Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Fool in King Lear

Recently read King Lear again and felt for Lear as he tries to understand his suffering. I noticed that the character that gives shape to his struggle is the court jester or fool. You might think he's an insignificant character at first, but his advice lets the audience be aware of the underlying facts. Shakespeare appears to be using the fool to emphasize the importance of identity within a hierarchy. Of course, the King is at the top where he rules over his subjects. The maintenance of this hierarchy is crucial to the social system; if the King topples from his place on top, the people beneath him will suffer. The fool keeps reminding us, through his speeches, that if this natural order is displaced or altered, chaos and madness comes a-calling. Our fool, therefore, is a quick-witted and wise character who clarifies this idea of identity.

When the fool enters the scene, he offers the Earl of Kent (a loyal supporter of the King), his coxcomb, or in modern terms--his cap, which comes with the job of fool: "Let me hire him too. Here's my coxcomb." Why does he do this? The cap designates him as the fool, shows his identity, but he thinks Kent should wear it because he's in a position to be a fool himself, "for we are now in a world where it is folly to be genuinely loyal." As we know, Lear's loyalty to two of his daughters and disloyalty to Cordelia are central to the drama. The fool foreshadows Lear's dilemma when he says, "Nay an thou canst not smile as the wind sits, thou'lt catch cold shortly." If Lear can't please his daughters, they'll be disloyal to him and throw him out in the cold. He's been foolish to hand over his land to his two daughters. They're like the wicked stepsisters in Cinderella for heaven's sake. As soon as he gives them his land, he unwittingly relinquishes his identity as King. The fool points out Lear's blunder: "Thou hast pared thy wit o'both sides, and left nothing in the middle." We all know people like this. No matter how much you try to warn them, they keep on walking and step right into it. The fool knows what the daughters are up to: they "tell him the lies he wants to hear." Who's the fool now?

On a grander scale, Lear is Britain. Lear is left without a kingdom; England is now without a King. His land and power have gone, so he's lost his identity. The fool points this out: "Thou art an 0 without a figure." Lear is a big zero, and Britain's identity is threatened by his folly. The fool makes a succinct assessment: "I am a fool; thou are nothing." Since Lear's fate is tied to Britain, we see he has brought this disaster upon himself and on his country through the loss of his head (not literally) when he handed over his "coxcomb" (or crown) to his daughters. Another blow to his identity.

The fool sings and speaks, all the while repeating the word "head," our clue that he's talking about identity. Lear's the head of the hierarchy, but when a King fails to use his head wisely, chaos ensues. The head of anybody is where their identity resides, but it can sometimes be found in his chest.

As a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.
When Lear loses his head in wrath, he abandons Cordelia, the only daughter who truly loves him. He acts irrationally and fails to use his head. The fool's speeches remind us of this: "I can tell why a snail has a house . . . why, to put his head in; not to give it away to his dauthers, and leave his horns without a case." No brains, no home. "The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, / That it had it head bit off by it young." Lear is like the sparrow who lets the cuckoo lay its eggs in its nest, raises the birds, and then gets its head bitten off for its trouble. Goneril and Regan have figuratively bitten off Lear's head.

The non-legitimate daughters have the power, so the natural order is in trouble. Shakespeare's audience believed, or pretended to believe, that the natural world reflected a hierarchy that mirrored good government and stable monarchy. Lear disrupted this natural hierarchy, so horrendous forces must clash around him. Things are upside down, and the fool expresses this phenomenon eloquently: "Thou bor'st thine ass on thy back over the dirt." The donkey's supposed to carry the King, not the other way round. The corrupt heirs now govern the country: "Nay not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?" The father should be leading his children, not be subject to their commands. The fool explains to Lear the consequences of disrupting the natural order: "Thou mad'st thy daughters thy mother. For when thou gav'st them the rod, and put'st down thine breeches . . . a king should play bo-peep / And go the fools among." Lear will pay for his foolish actions: soon he will go insane and lose his precious Cordelia.

In all tragedies, a moment comes when the poor hero sees his mistake, but it's always too late. Lear's suffering leads him to reflect on his condition: "This tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses take all feeling else / Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude!" His children are selfish ingrates, but he prefers not to dwell on this: "O, that way madness lies." He's created chaos so, like in all good theatre, we must experience a storm, and now Lear's "wits begin to unsettle." The fool asks, "whether a madman be a genleman or a

yeoman?" and Lear answers "A king, a king!" When Lear finally sleeps, Kent advises Gloucester, another nobleman loyal to Lear, that the King's "wits are gone." At this point in the play, the fool disappears. The "coxcomb," the identity of the fool has been transferred to Lear. The fool has nothing more to say.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Carter

1 comment:

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