Playing the Fool

I find it ironic that characters who are called fools and jesters, or are otherwise dismissed due to their lower class standing, are often the wittiest and most insightful.  In King Lear, the fool is not even given a proper name, yet he can get away with saying a lot more than Kent or Cordelia can. 

The fool’s lower social status and roundabout way of speaking work to his advantage. Since he is not a nobleman, he is seen as less of a threat and is therefore not taken as seriously.  This is in contrast to Kent, who is punished by King Lear when he tries to offer counsel. Kent advises the king, “Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow/ Upon thy foul disease. Revoke thy doom;/ Or, whilst I can vent clamor from my throat,/ I’ll tell thee thou dost evil,” (1.1.164-167).  The king, taking personal offense and sensing a challenge, decides to banish Kent. 

In 1.1, when Cordelia refuses to proclaim complete love for her father, he punishes her as well. He demands, “…what can you say to draw/ A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak,” to which Cordelia replies, “Nothing, my lord,” (1.1.84-86).  Shocked at this defiance, the king essentially disowns her: “Here I disclaim all my paternal care/ Propinquity. and property of blood…” (1.1.113-114).  Meanwhile, the fool says something similar to the king later on, but he doesn’t seem to notice or take offense since the fool speaks in riddles. In 1.4.168-169, the fool proclaims, “…thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now; I am a fool; thou art nothing,” to which the king does not respond.

Playing a fool in Shakespeare’s time, it seems you can be much more free with individuality and opinions without the fear of being punished.


4 thoughts on “Playing the Fool

  1. wolferamanda

    I agree with your blog post. I am writing my final paper for this class on minor characters in Shakespeare’s plays. I love his method of using minor characters that reveal truth and the major characters do not pick up on this. I always pay special attention to the fool’s, Christopher sly, the nurse, friar etc, usually these minimally presented characters are the ones with the most information and if you read their lines carefully, you really can learn a lot.

  2. VincentFinoWriting

    Coleen, nice post, and nice references, Amanda. While the lower-class does not have as many luxuries as the nobility, they have a certain sense of freedom, at least in speech. Yet, their words do not carry any influence, nobody listens.. So, what’s worse? Having a voice that no one listens to, or having a voice and saying something that might get you killed?

  3. pamsutherland

    It’s ironic that the ones labeled fools are the wisest and those doing the labeling are the true fools.

    It’s also interesting that the title of fool permits the un censored lecturing. I think it may be a foreshadow of King Lear loosing his title because – what’s in a title? If a fool can be a wise consultant what’s to keep a king from being a fool?

  4. gagnonr1

    Perhaps a fool doesn’t have as much to lose as a nobleman or royalty in straddling the truth around his superiors and this is why it sort of makes it okay for the fool to outwardly tell Lear something very similar to what Kent also said to Lear which, in turn, got him banished. Also, comedians in general get away with saying outlandish things to people with having no repercussions in saying said awful things. Look at comedians like Dave Chappelle on “Chappelle’s Show” doing that skit about the black white supremist and saying some of the most terrible things I’ve ever heard on television and yet, he not only wasn’t reprimanded for it, but was heavily applauded by American television audiences. There is this line of comedy that gives you a pass to saying/doing many things that would normally be considered taboo and in the case of King Lear, this is no different.


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