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The Role and Function of the Fool in King Lear

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Explore the role and function of 'The Fool' in 'King Lear'

The Fool in 'King Lear' is a William Shakespeare creation. Shakespeare has the ability to reveal a human character with an exceptional use of language. He allows us to see more than just words on the paper; we're given a multi dimensional insight into a character. Usually his characters aren't as straight-forward as black or white, they are invariably more complex. Edmund for example, it's easy to present him as the villain but Shakespeare also shows us a sorry side to him as he attempts an apology before he dies. Shakespeare has given us concrete images of things that are inexpressible, such as love. To articulate a multi- faceted view of a person and present it concisely with words is certainly a gift. The Fool himself is one of these characters; he is not simply there to serve one purpose, but to serve many. He acts as Lear's conscience and trusted guide, yet he is also a critic of Lear, a truth teller. In effect this makes a true friend, however some believe it was the Fool's constant remarks that drove Lear to madness. Some critics argue that The Fool actually is Cordelia or a representative of her. Others consider him to be an aspect of Lear's alter ego. Technically Shakespeare seems to use the Fool as a vehicle for pity or as a dramatic chorus. The Fools songs, riddles and jokes are a source of comic relief, used to break up the intensity of scenes. The Fool appears to have a deceptively simple part in the play when in actual fact his role is of key significance.

The Fool and Lear have a fascinating relationship throughout the play. Lear seems to depend on his Fool increasingly to be his voice of reason or his conscience, because he reminds Lear of all his mistakes and manipulates his feelings into realising them. This is a great irony as the king who is supposed to be wise is in-fact a fool, yet the Fool himself is full of wisdom. The Fool's character is a tool Shakespeare has used to help us better understand King Lear, as he works as an external critic and internal conscience. Lear's madness seems to start with his lack of conscience after he banishes Cordelia whom he compares unfavourably to 'the barbarous Scythian'. The Fool tries to help him regain some sanity by exposing his wrong doings. 'No more of that', Lear snaps as he cannot bear to hear Cordelia's name. Even the Fool's introduction, before he has spoken has reminded Lear of the situation with Cordelia, like a conscience reminds us of our sins. 'Why this fellow has banished two on's daughters and did the third a blessing against his will.' He is pointing out that it seems he has banished Goneril and Regan rather than Cordelia, as they will turn their backs on him now. Cordelia has gone to France having found love. The Fool uses language as an art form, verbally tying Lear in knots, eroding his self assurance and pushing boundaries yet seeming not to cross them. 'Dost thou call me fool boy?' is Lear's reaction after the Fool's riddle about the 'sweet and bitter fool'. Although the Fool says this indirectly, it is enough to get Lear questioning himself. 'Thou can'st not smile as the wind sits, thou'lt catch cold shortly.' The Fool was warning Lear about his decisions, he must back the stronger side or he will suffer the consequences. The Fool's foresight is very acute; he can see that both Goneril and Regan are bad. Again he warns Lear of this. 'Shalt see thy other daughter will use thee kindly as she's as like this as a crab's like an apple.' Many of the Fool's comments are warnings or cautionary advice, which Lear cannot see for himself. As well as this the fool acting as Lear's conscience teaches him valuable lessons. 'Mark it Nuncle:

Have more than thou showest,

Speak less than thou knowest,

Lend less than thou owest...' Therefore the Fool is also Lear's teacher.

LEAR: 'When were you want to be so full of songs sirrah?

FOOL: 'I have used it Nuncle ever since thou mad'st thy daughters thy mothers.' The Fool is using wit to tell Lear that ever since he gave his daughters the power to keep him in check he will be there to act as his conscience and remind him of it! The Fool also likes to remind Lear that he has not only failed himself but his people too. 'So out went the candle and we were left darkling' Lear was the light of the state now he has abdicated the light has gone out and he's let his people down by leaving them in the incapable hands of his two daughters. Eventually the Fool gets a glimmer of hope back from Lear when he realises his mistakes. 'I did her wrong' he says about Cordelia. At this point the Fool switches back to being light hearted as he realises stressing the point would only bring Lear down. Some critics say The Fool is responsible for pushing Lear over the edge. I like to think it was necessary for Lear to go through madness so he can truly appreciate the consequences of his actions. The Fool was helping Lear to 'see better'. Finally Lear's conscience catches up with him at least to an extent when he says 'poor fool and knave I have one part in my heart that's sorry for thee.'

The Fool's sarcasm is blunt and hard hitting, just like Cordelia's truth was in the 'love test'. 'I am better than thou art now I am a fool thou art nothing'. The Fool is one of the Truth tellers in the play. Cordelia and Kent being the other two. However the fool doesn't get punished for it like the others do. This is mainly due to the way he articulates himself and what traditionally the role of the fool is. The main role of the fool was to entertain. Yet they were often asked to give analysis of contemporary behaviour, political decisions etc. to remind the sovereign of their humanity. Fool: 'All thy other titles thou hast given away that thou wast born with' Kent: 'this is not altogether fool my lord'. Although the Fool mainly gives his opinions to help Lear, rather than to entertain him, he is able to shield himself with humour. Never the less Lear and the Fool must have a closer relationship than just King- Servant for the Fool to feel he has the authority to say the things he does. 'Take heed sirrah the whip'. The Fool runs the risk of punishment; he perseveres because of his strong loyalty to his king. 'Truths a dog must to kennel.' The Fool realises that Lear needs to hear the truth as it's more valuable. The Fool also tells Goneril exactly what he



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