as in Act 3, “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen”. This imagery here not only foreshadows Lear’s latter insanity, but also conveys the irony of the Fool; he is repudiated and seen as inferior for his unkempt and dirty appearance, but is actually one of the most insightful characters in the play, thus an important contribution to the Lear story. Even though he is a source of redemption for Lear and shows affection, he can be considered to not be the most significant contribution, as he is ultimately powerless in curing Lear’s inexorable descent to madness by the end of the play.
The introduction of the Fool can be considered the most important contribution to the Lear story because he perhaps acts as the basis of Lear’s misjudgement and vanity. In Act 1, the Fool mocks Lear for his foolishness in dividing the kingdom and falling for Goneril and Regan’s flattery, and banishing Cordelia’s truth and goodness, “Love, and be silent”. The Fool’s language in his response, “Now thou art an O without a figure; I am better than thou art now. I am a fool, thou art nothing” is replete with derogatory terms such as “thou” which would have shocked Jacobean audiences at the time as it was considered blasphemous to address a King as such, even if the Fool was alleviated from this rule, so he can to some extent undermine the King’s authority. This suggests that even though the Fool has no responsibilities, he is a significant contribution because he tries to get Lear to look past his pride, and his sarcastic tone roots from the perception of the true nature of General and Regan rather than Lear’s folly. Shakespeare’s imagery in the Fool’s aphoristic jest, “thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown / when thou gavest thy golden one away” suggests the Fool is comparing himself to his own King in regards to wit, to help him see his misjudgement and attempt to stimulate humility within the King. The colour “golden” symbolises opulence and wealth by appearance, and the Fool uses this image perhaps to teach Lear not to judge by appearance.
In the 1982 Adrian Noble production of King Lear, the Fool’s appearance was suited to a music hall, clown-like jester, which somewhat undermines Goneril’s retort, “all-licensed fool”; the idea that the Fool is shreud, witty and a very much conscious entertainer. However, this image of the harlequin or clown that the Fool has adopted in such productions enfeebles the respect the Fool has, as here he can be seen simply as an agent for Lear’s troubles and comic relief. What’s more, one could argue that to some extent he doesn’t even make a significant contribution to Lear, as he pushes Lear towards the truth but tries to “outjest” his injuries through Act 3 as Lear becomes more senile. On one hand, the comic appearance of the fool denotes the recurrent theme of appearance and reality commonly used in Shakespeare’s other plays like As You Like It with Touch Stone the fool, as both have a disparate appearance (“the one in motley here”) and are truthful and good by nature. Similarly, like the Fool, Goneril is misjudged and condemned for her appearance. On the other hand, the Fool’s comic clown-like appearance could represent his limitations by his status; that perhaps although he is loyal and tries to help, he ultimately fails to save the King from madness, thus his contribution to the story can be argued to be not the most important.
Moreover, the Fool can be seen as a significant contribution to the Lear story because he brings out a caring, affectionate side to the King. Lear refers to the Fool as “boy”, to which he responds to Lear, “prithee, Nuncle”. Here, Shakespeare uses paternal lexis to communicate Lear’s respect for the Fool, and this relieves the dramatic tension in the play, where Kent is trying to manoeuvre Lear and the Fool into a cave to shelter from the storm. In regards to the Fool relieving the tension in the play with the audience, on one hand A.C Bradley points out that the Fool is restricted in his role,as he just serves as a delight for the lower audiences. However, I think that the Fool acts as a connector between the whole audience and the prodigious power of the old King. For example, in Act 1 Scene 5, the Fool’s epigram, “Thou shouldest not have been old till thou hadst been wise”, implies the Fool not only bluntly addresses the King, but primarily the audience and portrays their true feelings and therefore has an important contribution to the story.
One can argue there is an underlying paradox throughout King Lear that although the Fool remains loyal to Lear and will try to make him see sense at any cost, he also is the character that will powerlessly watch him fall into madness and insanity, thus he epitomises the tragedy. From Act 2, the paternal link that Lear and the Fool have starts to fade, in which Bayley argues that “[the Fool is] made to play his part upon the stage of the court, the Fool shrivels into a wretched little human being on the soaking heath”. This suggests that the fool’s departure later on symbolises the dissolution of the court, the King’s royal power and his senility. Furthermore, the removal of the Fool compliments the dramatic structure of the play. After Lear goes insane, the plot becomes progressively darker, leading to Cordelia’s death. Removing the Fool takes away all the major comic element of King Lear, increasing the seriousness of later scenes.
Finally, the departure of the Fool is a significant aspect of the Lear story, because his fate is ambiguous in Act 3 Scene 6 when he remarks, “And I’ll go to bed at noon” in response to Lear’s mad fabrication of a trial of his daughters. What the Fool says here is polyvalent, and could suggest that the Fool eventually commits suicide out of grief, or it could just be a nonchalant, petulant remark that his bedtime will be at noon because evening meal will be served in the morning. Lear’s final speech before he dies, where he shouts, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” indicates how the departure of the fool epitomises the underlying tragedy of how good and truth will always suffer against evil’s cruel game.
In conclusion, Shakespeare’s introduction of the Fool is an important contribution to the Lear story; a voice of reason that serves to clarify and expose elements of Lear. Many can argue that certain designs throughout various productions undermine his importance as a character, whose status and inability to save Lear denotes a lesser importance to the story, but others can argue his larger role is that of a commentator, serving as the basis of King Lear’s themes of misjudgment and appearance versus reality. Furthermore, it has been questioned whether Cordelia and the Fool were both played by the same actor as they never appear on stage together, but nevertheless both show unwavering love towards Lear amongst deceiving characters, even if they suffer as a result.
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