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Examination Questions on King Lear

Question: Discuss the Fool in King Lear and his function in the play. Was he a boy or a man?

Answer: Our estimate of King Lear depends very much on the view we take of the Fool. Superficially considered, his presence is a blemish in the work; but a close analysis of the characters proves that he is necessary to the full development and right understanding of all the principal characters.

The intense passion of Lear would be wanting in pathos were it not for the silent sympathy which exists between him and this soul of pathos. Shakespeare endears him to us when he introduces him pining for the embodiment of womanly purity. We know at once that his soul reverences truth and seeks with a tender, clinging love for the loyalty whose "low sound reverbs no hollowness." Endowed with a peculiarly sensitive nature, his tongue ever struggles with a jest and his cheek dimples with a smile to relieve the eye of a burden under which it is reeling. Courageous enough to dare Goneril in the angry words
"A fox, when one has caught her,
And such a daughter,
Should sure to the slaughter,
If my cap would buy a halter." I. iv. 340.
there is yet a "shrinking, velvet-footed delicacy in the Fool's antics" which binds him still closer to the pathos of the play. A privileged character, he everywhere turns his privileges into charities. Highly intellectual, he uses his wit in urging his master to resume the shape he has cast off; and so pointed and earnest are his reproaches, so acute is his perception of the wTongs done to Cordelia, and which his master persists in doing to himself, that we cannot believe that he is "altogether fool" in any speech.

Even after the attempt to goad Lear into a reasonable course has been given up, we find the Fool laboring to out-jest the "heart- struck injuries" of the insane king. But we do not need a second confirmation of the bond between this tenderest, truest of natures and the obstinate, persistent, remorseful Lear when we hear
"No more of that; I have noted it well."
This common suffering, too strong for expression the Fool mourning a loss and deploring a cause for which he can only reproach the rashness of his master, Lear drinking the bitter cup which wounded pride holds to his lips makes the Fool one of the most important personages of the play.

And when we know that he has been slowly but surely dying as his heartstrings broke one after another under the weight of another's woe, the exclamation (III. vi. 92)
"And I'll go to bed at noon "
becomes one of the most touching in all Shakespeare; and as the Fool disappears tottering under the burden of his master, when "oppressed nature sleeps," our parting words must be with Hudson, "Truly thou art the soul of pathos in a sort of comic masquerade."

There are many reasons for believing that he was a boy. His mourning for the loss of Cordelia; Lear's speaking of him as "my pretty knave," and again, his saying, "How dost, my boy?"; his sensitiveness to cold in the cry, "This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen"; his fright at Poor Tom in the hovel; and his dying of grief, would seem to indicate a delicate, boyish sensitiveness and a physical nature incapable of enduring the intense mental anguish through which he passes. Such is, I believe, the opinion of the majority of the best critics; but Mr. Furness thinks that he was one of the shrewdest, tenderest of men shrewd from his experience of the world's deceitfulness, tender from participation in the woes to which his position was incident.

I see nothing incompatible with this shrewdness in the active, discerning intellect of a boy; and an intensely sympathetic nature is always tender. "The truest are the tenderest, the loving are the daring." The Fool has, in the space of a few months, passed through the vicissitudes of a lifetime. These trials develop in him loving, whole-souled boyhood, the qualities which Mr. Furness claims for the "man" only.


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How to cite this article:
Williams, Maggie. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/kinglear/examq/meightaes.html >.
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