The Fool’s Function

King Lear is full of fascinating and enigmatic characters—but one of the characters that I found most intriguing was that of the fool. The fool serves many functions—most notably that he provides some interesting commentary on some of the characters. What I find perhaps most interesting about the fool, however, is not the apt observations he makes about the play’s other characters and whether we, as Shakespeare’s audience, agree with what the fool says—rather, I am much more interested in the fool’s intellect. The fool actually displays quite a bit of intelligence here, a quality which we might not perhaps expect.

In the interest of shedding any colloquial expectations we might have with the word—or, at least, those associations that are irrelevant here—the proper definition of a “fool” tells us some rather interesting information. Looking at the variety of definitions available, the consensus among these definitions seem to suggest that we associate fools with, not only just “foolishness” (i.e. stupidity, joking, frivolity), but with deception—in other words, quite literally, fooling someone into doing or thinking something. In the case of the character of the fool, I think this definition is important to our understanding of the fool.

Because of the fool’s associations with silliness and stupidity, it is possible that Shakespeare’s audience and many character’s in the play might disregard what the fool is saying as unimportant. But what both audience members and King Lear’s character might not take into consideration, however, is whether the fool is acting rhetorically in this scene. It is still perhaps a bit early in the play to tell, but perhaps the fool is intentionally trying to incite a certain response in the king—or even in us, as readers. Perhaps he is trying, somehow, to trick us.

I personally was unable to find any concrete evidence in the fool’s words that would suggest he is being deceptive or intentionally dishonest—but nonetheless, I think the fool’s presence brings up an important matter: often when we are reading plays (as opposed to watching them acted out), it is very difficult to tell if a character is lying or not. We tend to assume everything a character says is truthful, unless another character bluntly informs us otherwise or we become privy to a character’s deceptiveness (as is the case with, for example, Edmund). I think one of the fool’s numerous functions in the play is to incite us to ask ourselves: do we trust this character?

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3 thoughts on “The Fool’s Function

  1. elisebrucche

    Veronica, I think you are right to point out that characters like the Fool should not be taken at face-value. I especially appreciated your attempt to pin-point any sign of deception in the Fool’s behavior. I did something similar with Kent’s character in Acts Two and Three. When we are first introduced to Kent, he seems like the paragon of lordly chivalry. However, when he reappears in Act Two, he has necessarily disguised himself as commoner and assumed some rough mannerisms, like beating up Oswald every chance he gets. At one point in Act 2, he berates Oswald for not being properly chivalric,and then beats him up again even though Oswald didn’t have a weapon (not very sporting of him…). This struck me as somewhat contradictory, as if Kent was trying to provoke trouble for the King by making Goneril’s grievance about rowdy servants seem more credible. However, by Act Three, it becomes clear that Kent really is a loyal servant, staying with the King in the rain and doing what he can to make him comfortable. There really isn’t the same sort of conclusive evidence for the Fool. I guess you could argue that the fact that he continues to accompany the king could be considered evidence of his loyalty. But, SPOILER ALERT, the Fool has mysteriously disappeared by Act 4 and does not reappear, suggesting that he has either left the King or possibly he has been killed (see 5.3.304, the footnote suggests that the meaning could go two ways).

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  2. michaeldrago

    I found the Fool to be an interesting character as well. In a play where just about every character’s actions were filled with deception, he stands out as a character who seems to be honest and willing to speak his mind. But it’s hard to see exactly what his motivations are, or if he even has any real motivations. His relationship with Lear is also fairly mysterious, as we don’t really know why the latter is so willing to put up with whatever the former says to him. And of course, his rather abrupt disappearance in the middle of the play without any sort of explanation makes it even more difficult to decipher exactly what Shakespeare’s intentions with him were. There are a lot of interesting questions regarding the Fool, and there don’t seem to be many concrete answers. But regardless of what those answers might be, the Fool is also, on a very basic level, an entertaining character. And that’s certainly significant in its own right.

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  3. burnettd1

    I agree with you that the fool was a very interesting character throughout this play. It was ironic that the fool was so knowledgeable and wise while the King was so naive and blinded by the flattery that was expressed by his two daughters. I believe the fool was an essential character throughout this play because he demonstrated a character who was true and viewed situations based on reality. He spoke things to the king that were honest and how he felt instead of agreeing with what King Lear had to say. This was an ironic situation because in previous plays that we have read, the fools or members of a lower social class never really had such knowledgeable incite like this fool did. Therefore, I think the fool is a character that was trustworthy throughout Shakespeare’s play, King Lear.

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