The Character of the Fool in King Lear

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The very first impression that anyone might have when reading a Shakespearian play that include a fool as one of its characters is that he is used to provide entertainment to the play. Such an impression isn't, by any mean, correct. Shakespeare, in fact, usually used such characters to say something about human psychology and the way they react to life. In addition, he had that gift of a great writer who had a penetrating understanding of his audience's intellectual level. Accordingly he was always keen to fill his plays with jokes that are meant for the common man to help him to reach the intended message easily. This, of course, led to an increase in the richness and the subtlety of his dramas.

The theatrical Fool or clown with his songs, dances, and jests delighted the audience, and contributed much in adding a sense of entertainment to the play. "King Lear", however, is the only play among the tragedies of Shakespeare in which a fool has been introduced, a fact which makes it rather strange why Shakespeare should have introduced such a character into his most painful tragedy. In this play the Fool does not have much in common with the light-hearted clowns of Shakespeare's comedies. His character, as a matter of fact, is far more complex and crucial than that of a mere entertainer. It is true that with his honesty, wit, and clever word play the Fool entertains not only the King, but the audience as well, and brings some light and humour into this tragedy. Yet in King Lear, the traditional Fool's gaiety is soured, not because the Fool has a gift of a true wit but because in the play he must assimilate the high tragedy of the situation and not to vulgarize it.

One of the Chief functions for which Shakespeare introduces the Fool seems to have been to provide a comic relief into a play where the events oppress our minds too much, and where the suffering of the chief protagonist become almost unendurable for the audience. Hence the need for the Fool to serve to lighten the gloom and to relive the tension generated by the cruel treatment of Lear by his own daughters which are too great for the aged King to bear. That's to say the Fool tries to help Lear to feel a bit better about what is going on by putting a humorous sense on the words he is saying. For instance, when he finds Kent in the stocks, the Fool feels greatly amused and bursts into laughter. Commenting on Kent's plight he says:

Ha, ha! He wears cruel graters. Horses are tied by the heads, dogs and bears by th'neck, monkeys by th'loins,"ÇáÎÕÑ" and men by th'legs: when a man's over-lusty at legs then he wears wooden nethers'ocks.

The Fool's heroism, thus, consists in his efforts to out jest his master's injuries and to make him happy. At the same time, paradoxical as it may seem, the sarcastic remarks of the Fool intensify the sufferings of Lear and actually become one of the chief causes of the later's madness.

Another important function of the Fool is that he is intended to be the inner conscience of Lear and as a social commentator on Lear's lack of judgment in dividing his land; providing basic wisdom and reasoning for the seemingly mad King at much needed time. That's to say it seems that Shakespeare has intended him to counteract the King's follies in order to bring him to his senses. The Fool, on his part, fulfills this mission to its utmost extremes. The Fool is being loyal and honest to his master Lear no matter how painful the truth may sound.

Throughout the play, the Fool observes the disorder that Lear has not only caused to himself but also to his entire kingdom, commenting sarcastically on the King's foolishness. He is partially comparable to Cordelia, in that he is a truth-teller- like her- and is firmly obedient to Lear. Yet, he had never been reproved"íæÈÎ-íáæã" for his words, unlike Cordelia and Kent who were punished for their truthfulness, because he is "all-licensed". That's to say, only the Fool dares to...
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