King Lear - The Fool

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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:

Then they for sudden joy did weep,
   And I for sorrow sung,
 That such a king should play bo-peep
   And go the fools among (Iiv 70).

When 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:

Fool: 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.
Lear: What canst tell, boy?
Fool: She'll taste as like this as a crab does to a crab (Iv 84-85).

Again, 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.

The Fool’s character contributes to the theme of appearance versus reality.  Ironically, the play’s voice of reason is a fool.  In fact, Kent initially mistakes the Fool’s jests as banter, saying “This is nothing, Fool” (I iv 68).  The Fool responds, “Then ‘tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer; you give me nothing for’t” (I iv 68).  He receives no formal recognition of his wisdom although it is as valuable as any lawyer’s.  Even Kent eventually sees past the Fool’s appearance and says, “ This is not altogether fool, my lord” (I iv 68).  The Fool is an example of a person who appears foolish, but in reality, is wise.  Also, the Fool helps the audience realize that Lear’s appearance is also deceptive.  He continually brings out the King’s folly, revealing that people who seem wise may be foolish. Therefore, the Fool serves Shakespeare’s theme of the deceptiveness of appearance. 

While 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.  Lear says,

My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself.  Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
That can make vile things precious. Come, your hovel.
Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That's sorry yet for thee (III ii 149).

Lear 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. 

Fool: Come hither, mistress. Is your name Goneril?
Lear: She cannot deny it.
Fool: Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool (III vi 172).

Again, 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. 

When 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 noon ” (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 bedtime is noon 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. 

Regardless 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.

The 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 of functions. 


This page was last updated on 10/10/05.

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