Consider the role of the Fool in King Lear. How important is he to the play as a whole?

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The Fool is considered an important character in the play even though he is not a major participant in events witnessed. His comments, full of ironic insight, provide wisdom and reasoning for Lear at times of need. He generally plays three major roles; Lear’s inner – conscience, represents Lear’s alter ego and plays a dramatic chorus.

The way the character is portrayed also provides us with a social commentator and vehicle for pathos. Although the Fool may seem strange to us, an Elizabethan audience would have greeted the Fool with great familiarity.The position was a historic one in Shakespeare’s time, with the monarch appointing an official court jester (Fool). In conventional drama of the day he was a hold over from morality plays, with his role-becoming classic.

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His role had established characteristics and responsibilities. Among them the Fool had license to roam the stage and interact with the audience often joking and talking directly to them. He had great popularity with the audience of the time, with his role a bridge between the action on stage and the audience’s own experience.Today it may be thought of as ‘low comedy’, but in its day it was welcomed.

Shakespeare exploited the aspect of the Fool to make him a major character in the play as well as a commentator on the action, much the way the chorus functioned in a Greek tragedy. King Lear appealed to all socio-economic groups through its characters in Shakespeare’s time. The character of the Fool is in the social realms between King Lear’s royalty and Poor Tom’s poverty, while still maintaining their social divide. This shows the structure of society from royalty to poverty concentrated on by Shakespeare throughout many of his works.

Tradition has it that the Fool in an Elizabethan tragedy is the instructor of the wise man. Speaking in riddles, the Fool repeatedly reminds Lear of his folly, which we know to be the truth. The Fool then gives vent to our thoughts and emotions. This means we can’t help loving the Fool as Elizabethan audiences did as he represents us, the audience.

This is why the audience misses the Fool after Act 3. His honesty, wit and clever wordplay entertain not only Lear but the audience as well, bringing some light and humour into an otherwise tragic play.The notion of the Fool providing comic relief can be difficult to see in the darkness of King Lear, but such relief does occur. An example of this is his flippant remark about poor Tom’s clothing, “Nay, he reserved a blanket; else we had been all shamed.

” (Act 3, Sc 4), lightning the tone of a distressing scene. Shakespeare does a great job illustrating the saying “only fools and children tell the truth”, through the Fool’s character. The Fool is loyal and honest to his master but also very critical of Lear’s actions. “.

.. hou must needs wear my coxcomb” (Act 1, Sc 4), states that Lear is a fool for dividing his kingdom in the light of a ridiculous love test. The Fools bitterness towards Lear’s actions can partly be understood by considering critic Foake’s suggestions that he acts as Cordelia’s representative.

A truth teller like his youngest daughter, he pines away when she goes to France. Many of the Fool’s speeches are designed to alert Lear to his daughters’ true character, “…

and did the third a blessing against his will” (Act 1, Sc 4). However unlike Cordelia, the Fool is never punished for his honesty.We can perceive that then in the first act the Fool appears to speak of reality to Lear who seems to be ‘blinded’ by the flatteries of his two older daughters. He tacitly insinuates through his actions and statements that Lear is among the company of fools, which hints to the audience that Lear is losing his wits.

As Lear descends into madness he casts himself into ‘the storm’, which acts as a metaphor for his state of mind and plight. By this time Lear’s fear that he would go mad, first voiced in Act 1, has been realised, “Beat at this gate that thy they folly in” (Act 1, Sc 4).When ‘the storm’ commences the Fool says his prophecy (Act 3, Sc 2). The prophecy can be interpreted in two ways, either suggesting optimistically that virtue will triumph in England, or that optimism about the future is misplaced; ‘even in these terrible days men use their feet for walking’.

I feel the Fool again provides a moment of relief, or pause in the action, where the audience can gather their thoughts. The opening act indicates the importance of the Fool to the audience, but is he important to the play as a whole?All the characters in King Lear, apart from the Fool, are interconnected and are of great importance to the main plot (Lear and his daughters and their husbands) and the sub plot (Gloucester and sons). The character of the Fool did not have influence over Lear’s decision to divide the kingdom, nor did the Fool have any connections with the subplot. Perhaps this is why many directors, for example Robert Armin and Michael Hordern, argue over the importance of the character and what difference would be made if he were taken out.

By contrast Grigori Kozintsev 1970 film version of Lear keeps the Fool in the play till the end by symbolizing the continuation of life in the sound of a flute he plays (Kozintsev, 198, Foakes, 60-1). The critics Orwell and Tolstoy also had contrasting opinions, with Tolstoy seeing no justification for the presence of the Fool, and Orwell seeing the Fool as integral to the play. This shows directors and critics being anxious about the sudden disappearance of the Fool from Act 3.The disappearance could be justified as Lear has gone mad by this time and cannot relate to the Fool’s wit, wordplay etc.

