“The Fool knows that the only true madness is to recognise this world as rational.” How far is this an adequate explanation of King Lear?

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The role of the Fool in William Shakespeare’s 1606 play ‘King Lear’ is fundamental to the strong narrative voice of the play, showcasing both themes of madness and rationality. As Isaac Asimov said in his ‘Guide to Shakespeare’ the “great secret of the successful fool, is that he is no fool at all.” The deep insights into the character of Lear by the Fool are crucial to the plot, as he pushes Lear to become self-aware and understand the consequences of his actions. In this essay I wish to argue that the Fool is the only aware character, the only person in the plot who is able to understand the ‘bigger picture’ of Lear’s actions. The world of the play is ultimately irrational and filled with madness, especially in the actions of the characters, meaning that the Fool with the capability to see this chaotic nature, recognises that the movement of the plot is rational as it fits with the world created by the playwright. I also wish to explore the expression of madness in the play and the purpose of the Fool’s character, analysing whether his character is there as a foil to Lear or as a symbol for humanity and wisdom. I wish examine in tandem to this Shakespeare’s use of language, setting and characterisation to further the thematic issues he is playing with throughout King Lear. 

Madness is a principle theme within ‘King Lear,’ being referred to directly within the play 30 times “mad,” “madness” and “madmen.” The dominance of this idea in the play is portrayed in a serious light, a completely different interpretation of madness than by any other Renaissance writer. Shakespeare however, does this in an interesting way that stays true to the Aristotelian idea that tragedy should ultimately evoke the emotions of pity and revulsion, a concept talked about in Burton’s 1621 ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’. Insanity in ‘King Lear’ explores the darker, more complex nature of humans and is displayed in multiple forms, each conveying a different view of human  mental instability. A key type of madness is that of ‘conscious madness,’ shown through the professional insanity of the Fool and the fake insanity of Edgar. His “madman” persona known as, “ Tom o’Bedlam” is displayed in the character as “brilliant lunacy,” according to Marvin Rosenberg in ‘The Masks of King Lear.’ Edgar appears as a crucial foil to Lear, who is genuinely insane by ‘Tom’s’ entrance into the play in Act 3. Even Edgar’s adopted name blatantly relates to madness as “Bedlam” was a well-known psychiatric hospital during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The difference between the two lies in the origins of their madness. Rosenberg comments on this saying that Edgar finds his own brand of “madness in reason, as Lear’s will have its reason in madness.” This shows the stark contrast between the two with Edgar taking his “lunacy” from the pain and wickedness of his brother Edmund’s actions, who had turned from Edgar and humanity towards cruelty following his inability to gain legitimacy as a “bastard.” Lear’s brand of madness comes from his humiliation and guilt, which leads to his madness and the subsequent clarity he discovers.  This manifests in the final scene when Lear comes to understand how his blindness, his madness  has led to the death of his “joy” Cordelia, “I might have saved her; now she’s gone forever.” This force physically manifests in the play as a storm in Act 3, an astute use of pathetic fallacy by Shakespeare to visually represent the collapse of Lear’s mental state, the physical pain of the storms strength symbolising the destruction of Lear’s madness. The between the two is also used as an ironic device, for as Jay L. Halio says in ‘King Lear: A Guide to the Play’ “what finally tips Lear over the edge into madness, ironically is the assumed madness of Edgar.” This suggests that it was only in Lear’s personal confrontation with mental illness that he truly understood himself, and became fully mad.

Rationality is another key theme in ‘King Lear,’ that flowing throughout the play from the first scene to the last. The idea of rationality is looked at by Shakespeare through  conflict between the rational and irrational behaviour and actions of the characters. The idea of rationality is first introduced in the beginning the play in the idea of inheritance. Kent and Gloucester begin the play discussing who was to be Lear’s new heir, “I thought the King had more affected the Duke/of Albany than Cornwall.” This conversation can be seen as rational in comparison to Lear’s decision to let his daughters inherit the kingdom, breaking with the societal norms of the period. Lear’s choice to gift his power to his children can be seen as the pivotal moment in the play where Lear departs on his journey towards madness and irrational behaviour. This suggests can be reaffirmed when Lear says, “’tis our intent/to shake all cares and business from our age,” a line which could represent the character’s break from sensibility, his abdication from the throne symbolising his movement away from reality and rational behaviour. The use of the word “intent” also suggests that this split is a conscious one, indicating that path he has chosen for himself has originated in his own wish to fall into madness, caused potentially by his old age and weariness. This irrational behaviour is something which occurs throughout the play, featuring in all characters, not just those generally prescribed to lunacy, like the Fool. Cordelia’s actions in the ‘love trial’ of the first scene can be seen as an example of aberrancy within seemingly rational characters. Her reply to Lear’s questioning of her affection with a simple “Nothing,” can be viewed as an illogical direction for Cordelia to choose as it did not relate to the close relationship between the father and daughter shown in the beginning of the scene. This irregular shift in Cordelia’s character indicates a spread of Lear’s irrationality and a growing instability within the characters, foreshadowing much of the conflict and destruction to occur in the latter half of the play. 

