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The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
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Leo Tolstoy, Louise Maude, Alymer Maude

King Lear: The Quarto and Folio Texts (Pelican Shakespeare Series)

King Lear (The Pelican Shakespeare) - Stephen Orgel, William Shakespeare On the Fool

The Fool’s presence in King Lear lasts for little more than two acts. While the fool provides some needed comic relief, more importantly, he serves as Lear’s moral guide, illuminating Lear’s faults and provoking Lear to action. The first references to the Fool serve to let us know that he’s not in Goneril’s camp, and he is sympathetic to Cordelia.

When the Fool does at last appear, Lear’s regard is apparent. The Fool, in conversation with Kent, refers to Lear obliquely as “this fellow” and comments that Lear may not be stable given that he’s “banished two on’s daughters, and did the third a blessing against his will.” The Fool’s statement is actually a reversal of the situation since Lear banished one daughter and divided his wealth between the other two. There is an interior truth to the Fool’s statement, though, as in most of his seemingly nonsensical remarks, given that Cordelia’s banishment to the position of Queen of France may indeed be a blessing, while Lear’s generosity to Regan and Goneril serves only to make their baser, destructive qualities more apparent.

With careful feints and thrusts, the Fool admonishes Lear for his rash dispersal of his property to Regan and Goneril as well as his banishment of Cordelia, his only honest daughter. After rousing Lear to anger, the Fool diverts Lear by proposing to teach him a speech. The ostensibly irrelevant jingle, that Lear dismisses as “nothing” is actually a series of proverbs advising caution. In response to the Fool’s question about making use of nothing, Lear replies, “Nothing can be made out of nothing,” echoing his earlier response to Cordelia: “Nothing will come of nothing.” Significantly, in both instances, that which Lear values as nothing has real substance. The nothing Cordelia offers is not to compound the hypocrisy already heaped upon Lear by Goneril and Regan, while the nothing the Fool offers is a warning, cloaked in a jingle, for the King to be careful.

Progressing, Lear realizes--rather obtusely--that he’s being called a fool. In response, the Fool admits he has no other choice: “All thy other titles thou hast given away, that thou wast born with.” The Fool’s riddle about an egg offers another teachable moment. The Fool compares Lear to the man in Aesop’s fable who, in his attempt to please everyone, ends up carrying his donkey across the bridge. Similarly, Lear has tried far too hard to please Goneril and Regan, causing the Fool to remark that he has given “thy golden one [Cordelia:] away.” The Fool follows his remark with a song lamenting the lack of demand for fools since “wise men” are flooding the market by acting like fools as well. The Fool’s barbs continue, off and on, until Act III, when Lear finally begins to recognize some of his past insensitivity.

The agony Lear suffers at this point takes the satiric edge from the Fool’s gibes. Somewhat later, as Lear’s wits begin to return, he takes notice of the Fool and asks if he is cold. Lear’s query is significant, since it marks the first time Lear steps outside of his own suffering to notice the plight of someone else. During the “mock trial” that Lear stages, the Fool plays along only half-heartedly. In response to a bit of nonsense from Lear, the Fool utters his last line: “And I’ll go to bed at noon.”

The Fool’s rather abrupt disappearance from the play is not unreasoned. The Fool’s inability to evoke any sensible response from Lear marks the end of his usefulness. The Fool has led Lear to a much higher degree of self-awareness, but it is clear the Fool can assist Lear no further. Lear’s return to sanity now can only be accomplished by Cordelia and Lear himself.