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The King and the Fool: They Roles They Play

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In a story of a king’s treacherous demise by his unfaithful, scheming daughters, Shakespeare leaves little room for lightheartedness, laughter, or even reason. Family turns on each other as sisters plot out of jealousy, a truly dedicated daughter is executed, and the king dies of despair. The kingdom is left in the novice hands of the surviving characters, and the Shakespearean tragedy succeeds again in achieving ultimate sorrow and despair. In review of the play, however, one seemingly insignificant character stands alone as a figure of comic relief and a voice of reason. The fool is the sole predictor of this tragic fate and is the one man who calls out the king’s idiotic decisions. As a man with no social standing and no reputation to guard, he is free to truthfully counsel Lear, without living in fear of banishment or chastisement. Shakespeare then incorporates the concept of a fool’s wisdom in other characters throughout the play, creating a juxtaposition of all values as reason and honor make way for greed.

King Lear makes a mockery of himself as he puts his kingdom into the unable hands of his two scheming daughters. As king, his decision is supreme, and all those who question his authority will be immediately rebuked. As the Fool, however, his job is to be laughed at, so his views of truth are permissible. He calls out the king’s idiotic decision in a series of sarcastic quips and truthful ironies. “When thou clovest thy crown I’ the middle, and gavest away both parts, thy borest thy ass on thy back o’er the dirt. Thou hadst little wit in the bald crown, when they gavest thy golden one away.” (1.4.155-159) His biting comments are not taken seriously by the king, but the reader sees truth in his remarks, whereas other characters are either banished for their wisdom or tell the king what he wants to hear.

The fool’s sensibility continues throughout the play to the beginning of Lear’s mental collapse. The king is gradually realizing the scheming of his daughters, and the fool advises “That sir which serves and seeks for gain, and follows but for form, Will pack when it begins to rain, and leave thee in the storm. But I will tarry; the fool will stay, And let the wise man fly. The knave turns fool that runs away; The fool no knave, perdy.” (2.4.75-82). In a brilliant poem he explains that the conventions of the world are no match for true loyalty, and money and superficial gain are not to be trusted. Even though Lear’s daughters, who wanted nothing but power and wealth, have abandoned their father, the fool stands by the king as he seeks for no monetary gain. In one of the most famous act of the play, Lear has been thrown out into the storm with the fool. Lear laments his fate and the fool sympathizes, still administering advice in the way of quick poems. He never leaves the king’s side, but mysteriously disappears after the storm has subsided. He seems to always have Lear’s best interest at heart, never forsaking him despite his folly.

The theme of the fool sets a very significant tone throughout the play, as many characters recognize folly’s ability to alter fate. Lear’s faithful steward Kent attempts to counsel the king but is met with rebuttal. “To plainness honor’s bound, when majesty stoops to folly. Reverse thy doom, and, in thy best consideration, check this hideous rashness.” (1.1.149-152) The reader sees that power does not equal wisdom, and even the highest ranking men can make rash decisions. His ruthless daughter takes advantage of Lear’s foolishness by playing his game to her advantage. She says what he wants to hear and she inherits the kingdom. “Old fools are babes again and must be used with checks as flatteries.” (1.3.19-20) This sentiment is echoed by Edmund who ridicules his father for placing trust in horoscopes. “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun.” (1.2.117-119) His father, an Earl, is a superstitious man who foresees disaster. His son, who will become a hero of the play, survives the tragic ending and will go on to rule Britain. The characters come to terms with their foolishness in the final scenes of the play as Lear cries that he has “come to this great stage of fools” (4.6.179-180) and that he is the “natural fool of fortune” (4.6.188).

The paradox of seeing best when blinded has morphed into knowing best when a fool, as demonstrated by Shakespeare’s so-called character. The figures of King Lear take advantage of naivety, and the antagonist is brought down by treachery. Only when he was brought to the fool’s level, however, did he clearly see the plotting of his daughters and his misguided decisions concerning his kingdom. The fool says “I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou are nothing.” (1.4.187-188) The reader learns from the death of the king that while power and greed can corrupt, foolishness can kill.

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