The ending of the ‘King Lear’ is a particularly poignant moment in the plot as it emphasises the absurdity and insanity of the plays resolution. The use of death in the last Act in excess creates a brutal and uncomfortable atmosphere to the piece’s conclusion. Some critics have found  that Lear’s death especially, is unfulfilling. Derek Cohen in his essay ‘The Malignant Scapegoat of ‘King Lear’’ says that, “Lear in his last moments shows no awareness that he is dying. His death takes place in an atmosphere of dreadful confusion.” The disjointed tinge to the scene, and Lear’s own madness do not create a clear, resolved ending, but rather one filled with irrationality in the character o Lear and the reaction of Kent who says, “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go: My master calls me; I must not say no.” This suggested suicide adds another layer of characters irrationality, as in the period of the play suicide was seen as blasphemous and led only to eternal pain and solitude. Kent’s plan to kill himself indicates that in his grief over Lear’s death he is welcoming death, much like Lear did when hearing of Cordelia’s passing, “Break, heart. I prithee break.” The death of Cordelia is another factor of the play’s ending which has caused much criticism due to Shakespeare’s break from the normal poetic justice which should have occurred. Nahum Tate even went as far in 1681 as to re-write the ending, giving Cordelia life and creating a romantic relationship between the character and Edgar in order to create a complete, rational ending. This shows a clear negative reading of the plays ending by the audience.  

The Fool’s position in the play is primarily one of commentary as he is the only character truly able to see Lear’s actions clearly and hold him to account for his choices. The key purpose of the Fool in the play can be seen as a multi-purposeful one. The Fool’s close relationship with Lear, his use of the term “nuncle,” in particular suggests a deep connection between the two characters. A suggested role of the Fool is to replace the omitted influence of Queen Lear. Lesley Ferris in ‘Lear’s Daughters and Sons’ talks say that, “while the Fool is ostensibly ‘male’ (called “boy” by Lear”) the Fool in King Lear exhibits a variety of ‘feminine’ characteristics.” This womanly way of the character may originate in basic idea of a fool, as Germaine Greer says, “A fool is ‘natural’, simple as we say, and by extension still in a state of nature.” This can be seen to directly relate to Juliet Dusinberre’s view of Shakespeare’s world of “Women, Fools and rustics” all being linked by low class and “nature.” Shakespeare through this use of the Fool’s character is exploring how without a women’s influence men become misled and suffer as a consequence, for it is only after the Fool’s potential death that characters begin to die on mass, a symbol of the fall of rationality in the play. The Fool’s position is further emphasised by the historical context of the character. The perspective of the fool during the 17th Century an “all-licensed” entertainer who, wearing a distinctive outfit of motley and a coxcomb, entertained rich individuals through song, dance, wit or acrobatics. During the creation of the play Richard Armin, who was known for being better at witty dialogue than physical comedy, was Shakespeare’s Fool. This may have influenced the design the Fool’s character with Shakespeare portraying him in a manner that played on this strength. The contradictory nature of the Fool’s character leads into the idea of irrationality, as the position and the insight of the character clash strongly. This gives the Fool an unusual edge as it places him in a fluctuating state of being both important and expendable to Lear. This suggests that Shakespeare is trying to undermine the main rational voice in the play, indicating that even clear thought can be unstable and untrustworthy.  

The main purpose of the Fool is ultimately to criticise the king and call him out on all of his mistakes. This occurs in the middle of the plot and acts as pivot in the storyline, a similar technique to the one used with the character of Mercurio in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ The Fool mainly criticises Lear in an indirect fashion through riddle, a device used by Shakespeare to allow for the Fool’s critique of the King to exist in the piece without directly insulting Lear, something which was unthinkable in the Elizabethan Era. Act 1, Scene 5 is the most significant of all Lear and Fool scenes as it is from the Fool’s analysis that Lear becomes aware of his mistakes and falls into madness, “O let me not be mad, not mad, not mad, sweet heaven!” This is shown particularly in the Fools analogy of Cordelia being as different to her sisters “as a crab’s like an apple.” This insight into the relationship brings forth Lear’s first concessions the play “I did her wrong” and opens up his understanding of the real truth occurring in the situation. This shows that the fundamental purpose of the Fool is to council the King on his actions and steer him in the right direct. This help only ends in the play once the Fool has supposedly died by Lear’s hand in Act 3, Scene 6. This also suggests that even with he Fool’s help the King could not be saved which resulted in the his subordinates death as he became worthless, his death symbolising the fall of hope.  

The idea that the Fool knows that the only true madness in ‘King Lear’ is to view the world as rational is a fitting description the play as none of the actions of characters in the piece are done so on a purely logical and enlightened basis. The themes of irrationality and madness are interwoven in most of the plot, effecting the characterisation and progression the story. The Fool in particular, looks at the world from an irrational perspective as it is the only way he can council Lear and point out his inaccuracy’s. The role of the Fool however, is diverse and features throughout the play in many different ways, influencing the world of ‘King Lear’ in many areas. The madness of the play in particular is emphasised by the Fool who points out Lear’s shift towards insanity. Without the Fool none of the irrational actions in the play would be noticed and a fundamental feature of the plot, Lear’s unveiling of his actions, would not occur. 

Catriona R. A Level English Literature tutor, GCSE English Literature...

About the author

is an online A Level English Literature tutor with MyTutor studying at Kings, London University

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