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The role of the Fool in King Lear. Harold Bloom.

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harold bloom
Harold Bloom

“You could remove the Fool and Horatio and not alter much in the way of plot structures, but you would remove out surrogates from these plays, for the Fool and Horatio are the true voices of our feeling.” Shakespeare: the invention of the Human. Harold Bloom. (1999) P. 494

more critics
More critics

F.S.Boashas observed:“Unlike his fellows in other plays, he is nameless, with no more distinguishing badge of individuality than plain ‘Fool’. He is scarcely a person, a unit to be counted. He is a wandering voice--- the voice of Lear’s conscience, taking outward form in this grotesque yet wistful figure.” Fool is the only character in the play whose wit keeps the things warm in the play. His tongue has undoubtedly the sharper edge.

A. C. Bradley remarks, “Fool is one of Shakespeare’ triumphs in King Learadding that without him we will hardly know the tragedy.” He is also regarded as the “soul of pathos in a comic masquerade.” In spite of all his importance, he seems to be outside the play and does not contribute much to proceed into the story or action of the play. He never affects the action. Even we do not know his name; age, whether he is mad or sane.

wood oyama
Wood & Oyama

Other critics study the way in which the Fool enhances the tragic mood of the play, or his relationship with Lear. Glena D. Wood (1972) has observed the ironic juxtaposition between Lear's actions and the Fool's words. Wood has demonstrated that the Fool's words and actions precipitate Lear's growth and at the same time increase both the irony and the tragic-comic effect in the play.

In analyzing the rhetoric of the Fool, Toshiko Oyama (1963) has maintained that through the Fool's use of logical argumentation in his conversations with Lear, the Fool increases the ambiguity of the play's events and thereby heightens the tragic atmosphere and tension.

marjorie garber
Marjorie Garber
  • The fool is a mirror, as the wasteland and the storm are mirrors, reflecting back at Lear his own concealed image. He is all too truly “Lear’s shadow”. The fool was to reflect and epitomize the folly of the world around him and neutralize it.

Shakespeare After All

fool s function in the play you have this
Fool’s function in the play (you have this)
  • He inverts the natural order (a recurring idea in the play), as he is entitled by virtue of his stage license to speak to power with little fear of consequence but by the time he is in the storm with Lear he has become an aspect of Lear himself. ‘The last shall be the first” we see the Fool enter the hovel before the king, he is called boy again whereas earlier he was able to call the King boy. Etc Garber lecture
  • “Many [that are] first shall be last; and the last [shall be] first (Matthew 19:30)
the fool
The Fool

Along with Kent he is Lear’s wisest counsellor & most faithful associate.

Boy actor = Fool & Cordelia

Provides no full-blown comic relief (think of porter in Macbeth) does, however, offer some levity. His songs & crudity offer a smile rather than a laugh.

Role of the fool similar to that of the Greek Chorus: comments & interprets the action.

the fool1
The Fool

Never speaks in blank verse; his speech marks him as an outsider: he uses similie, proverb, rhyming adages, songs & sayings, much of which Lear doesn’t fully hear or grasp. (Lear for most of the play cannot carry on real dialogue.)


MACDUFF Was it so late, friend, ere you went to bed,That you do lie so late?PORTER Faith, sir, we were carousing till the second cock, anddrink, sir, is a great provoker of three things.MACDUFF What three things does drink especially provoke?PORTER Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, itprovokes, and unprovokes: it provokes the desire, but it takesaway the performance. Therefore much drink may be said to bean equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; itsets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him and disheartenshim, makes him stand to and not stand to. In conclusion,equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie,leaves him.

the fool2
The Fool

Fool knows how to reduce Lear’s behaviour to the simplest, most uncomplicated images of reality, so that the state of affairs becomes perfectly obvious. Thus by means of the trivial simile of the egg which Lear has divided to give away both halves (the 2 crowns) he shows how simple is the division and the abandoning of power (1.4.73)

upside down animals
Upside down & animals

Continually refers to things as being inverted/upside-down/out of natural order.

1.4.76 /1.4.238/ 1.4.243 / 3.2.31

Many animal images: stress the fact that men fare no better than animals.

“Horses are tied by the heads, dogs and bears by the neck, monkeys by the loins, and men by the legs” (2.4.7)

and i ll go to bed at noon
“And I’ll go to bed at noon”
  • A proverbial phrase meaning ‘I’ll play the fool too”.
  • Fool leaves in the middle of the play; i.e noon.
  • He is no longer need, he is to be replaced by Cordelia, who represents not contempt for mankind’s limitations but hope for redemption.
  • His folly can not co-exist in the world with human cruelty
  • He is at the centre of the play: he is an image (like Tom o’ Bedlam) of helpless and suffering love; he exerts no influence on the course of events, and so the course of events passes him by.

And of course remember to discuss the other fools in the play.