In King Lear, Lear says, "When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools," who are the fools to whom he refers? Did the term "fool" have a different meaning than simply a person who does silly things?

The fools to whom Lear is referring are human beings in general. By this stage of the play, Lear has become very cynical about the world and everything in it. Ironically, this is largely a result of his own foolishness in dividing his kingdom among his daughters.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When Lear refers to “fools,” he's not talking about court jesters or professional comedians; he's talking about human beings in general. At this late stage of the play, Lear has become thoroughly disillusioned with humanity, cynical about human beings and their motives. As a consequence, his opinion of his fellow...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

humnas is extremely negative, to say the least.

Lear doesn't literally mean that a baby cries because they realize that they've arrived on the stage of life surrounded by fools. What he's using here is a colorful metaphor that illustrates his growing contempt for humanity. It's as if the baby, having realized what lies in store for the rest of its miserable life, born into a world of fools, weeps over its fate.

What's ironic here is that Lear's cynicism is a direct consequence of his own foolishness. He set the ball rolling by his idiotic, catastrophic decision to divide up his kingdom between his daughters. On the stage of fools, he is very much the leading player. Instead of using his vast power and influence to make the world a better place, a little less foolish perhaps, he's thrown them away, leaving him looking like the biggest fool of all.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Shakespeare, speaking through King Lear, is using poetic license here. It is common knowledge that every baby cries as soon as it emerges from its mother's womb. If it doesn't cry of its own volition it will be given a sound slap on the behind to make it cry. This is supposedly necessary to start the lungs working and to clear the respiratory passages. Lear pretends that babies all cry at birth because they realize they have been brought into a terrible world. He has already described to Gloucester some of the human behavior he deplores, beginning with:

A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?

Lear continues for many lines giving illustrations of the wickedness and duplicity of humanity. One striking example is:

The usurer hangs the cozener.

A cozener is what we would nowadays call a con-man, a swindler. A usurer may charge exorbitant interest and add penalties for late payments and be considered respectable and law-abiding.

When Lear uses the metaphor "this great stage of fools" he is talking about all the people in the entire world. He has developed a very negative world view as a result of his experiences with his two thankless, selfish and deceitful daughters. When a bit earlier Gloucester says, "O, let me kiss that hand!" Lear says, "Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality."

This is not the only play in which Shakespeare compares the entire world to a stage. In As You Like It, Jacques has a long monlogue in which he begins with the lines:

All the world's a stageAnd all the men and women merely players

When Lear calls the world a great stage of fools, he does not mean that all men and women behave like jesters but that their behavior is pointless, stupid, idiotic. They attach great importance to their own motives and activities without understanding that life is really meaningless. And the baby who cries right after it is born seems to realize that it too will grow up to be as foolish as all the other people.

In Act 3, Scene 1 of Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio expresses Shakespeare's characteristically negative opinion of people and of life in a speech beginning with:

Reason thus with life:If I do lose thee, I do lose a thingThat none but fools would keep: a breath thou art,Servile to all the skyey influences,That dost this habitation, where thou keep'st,Hourly afflict: merely, thou art death's fool;For him thou labour'st by thy flight to shunAnd yet runn'st toward him still.

Hamlet expresses similar opinions about humanity. Here is a beautiful metaphor from that play:

O God! God!How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,Seem to me all the uses of this world!Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,That grows to seed; things rank and gross in naturePossess it merely.

And Shakespeare uses the image of a stage again in Act 5, Scene 5 of Macbeth when his protagonist says:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,Creeps in this petty pace from day to dayTo the last syllable of recorded time,And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!Life's but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stageAnd then is heard no more: it is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing.

It seems appropriate that a playwright should regard the entire world as a stage.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team