Another explanation for his disappearance could be interpreted from Lear’s ambiguous line, “And my poor Fool is hanged” (Act 5, Sc 3), where he clearly relates to Cordelia, but recalls the Fool also. This brings us back to the fact of the association of the Fool as Cordelia’s representative. Personally I believe that he is important and should be considered a major character, and definitely not cast out of the play.If he were to be taken out it would damage the balance of tragedy verses comedy that has been set up by Shakespeare, which would result in a loss of audience.

Still the presence of the Fool does not influence the overall impact of the play and the plots would occur with or without him. The Fool can be perceived on stage in many different ways. The first stage version of King Lear had actor Robert Armin playing the Fool, who brought his own brand of comedy to the part. In Michael Hordern’s BBC version of Lear, the Fool is cast as a mixture of both entertainer and companion to Lear.

His face, painted white, could be seen as an emphasis on his role as entertainer, yet his old age shows he can relate to Lear. Still the Fool is frequently addressed as ‘boy’ by Lear and the Fool refers to Lear as ‘nuncle’, showing Lear to be an elderly relative. In a play where family relationships are disastrous, the Fool seems to play the role of the good son. While Horderns Fool is ambiguous, Ian Holm’s more modern TV adaptation casts the role of the Fool as very much the ‘physically nimble’ young entertainer.

Looking at the two versions I prefer the older version (Horderns) as it portrays the fool as both an intellectual and entertainer, showing us, the audience, he is above his place in society. Stephen Booth has noted, the Fool ‘breaks out of every category in which he might be fixed’ (Booth 39). Young or old, entertainer or commentator etc..

. the many adaptations of King Lear tend to emphasise his strangeness and his difference from others in the play, giving most emphasis on his close relationship to Lear.Just what the balance in this relationship should be is a difficult question. If he were to be made too dependent on Lear he loses his independence, meaning the Fool may lose his bearings after Act 2 and justify John Bayley’s perception of him; “Made to play his part upon the stage of the court, the Fool shrivels into a wrecked little human being on the soaking heath” (Bayley, 61).

However, the Fool’s unexpected entry on his first appearance in Act 1 after having been absented from Lear for two days, “But where’s my Fool? I have not seen this two days. (Act 1 Sc 4), establishes some measure of his independence, as does his immediate verbal attack on the King’s folly. This shows in the early scenes the Fool showing intellectual superiority (in the relationship) over Lear in seeing what the consequences of dividing the kingdom will bring, “Now thou art O without a figure; I am better than thou art now. I am a fool, thou art nothing.

” (Act 1, Sc 4). I feel this level of independence and intelligence shows why some directors, such as Michael Horderns, try to avoid the ‘clown role’ when it comes to casting the Fool.This superiority can justify his independence but maybe Bayley was right, as the function of the Fool in the early scenes can be effective but it is this function that loses importance as the play goes on. The human relationship between the King and the Fool also becomes less important as the play progresses, with other relationships such as Gonerill and Regan also breaking up.

I see the Fool’s disappearance (Act 3, Sc 6) indicates a changing point in the play with his warnings becoming a reality.He gains independence from Lear, rising above his role of fool in society that his intelligence seen deserves. Overall Lear’s Fool is quite close to the real Fools who were a feature of Renaissance courts. He is ‘all-licensed’, privileged, to joke at the expense of the powerful (Doubtless, that is why Gonerill particularly dislikes him: we can suppose that she has heard some of his remarks to Lear about the results of his abdication).

He is intelligent, bawdy, knows popular sayings and songs, plays with words, and enjoys doing so (this is a trait of all Shakespeare’s Fools).While he has a certain privilege and freedom, he is dependent on Lear’s favour, and the Fool is never punished for his honesty. This is unlike Kent, who tells Lear that he is rash, but is then banished. Only the Fool can tell him that he has become a ‘shadow’, “(Lear to Fool) who can tell me who I am? (Fool’s response) Lear’s shadow.

” (Act 1, Sc4) and get away with it. We derive then from the Fool’s honesty an ironic perspective on Lear’s situation which maintains that his remarks are as much for the audience, as for on stage consumption.It is clear that Lear’s retirement and his generosity in dividing the kingdom are in themselves foolish decisions; the Fool just states the obvious to us. But the Fool does more than that, he derives a more complex view of Lear’s character and situation than any other character in the play.

Through his wordplay, what seems like wisdom from one point of view, is folly from another, as the Fool brings out in his advice to Kent that it would be wise to abandon Lear, “When a wise man gives thee better counsel give me mine again; I would have none but knaves follow it, since a fool gives it” (Act 2, Sc2).I see the Fool as a channel for many of the play’s multiple perspectives, which have no value fixed, and leave no character unscathed. He is more than what he is thought to be because Shakespeare over steps the regular Fools’ boundaries. I feel Shakespeare uses the Fool to bring out the point about human actions and values, a point that enriches the whole play.

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Consider the role of the Fool in King Lear. How important is he to the play as a whole?. (2017, Aug 08). Retrieved from

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