Discuss how the fool in King Lear is important to the play as a whole. Explain how the Fool becomes Lear's voice of reason and his conscience. Does the fool lead Lear to find sanity and wisdom,...

Discuss how the fool in King Lear is important to the play as a whole. Explain how the Fool becomes Lear's voice of reason and his conscience. Does the fool lead Lear to find sanity and wisdom, catalyzing the process of his self awareness?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There is another reason that the Fool is important in the play. Lear has specified that he intends to stay with each of his daughters Goneril and Regan with one hundred knights. He will stay with Goneril for a month and then with Regan for a month. Then return to Goneril. Altogether he will be staying with each daughter for half a year with one hundred knights. This will obviously create chaos. Each daughter will just be getting rid of all these men and restoring domestic order, when here they will be coming back again blowing their hunting horns, with a hundred horses and probably a big pack of hunting dogs. Shakespeare could not show this on his small Elizabethan stage. The Fool therefore has to represent all the hundred knights and the trouble they create. The Fool is consistently insolent to Goneril and encourages the King to be boisterous, rude, demanding, and jocular. Together the King and the Fool suggest the general atmosphere created by one hundred rough, fun-loving men who have nothing to do but enjoy themselves in hunting, feasting, drinking, joking, laughing, sometimes quarreling, and in general taking over the whole castle for a month at a time. Goneril is the first to play hostess. We can imagine how any woman would feel if she had to put up with such an invasion. Even if she truly loved her father, it would still be a housewife's nightmare; but she doesn't love him at all. And she has no idea how long the King will live. The Fool adds to her irritation because he keeps making fun of her. He knows she is angry and frustrated, but this only amuses him because he doesn't like her. He dislikes her because he truly loved Cordelia and feels that the youngest daughter was cheated out of her inheritance by the mendacity of her two older sisters. The more trouble Lear and his hundred knights cause Goneril, the more the Fool will enjoy it.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Fool is essential to the narrative of the drama.  One of the most important reasons is because he is the only individual who can openly criticize King Lear. Since he is licensed, the Fool is able to speak any truth about King Lear and not receive banishment or death for it.  This enables him to become a voice of reason and conscience, criticizing Lear when he is wrong.  The Fool is able to operate as Lear's moral and spiritual alter- ego, questioning his actions and probing into the nature of what might be or what should be without reproach. Since the Fool is the only one that follows King Lear after his banishment, it is logical that Fool operates as a one who is able to trigger Lear's awakening.  The Fool is able to speak the truth, something that got Cordelia banished and repudiated.  Since the Fool follows Lear everywhere, this would mean that truth, in a symbolic sense, never leaves Lear's side, deny it as he might like. This becomes the reason why the Fool operates as a catalyst for Lear's process of self- awareness and gaining wise insight into the world and his place in it.

The Fool's lines helps to confirm such a role. Consider that in the first Act, the Fool is the only one to speak of Lear's actions as riddled with fault and a lack of insight:

There, take my coxcomb! Why,
         this fellow has banished two on's daughters, and
         did the third a blessing against his will. If thou follow
         him, thou must needs wear my coxcomb.--How
         now, nuncle? Would I had two coxcombs and two daughters!
The Fool is able to speak from the earliest of points that what Lear has done might be wrong.  He continually speaks of Lear's real condition, apart from what he might perceive it to be:  "I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou art nothing."  This is one way in which the Fool operates in the role of a conscience, something that reminds Lear of his action's implications, a reminder of "moral right and wrong."  The Fool is able to illuminate that Lear's "blessing" was not that, at all and his decision was flawed, to say the least.  The Fool continues this when he speaks of how human beings behave, something that Lear as a vaulted monarch should have understood:  "Truth's a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out, when the Lady Brach may stand by the fire and stink."  While Lear does not immediately capitulate and admit error, it becomes clear that Shakespeare has designed the Fool's character as a voice of reason in a world that is lacking it.  When the Fool speaks of how Lear should act, it is a reminder of how there can be a means to achieve wisdom and sanity in a world that does not immediately embrace it:
 
Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest,
Ride more than thou goest,
Learn more than thou trowest,
Set less than thou throwest;
Leave thy drink and thy whore,
And keep in-a-door,
And thou shall have more
Than two tens to a score.
The Fool reflects how Lear should act in contrast to how he does act. It is here in which the Fool is a form of conscience for Lear, something that does not change even though contingency and context changes so many others in the drama. Towards the end of Act II, the Fool continues his role as Lear's conscience when he reminds him of the traps of parental failures that the king has entered:
 
Fathers that wear rags
Do make their children blind,
But fathers that bear bags
Shall see their children kind.
 
The Fool's role as conscience cuts through wealth, privilege, and power.  The elements that Lear believed as real and permanent are now fleeting, and the Fool's presence suggests that character and dignity are the only currency of value in a constantly changing world.  The Fool's function parallels Cordelia as an example of transcendence and permanence in a world of shifting values and allegiances.  It is quite meaningful that the Fool and Cordelia never appear on stage together at the same time, confirming their mutual value to Lear.
 
The point in which the Fool serves as a catalyst for Lear's transformation into self- awareness can be seen in Act III.  One reason why the Fool is able to help in his master's transformation is because of his loyalty and allegiance, reflective of a conscience that never dissipates:  "I will tarry, the Fool will stay.”   Acting as a force of permanence in a condition of transience, the Fool solidifies his role as an agent of moral right.  During the storm, the Fool operates as a means of support as Lear struggles to grasp the "corrupted world of man."  The Fool is a reminder of how Lear should appropriate a reality that he has brutally miscalculated:
 
He that has and a little tiny wit,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
Though the rain it raineth every day.
When the Fool makes clear that personal failure lies in the trust placed in "the tameness of a wolf, a horse's health, a boy's love, or a whore's oath," it is a reminder of the role that the Fool has played in Lear's transformation.  Lear's self- awareness finally takes hold because the Fool has spoken elements of truth from the very start of the drama.  The Fool is a voice of reason and conscience because he never leaves Lear, similar to a universal sense of moral right and wrong that does not change.  Wisdom is applicable to all situations, a condition that the Fool embodies.  While conditions around Lear have drastically changed, the Fool remains. As a result, the possibility of moral restoration and redemption.  The Fool's importance lies in this hopeful notion in a world where hope is fleeting and condemnation is everywhere. The Fool leaves after Act III, reflective of how Lear has embraced his own conscience and self- awareness.  This makes the Fool's role a vital one, as Lear has become the agent of change that the Fool represented from the drama's exposition.
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