King Lear is a play dominated by the contrast between wisdom and foolishness
There are many ways in which one would agree with this statement, in that there is an evident contrast between wisdom and foolishness. We see this through The Fool, where he is rather blunt with Lear; also, with Lear we get a strong sense of his irrationality and madness which is ironic because this results in this contrast of foolishness and wisdom from The Fool. Edgar plays many roles in this play which perform such a wide array of functions. Again, we get a sense of this fool like dominance throughout the play through Edgar, as Shakespeare doesn’t spend much time establishing Edgar’s virtues before having him disguise himself as Poor Tom.
Again, Edgar is forced to assume the garb of a madman to preserve his life. Whereas, there are indeed ways in which we can disagree with this statement, in the sense that the play opens at Lear’s court. Kent and Gloucester discuss the division of the Kingdom.
There are rumours about King Lear’s intentions towards his two sons-in-law, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall. Therefore, one can argue that the play is dominated with this idea of power and the giving of the Kingdom.
Throughout the play there is a strong sense of foolishness and madness which is primarily presented through King Lear. Right from the outset we get this sense that Lear is a complex tragic hero, who excites a variety of responses. The first reference to his foolishness is his absurd actions of Act One where he plans to divide his Kingdom between Cordelia, Goneril and Regan. The fact that he plans to do this by making them profess their love for him which will equate how much of the land they get is rather absurd, especially for the Jacobean audience, who would remember how the taxing question of the succession has loomed during the large reign of Elizabeth I. For example, take when he says to Cordelia, ‘Nothing can come of nothing’ at the start of Act One.
Here Lear gives us the indication that if Cordelia doesn’t profess her love for the King, then she will get ‘nothing’. Her refusal to participate in the love-test sets Lear onto a disastrous rage when she says ‘Nothing, my Lord’. Again, these rash actions of Lear could hint at this political insanity and potential foolishness, which arguably dominates the play. When he goes onto say in Act One, ‘O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!’ Lear is comparing his madness to the torments of hell and struggles frantically to retain his wits.
As a result, this sense of irrationality and foolishness dominates the start of the play. From the Feminist point of view, John Knox who was writing during Shakespeare time in his ‘First Blast of the Scottish Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ in 1558, said, ‘Women are weak, frail, impatient, feeble and foolish’. Again, a feminist would oppose to this maleness of traditional criticism of women; however, this is representative of the views of women during Shakespeare’s time.
How this ties into the contrast of foolishness and wisdom, is that some feminists may argue that Lear’s actions in Act One are not merely out of foolishness. Some may suggest that Shakespeare is merely trying to represent his current society of patriarchy and misogyny, as Lear treats his daughters as subordinates who must obey to his every whim. Again, one feminist critic, Jacqueline Disinberre, in ‘Shakespeare and the Nature of Women’ in 1975 claimed that ‘drama from the 1590 to 1625 is feminist in sympathy’. She argues that Shakespeare ‘saw men and women as equal in a world which declared them as unequal’. One may suggest that her views are echoed by others who argue that King Lear invites dissent from misogyny and patriarchy and can be interpreted and performed in ways that highlight and expose patriarchy as vicious and unjust.
Moreover, Shakespeare seems to intend on a serious portrayal of the madness of King Lear which wouldn’t have been something which was used in similar Renaissance dramatists, who would have used this madness for comic effect; Shakespeare, uses this madness in Lear to dominate a sense of foolishness in the play. For instance, we get his strong sense of madness when Lear says himself after he has been driven to the end of rope by the cruelties of Goneril and Regan, ‘Or ere I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!’ Here Lear is raging against them, he makes the direct reference of driving himself mad because he finds it impossible to bear the realization of his daughters’ terrible betrayal. Despite his attempt to assert his authority, Lear finds that he is now powerless; all he can do is vent his rage. This results in not just a contrast between the foolishness and wisdom, but also this connection between foolishness and madness.
There are other types of madness that shed a sombre light on Lear’s insanity; for instance, we see the Fool’s professional madness in his clowning and Edgar’s fake madness with his disguise as Poor Tom. The madness of the Fool and Edgar might be intended to provide comic relief, as the Fool’s jests often lighten the tone and some Edgar’s antics as Poor Tom can seem rather amusing. However, this also provides irony, as their madness is an intentional fake madness, where Lear’s in not. Consequently, we see this contrast between wisdom and foolishness; Lear seems to be the foolish one and the fool seems to be the wise one. Moreover, the Fool plays a numbers of roles, often acting as a voice of conscience and the truth-teller. There is irony throughout because the Fool would normally be associated with being the fool one in the characters, but the irony here is that the Fool is actually the wise one when telling the truth etc. Also read about role of the fool in King Lear essay
For instance, when he first appears in the play the Fool extremely critical of Lear, ‘Dost thou call me fool boy? /All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with’. These lines are typical of the Fool’s interaction Lear; his sarcasm is blunt and hard hitting. The Fool seems to be representative of the truth and that seems to support this idea of wisdom. However, Shakespeare challenges the reader and makes it clear that there is a contrast between the idea of wisdom and foolishness because of the fact that one wouldn’t expect a Fool to challenge and be so blunt with a person as powerful as Lear, so one can argue that perhaps the Fool is indeed the foolish one.
To conclude, there are indeed ways in which Shakespeare dominates the play with a contrast between the idea of foolishness and wisdom. There is irony throughout because of the fact that the Fool seems to be the truth-teller. Again, because of Lear’s rash actions in Act One he seems to be the foolish one, and as a result, there is a constant contrast between foolishness and wisdom. Marxist critic, Victor Kiernan argues that Shakespeare ‘must have started from something personal, some dislocation of his own life’. Consequently, one can argue that the play isn’t dominated by this contrast between foolishness and wisdom, but that it makes the attempt to highlight the society in which Shakespeare was living – a society of patriarchy and hierarchical dominance.
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