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,...
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