The Fool

What was a fool?

Fools were far from foolish. Forerunners of modern stand-up comedians, they were employed as court jesters and as entertainers in the households of the rich and powerful. Their task was to entertain and to amuse – and also to be provocative and offer commentary on what they saw around them. They often had to tread a very narrow line between relying on their employers and offending them. The more powerful their master was, the more likely it was that there was no one – except the fool – who would dare to criticise when the master made unwise decisions. A good fool had to be perceptive, had to know when and how to comment and also have an instinct about avoiding punishment when making observations that were unacceptably barbed.

What is the Fool’s role in King Lear?

The Fool quickly perceives that Lear should not have rejected Cordelia and that he was foolish to have put himself in the power of Goneril and Regan. He repeatedly reminds his master about this, questioning which of them is the greater fool. He uses barbed witticisms: for example, having caused Lear to observe that ‘nothing can be made out of nothing’, the Fool comments: ‘so much the rent of his land comes to’ (Act 1 Scene 4). He also voices aphorisms which would have been familiar to Shakespeare's audience, such as, ‘Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise’ (Act 1 Scene 5). 
King Lear and the fool in the storm by William DyceLater the Fool uses his witty intelligence to try to comfort the King as Lear grows insane, and he loyally accompanies him on to the stormy heath in Act 3 (also a safer proposition that being left to the mercies of Regan and Goneril). Yet he is seen for the last time leaving Lear and Kent after Gloucester has warned of a murder plot against the king. His final words are, ‘And I'll go to bed at noon’, which may suggest an early death but there is no more news of him in the rest of the play.

Correlation between the Fool and Cordelia

The Fool's disappearance coincides with the reappearance of Cordelia which has led some people to speculate that the two parts were played by the same actor. The Fool resembles Cordelia both in his devotion to Lear and his commitment to a truthful assessment of life. Both characters tell Lear truths which he would rather not hear, the Fool taking Cordelia's place when she is absent from the play.
The correlation between the two is strengthened by Lear's words over the dead Cordelia: ‘And my poor fool is hanged’ (Act 5 Scene 3). However, ‘fool’ was a common term of endearment in Shakespeare's day. Moreover there is evidence that Shakespeare's Fool was played by a middle-aged comic actor called Robert Armin, an ugly dwarf of a man and an unlikely candidate to play the role of Cordelia also.

The Fool’s dramatic function

Lear’s Fool shares characteristics with other Fools in Shakespeare's plays, such as Feste in Twelfth Night and Touchstone in As You Like It. He speaks with an irony that permits him to comment on the action of the play, almost as the Chorus would have done in ancient Greek drama. By using jokes, wordplay and fragments of song he illuminates the central situation by commenting on it more perceptively and more intelligently than any other character. 
Many of the Fool’s comments probe very deep into the moral world of the play, such as when he says, ‘the Fool will stay, / And let the wise man fly’ (Act 2 Scene 4), thus declaring a loyalty that helps to contrast a moral structure with the tragic world of suffering which dominates in the play. Similarly, his ‘foolishness’ is seen to be perfectly sane when compared to the king’s genuine insanity.
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