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?