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.
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.
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 >.