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The first time the Fool enters in Shakespeare’s King Lear he immediately offers Kent his coxcomb, or jester’s hat. Lear asks the Fool “My pretty knave, how dost thou?” (1.4.98) This initial action and inquiry of the Fool is representative of the relationship between the Fool and the other characters throughout the entire play. In general, the Fool will say something nonsensical, or act seemingly illogically, and then explain his words and/or actions to let the reader know that he is actually the wisest man in the play. In the case mentioned above the Fool unexplainably offers his coxcomb to Kent. At first it seems that the Fool is just being foolish, for even the King cannot figure out the meaning of the Fool’s action and words. After he explains himself, however, the reader realizes that the Fool is not only not a fool, but in fact has a sharper wit than the King’s.
A similar situation presents itself in Cervante’s Don Quixote. Even more so than King Lear, Don Quixote is out of his mind, and even though his squire, Sancho Panza, is constantly trying to help Don Quixote recapture his wits by pointing out his various insane hallucinations, Don Quixote generally refuses to listen to his inferior servant. It should be noted that both a king’s fool and a knight’s squire are positions of servitude; the fool is used for entertainment purposes while the squire is a sort of knight janitor (pun intended). But as both Shakespeare and Cervantes point out, these servants of powerful men are being used for the wrong purposes, and their words of wisdom are brushed aside by the men who need them most. If King Lear and Don Quixote had listened to their “foolish” servants, they both would have been spared great pain, and ultimately their lives.
By the end of both King Lear and Don Quixote the reader is left wondering: why were the idiots the kings and knights while the true wise men were the fools and squires? There are innumerable explanations for why Shakespeare and Cervantes both chose this particular form of irony. One explanation that is made particularly evident in both works is that the ironic reversal of roles, where the leaders are the fools and the servants the wise men, illustrates the injustices suffered by the lower classes, not because they are intellectually inferior, but because they lack money. There are many scenes throughout Don Quixote which highlight the fact that Sancho Panza never would have agreed to the continual suffering and terrible mishaps his master exposed him to unless there was an economic reward, in this case an island, promised to him. Likewise, in King Lear, the Fool must stay with his master even though he knows his master has “grown foppish” (1.4.171).
Despite their lack of wealth, however, both the Fool and the Squire are wise enough to realize that they are better off intelligent and poor rather than rich and crazy. Furthermore, suppression of their intelligence is a necessary part of their jobs. The Fool lets the reader know of his wise decision to refrain from exhibiting his real intelligence through the words of his song “Have more than thou showest/Speak less than thou knowest” (1.4.122-3), as well as when he says “I had rather be any kind of thing than a Fool. And yet I would not be thee, nuncle” (1.4.189-91). In Don Quixote we see that even though Sancho Panza desires economic prosperity, he is comfortable with his peasant status: “Even if it’s only bread and onion that I eat in my corner without bothering about table manners and ceremonies, it tastes to me a great deal better than turkey at other tables where I have to chew slowly…” (85). For all his failures at social graces, Sancho realizes that it is better to be a peasant with no table manners than a gentleman who is so concerned with conventions and etiquette that he loses his mind.
Even though both the Fool and the squire both realize that their livelihoods depend on masking the fact that they are more intelligent than their masters, there are times when they break through the character mold of the submissive servant. In King Lear the Fool comes dangerously near to letting the King know he is being mocked when the Fool says “The sweet and bitter fool/Will presently appear/The one in motley here/The other found out there” (1.4.148-51). In this line the Fool is arguing that he is a “sweet fool”, because he is aware of when he is being foolish, and thus wears a “motley” or jester’s costume. The King, who cannot realize his folly until after he has done something foolish is the “bitter fool”. After the Fool points this out the King asks “Dost thou call me a ?fool’ boy?” (1.4.151) and the Fool quickly comes up with another joke to put the King’s mind at ease. Later in the scene, however, the King threatens to have the Fool whipped (1.4.185).
A similar situation arises between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza during their adventure in which they remain paralyzed in fear for a full night of what they discover in the morning to be six fulling-hammers. After this discovery Sancho Panza is so amused by the superfluous exclamations of gallantry and bravado Don Quixote had given the night before that he laughs until “he had to hold his sides for fear of bursting” (p. 158). Like King Lear, however, Don Quixote is quite angered at being mocked by his own servant. Cervantes writes “When Don Quixote realized that Sancho was making fun of him, he got so furiously angry that he lifted his lance and dealt him two blows which would have relieved the master of the duty of paying his squire’s wages…had they caught him on the head” (p.158). Even though the servants in both works dare to mock their masters for a moment, it is short-lived, and they quickly resume their obedient roles.
As Shakespeare writes in another one of his plays, Twelfth Night “This fellow’s wise enough to play the fool/And to do that well craves a kind of wit” (3.1.68). For all of their shortcomings, the Fool and Sancho Panza both have a certain kind of wit that allows them to survive their masters’ insane outbursts. One of the greatest ironies in both of these books is that the master demands the servant to serve, and he does, but not in the way that would best help the master. In other words both King Lear and Don Quixote would have been much better off had they employed their servants as respected advisors. In both works these servants had much more common sense than the masters who employed them.
Finally, the relationship between a fool and a king (or in Cervantes’ case a knight and his squire) can be compared to a jester’s hat and a king’s crown. A jester’s hat, or coxcomb, is typically made of cloth, and is adorned with bells, while a king’s crown is made of gold and precious gems. Both hats are gaudy and attract a lot of attention. The king’s crown, however is precious and valuable, whereas the flimsy jester’s cap just makes noise. As Shakespeare and Cervantes have shown, however, people have a tendency to respect the hat, and not the head beneath it, when judging character and intelligence.
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