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Role of the Foll in Shakespeare's "king Lear"

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Alison Dew

Explore the role of the fool in King Lear.

In Elizabethan times, the role of a fool, or court jester, was to professionally entertain others, specifically the king. In essence, fools were hired to make mistakes. Fools may have been mentally retarded youths kept for the court's amusement, or more often they were singing, dancing stand up comedians. In William Shakespeare's King Lear the fool plays many important roles. When Cordelia, Lear's only well-intentioned daughter, is banished from the kingdom Fool immediately assumes her role as Lear's protector. The fool is the king's advocate, honest and loyal and through his use of irony sarcasm and humour he is able to point out Lear's faults. Functioning much as a chorus would in a Greek tragedy, the fool comments on events in the play, the king's actions and acts as Lear's conscience. As he is the only character who is able to confront Lear directly without risk of punishment, he is able to moderate the king's behaviour.

King Lear is not the only one of Shakespeare's plays to contain a comical scapegoat; in the Merchant of Venice, Gobbo is used to bring comedy and irony to an otherwise serious play, although his supposedly comical exploitation of his father's blindness in the first act may also prepare us for the theme of cruelty which is evident in the play. We may further suggest that the fool's surreal and absurd comments in King Lear ("thy bor'st thine ass on thine back o'er the dirt") imply the disorder within the hierarchy as a whole. However, as Touchstone in As You Like It is used as a comedic device by Shakespeare, so the fool is sometimes used for comic effect, employing the Elizabethan/Jacobean euphemistic "thing" as a synonym for penis. The fool in King Lear is an example of Shakespeare using the fool as a voice to bridge the gap between the audience and the stage. The "all-licensed fool" makes many of his quips at the expense of the king. Due to his role as Lear's amusing sidekick, he was able to get away with this unlike any other, as is shown in the confrontation between Lear and Kent in act one scene one. Lear is the absolute ruler of the country - what he says is as good as God's word - which reflects the Divine Right of Kings, a Medieval doctrine which was still extant in the early seventeenth century although it was beginning to come under significant pressure, a process which eventually culminated in the Civil War of 1642-50. Fool is also a rational man, commenting on Lear and foretelling his faults, However, characters who in other tragedies might contain comedic elements - such as the fool in King Lear or the drunken porter in Macbeth - are ultimately far removed from comedy as their quips serve a serious and often bleak purpose. The fool's purpose is to make Lear laugh; yet in reality he makes serious remarks on the action and points out to Lear what is happening with his behaviour. Fool is paradoxically wise, typical of the Shakespearian 'fool'.

The Fool often sounds cruel as he criticizes and speaks to Lear with such irony and sarcasm. Oftentimes, it appears that Fool is kicking a man when he's down, but as the play progresses, one senses how much the fool loves his king, and just how protective he is of his master. The Fool makes his first appearance in act one scene four where his initial address to Kent clarifies that he sees Kent to be Lear's ally. Lear, paying Kent says:

Lear: Now my friendly knave I thank thee; there's earnest of thy service.

Fool: Let me hire him too, here's my coxcomb.

In this the fool uses his coxcomb as a metonymic device to illustrate Lear's foolish division of the kingdom and Kent's idiocy in his will to follow Lear who is now without a kingdom or home. Fool can empathize with the loyalty felt towards Lear, yet Fool holds one power over Kent - his ability to point out the king's faults. He serves as an unbiased advisor, providing Lear with many lessons that a more powerful being would not have attempted, due to fear of the king's wrath. In scene one, Kent's attempts to restrain Lear see him banished; whereas the fool's more indirect criticisms avoid punishment. The king may threaten to have the fool whipped, and although it was not unusual for the king's jester to be beaten in Shakespeare's times, the audience sees such threats to be empty. Alternatively the fool may genuinely believe that Kent is being foolish for following Lear and it is certainly possible to suggest that there is little sympathy between them as Fool's loquacities and obliquities contrast markedly with the blunt and direct idiom of Kent, the man who will "eat no fish".

Throughout the play, man the fool is paralleled several times with Cordelia. Both assume the role of Lear's protector, and when one is present, the other need not be. As the two characters never appear onstage at the same time, it is possible that the same boy actor took on both roles in an early-seventeenth-century performance, and thus the theatrical context had the potential to reinforce and underline the connections between the two characters. Fool uses various subtle tricks in order to keep Cordelia fresh in Lear's and the audience's minds. In the play's opening scene, "Lear is irked when Cordelia states simply that she loves 'your majesty according to my bond, no more nor less' as a daughter's love for her father should be. Angry and humiliated at her supposed lack of honour, Lear exiles her from the country. Through banishment, Lear intends to reduce her to "nothing", this being the recompense that she had earned by answering "Nothing" to his demand that she demonstrate her love for him." (Willeford 210) When speaking with the fool, Lear is cornered into echoing Cordelia's "Nothing, my lord" from scene one with his own "nothing can be made of nothing". At the close of the scene, the king has realized, through Fool, how poorly he has treated his only deserving daughter and admits his mistake for the first time, although this manifests itself as self-directed violence as he "beat(s) at this gate that let thy folly in." Later, in acts four and



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