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The Purpose and Function of the Fool in King Lear
by Sean Lowe
Superficially, the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear serves as
comic relief, abating the dramatic tension with his witty insults and aphorisms.
The Fool’s purpose, however, is not limited to tomfoolery.
Ironically, he is the most insightful character in the play, making sound
observations about King Lear and human nature.
The full purpose of the Fool is to stress Lear’s poor judgment, to
contribute to the themes of appearance versus reality and the tragedy of life,
and to elicit pathos and humor out of Lear’s madness.
The Fool serves
as a symbol of truth, characterizing Lear as foolish.
In order to criticize the king, the Fool appears after Lear has
made his fatal error of giving his kingdom to his evil daugthers and disowning
Cordelia. The Fool points out the
king’s foolery through jokes. He
jests, “thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown /
when thou gavest thy golden one away” (Iiv 70), and he sings:
they for sudden joy did weep,
Lear reproaches the Fool for telling the truth, the Fool only takes the
opportunity to assault Lear’s poor judgment through an aphorism.
“Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out / when
Lady the brach may stand by the fire and stink” (I iv 66).
The metaphor defames Lear’s judgment, implying that Lear has chastised
a metaphorical dog of truth, Cordelia, in favor of the hound bitches of
flattery, Goneril and Regan. The
Fool further serves to emphasize Lear’s foolishness when he warns against
Goneril and Regan:
Shalt see thy other daughter will use thee kindly; for though she's as like this
as a crab's like an apple, yet I can tell what I can tell.
the Fool asserts truth and sensibility, telling Lear that Regan is no better
than Goneril. Lear, however,
characteristically ignores this wisdom. When
Regan says, “I am glad to see your Highness,” Lear ironically responds,
“Regan, I believe you are” (II iv 124). Lear’s
inability to hear the insight of the Fool convinces the audience that he is
hardheaded, immature and unwise. He
refuses to recognize his own folly. Lear
says, “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning” (III ii148).
Although Lear’s punishment is perhaps disproportionate to his crime, he
is certainly at fault for dividing his kingdom between Goneril and Regan.
Lear, however, only blames his “two pernicious daughters” (III ii
146), ignoring his imprudence. The
juxtaposition of the Fool’s perceptiveness and wisdom and Lear’s lack of it
solidifies in the audience’s mind the folly that causes Lear’s downfall.
Fool’s character contributes to the theme of appearance versus reality.
Ironically, the play’s voice of reason is a fool.
in the storm, the Fool’s purpose is to both reveal Lear’s humanity and to
emphasize the tragedy of his situation. As
Lear slips into madness, kindness is seen in his treatment of the Fool.
wits begin to turn.
addresses the Fool as boy and is concerned for his welfare.
Thus, the Fool brings out a caring, unselfish side of the king.
As Lear slips further into madness, the Fool’s jokes simultaneously
intensify the tragedy of the situation and relieve dramatic tension.
The Fool “labours to out-jest / [The king’s] heart-struck injuries”
(III i 140). For example, Lear
insanely says, “Off, off, you lendings! / Come, unbutton here.
[Tearing off his clothes],“ and the Fool implores, “Pr'ythee, nuncle,
be contented; 'tis a naughty night to swim in” (III iv 160).
In one sense, the Fool’s desperate attempts to sustain the king
contribute to the pathos of the situation. In
another sense, his joke about swimming serves as comic relief.
A similar paradoxical effect is achieved when Lear puts his daughters,
who are not present, on trial.
Come hither, mistress. Is your name Goneril?
the Fool’s presence is both funny and sad.
It is particularly tragic because the Fool has a strong, loyal
relationship with the King and must watch him degrade into a hallucinogenic
state of madness.
the king reaches this point of insanity, the Fool leaves the play because he
cannot bear the tragedy any longer. The
Fool hints that he will commit suicide. He
last line is, “And I'll go to bed at
” (III vi 174), implying that he will soon die.
Because no other character has expressed a desire to kill the Fool, the
Fool must plan to take his own life. The
only reason he has to commit suicide is Lear’s insanity. The
Fool will kill himself out of grief. Some
critics claim that the Fool’s last line may be a straightforward quip that his
because an evening meal will be served in the
morning. This interpretation,
however, is illogical because if the Fool is merely going to bed early, then he
would surely awake and return to the King, to whom he has so far been loyal.
of how one interprets the last line, the Fool’s departure has significance and
compliments the dramatic structure of the play.
The Fool’s disappearance symbolically portrays Lear’s rejection of
truth. The Fool tries to teach Lear
the extent of his personal folly. As
Lear goes insane, however, he continues to ignore his personal flaws. The
Fool’s death reinforces Lear’s denial of responsibility.
Moreover, the Fool is no longer needed when Lear awakens from his madness
because Lear then realizes he is “a very foolish fond old man” (IV
vii 242). Therefore, Shakespeare no
longer requires the Fool to point out Lear’s fallacy.
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.
Fool’s death, coupled with that of Cordelia, contributes to the bleak theme of
the suffering of the goodness and truth. In
many ways, Cordelia and the Fool are the same character.
They are both symbols of truth, Cordelia refusing to offer her father
meaningless flattering and the Fool telling Lear of his foolishness.
Lear even compares the two. Holding
Cordelia’s body, he says, “And my poor fool is
hang'd! No, no, no life!” (V iii 282).
Both symbols of truth die, suggesting that truth really is “a dog must
to kennel” who is “whipped” (I iv 66).
Lear reflects on this tragedy, “Why should a dog, a
horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?
Thou'lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never!”
(V iii 282). Lear’s wails
underline life’s tragedy: truth and goodness sometimes senselessly suffer in
fate’s cruel game.
The Fool is much more than paltry comic relief.
He is a voice of reason that serves to clarify and expose elements of
Lear. The Fool is a comedian, but
his larger role is that of commentator, serving as the basis of King Lear’s
themes of misjudgment and appearance versus reality.
He also serves to strengthen the theme of the suffering of good.
Thus, the Fool is not only delightfully funny, but also bountifully full
This page was last updated on 10/10/05.