A Fool Develops a King: An Intelligent Jester’s Ironic Role in King Lear
In the play “King Lear” by William Shakespeare, King Lear experiences a profound transformation. Initially, Lear is an egotistically proud man who only sees value in power and material wealth. Through recognition of this poor sense of value and his admission of guilt, Lear is transformed into a virtuous man with a new sense of humanity. Lear’s self-realization is a product of the Fool’s direct and harsh criticism, as the Fool acts as the King’s conscience. Additionally, the Fool’s assistance as a guide during Lear’s mental suffering helps him overcome his tragedy. The Fool significantly contributes to Lear’s moral development, from a power hungry, materialistic king to a modest man, by simultaneously acting as his critic and his caretaker.
Originally, King Lear is a superficial king who believes wealth and material is of upmost importance. He expresses his false sense of value when he asks his daughters: “Which of you shall we say doth us most”, instead of asking which of you doth love us most (KL 1.1. 52). This statement demonstrates that the King cares more about what people say rather than how they truly feel. When Cordelia is unable to put her “heart into [her] mouth”, he banishes her because he believes she does not love him (1.1. 92). Kent, Lear’s advisor, warns him of his mistake, however Lear threatens because Kent “sought to make [him] break [the] vow” (1.4. 171). Lear banishes Kent for criticizing him even though Kent is simply trying to help him. Ignorant to Kent’s warning, the foolish King makes the mistake of not separating power and responsibility. As exemplified by his reaction when Goneril tells him she has banished fifty of his knights. The King simply does not comprehend that loss of responsibility results in loss of power. Lear tries to explain to Goneril that: “Allow[ing] not nature more than nature needs / Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s” expressing that nobody truly needs anything more than basic necessities (1.4. 263-264). Simply, he is telling Goneril that if man only had the basic necessities then they are as worthless as animals. This shows that Lear truly cares most about materialistic value and does not consider the good characteristics in a person. Lear believes he is “a man / more sinn’d against than sinning” and it is not his fault that he is kicked out of Regan’s house into the storm (3.2. 58-59). However, it is in fact his fault because he banished Cordelia and now has to face the consequences of seeing value in Goneril and Regan. Lear’s sense of value is based solely on possession. Now Kent and Cordelia are gone, and the only person to help Lear change his moral view is the Fool.
The Fool’s ability to criticize Lear allows him to be Lear’s voice of reason, progressively leading to Lear’s self-realization. Unlike Kent and Cordelia, the Fool is able to criticize the King directly and point out his mistakes. The Fool understands what the old King has done and tells Lear: “All thy other titles thou hast given away that thou wast born with” (1.4. 34-35). He says this to make Lear recognize the mistake that he has made. The King does not react to this harsh criticism the way he reacted to Kent’s criticism even though it was Kent’s duty to be blunt when “majesty falls to folly” (1.1. 54). As a jester, the Fool takes full advantage and understands his ability to criticize the King openly. He expresses his disapproval of how Lear “clovest [his] crown i' th' middle, and gavest away both parts” and explains that Lear has “gavest them the rod, and put ’st down [his] own breeches” (1.4. 49-50, 57-59). To be more effective he begins to call Lear a fool because he has “banished two on’s daughters, and did the third a blessing against his will” (1.4. 91-92). This causes the King to start feeling the guilt of betraying Cordelia which leads to more anger. The Fool begins to talk more