King Lear Causes Us to Choose Fools over Knaves.

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“The play forces us to choose fools over knaves.” Discuss In King Lear virtually every character is either a fool or a knave; however these terms contain multiple layers. The crucial scene in which this idea is presented in the play is act 2 scene 4 when the Fool talks to Kent after he has been put in the stocks, and more specifically his line “The knave turns fool that runs away;/ The fool no knave, perdy.” On one level the Fool is mocking Kent for his loyalty towards Lear despite the fact that Lear’s fortunes have disintegrated, and seems to imply that a clever knave would grab the “great wheel” that is Lear, when his fortunes are up and drop him when they are down. Yet, the Fool also says that a self-interested knave “who serves and seeks for gain” abandons his friends while the virtuous fool will “tarry” and “stay”. Elizabethan England was a very hierarchical society that demanded absolute deference be paid to the wealthy and the powerful, however King Lear demonstrates how fragile this society actually was; parents and noblemen were vulnerable to the depredations of the unscrupulous younger generation. In this way Shakespeare divides society within the play and allows the viewer to make a moral decision as to whose side they choose. Aristotle believed that the very nature of ‘tragedy’ has a cathartic effect on the viewer, purging him of negative emotion, but there is also a sense that this genre of play forces us to choose some characters over others, and Shakespeare depicts the fools in the play, both honest and loyal and willing to weather out the storm with those who are suffering, as the positive characters we sympathise with and ‘choose’ above the clearly selfish knaves. Lear’s very first actions in the play involve banishing Cordelia and Kent for being honest despite Kent’s pleas to “see better”. Cordelia refuses to “varnish the truth” (Shankar Vedantam) by stating “nothing” when asked to profess her love for her father in order to obtain her section...
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