Analysis of Shakespeare's King Lear: The King's Foolishness and His Fool's Wisdom
King Lear is a play that confuses morality with foolishness, as well as mingles insanity with wisdom. William Shakespeare, notorious for his clever wordplay, wrote it so that King Lear 's wisest characters are portrayed as making foolish decisions. Shakespeare wants to portray how sometimes what appears to be a foolish idea when it comes to money is often the wisest decision of all. One example is when Cordelia, King Lear's daughter, chooses to be honest rather than flatter her father (King Lear) at the beginning of the play. Although her decision may appear to be foolish on the surface, she proves herself to have made the wisest decision by remaining true to herself. Shakespeare shows in many of his plays that character is of utmost importance in a person's life, and he definitely proves his point in King Lear.
King Lear also finds that the line between foolishness and wisdom may not always be clear. For instance, Lear's greatest sources of wisdom are found through two of the most unlikely sources: his fool and his own madness. The fool plays a central part in bringing out Lear's transformation from a man full of pride and ignorance and a fool himself to a man who becomes wise through his humility. The fool remains by Lear's side despite his growing insanity in the third act. Ironically, as Lear's insanity increases, so does his wisdom—until he is able to see wisdom on his own without the fool. Shakespeare chooses to express the ongoing theme of fools having wisdom and wise choices appearing foolish through a reversal in the hierarchy of Fool and King, the use of "moral fool[ishness]," and the ignorant decisions of Lear.
Reversal in Hieracrhy
Reversal in hierarchy plays a central part in the king and the fool's relationship. The fool assists Lear in gaining wisdom and humility. He is the only person from whom the king accepts blatant honesty and criticism from. Northrop Frye, a critic of Shakespeare, explains that this privilege is given to the fool “because in our world nothing is funnier than a sudden outspoken declaration of the truth.” Regardless of the era in which a person lives or his/her social standing within society, criticism is easier to accept when it is delivered through comedy. Therefore, through the use of humor, the fool is able to discuss serious subjects without the king feeling defensive. For instance, when the fool states, "To give away thy land, / Come place him here by me / Do thou for him stand. / The sweet and bitter fool / will presently appear," he criticizes Lear for foolish deeds such as "giv[ing] away [his] land." Because the fool has earned the privilege of being outspoken through his humor, Lear only mildly challenges the fool’s critique when he retorts, "Does thou call me fool, boy?" If anyone else would have criticized him in the same manner, Lear would have become violently angry. If he is upset by the fool’s first response, the fool does a good job of deflecting any further anger through the use of humor while criticizing Lear further. He does so when he says, "All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with." Despite the fool being the king’s servant, Lear ultimately listens to him. This role reversal is important to the development of the play because the fool acts as Lear’s window to wisdom for the first half of the play. It is not until Lear has become completely mad that he begins to make wise choices. Lear needed this reversal in roles in order to develop as a character.
The fool is very aware of this reversal in hierarchy, as he makes clear many times throughout the play. He denotes this reversal when he states, “I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou art nothing.” Even though the fool is merely a court jester and of low status, at least he has a status. By giving away his kingdom, the king has made himself obsolete and without a role in society. Again, the fool deliberately refers to the reversal in hierarchy when he says, "There, take my coxcomb. Why this fellow has banished two on's daughters, and did the third a blessing against his will." By feigning giving Lear his coxcomb, the fool is telling the king he should be the fool due to his foolish acts.
The fool becomes frustrated with Lear’s careless decisions. He expresses his feelings of frustration by playing with the word “fool.” According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word “fool” has multiple meanings: “a person who acts unwisely or imprudently,” “a person who is duped or imposed on,” and “a jester or clown.” In the following passage, he plays on these definitions while also proving his own nobility.
That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain
And leave thee in the storm.
But I will tarry; the fool will stay,
And let the wise man fly.
The knave turns fool that runs away;
The fool no knave, perdy.
By stating that "the fool" is "no knave" and the "knave turns fool" shows that he is very aware of the reversal. The words knave and fool often are used to describe the same type of person, although they are not synonyms. Knave means “a dishonest or unscrupulous man.” This is significant because the line “the knave turns fool” shows that Lear (the knave) has become a “person who acts unwisely,” as well as “a person who is duped” by his elder daughters. The fool, on the other hand, is “a jester” who is not a knave because he is honest.
The Fool's Integrity
The fool’s integrity is seen in the first four lines of his speech when he says “a servant who seeks for gain…will pack when it begins to rain.” He proves that he is not a servant who is only supporting Lear for his own gain because the fool chooses to stay. If he were a servant that was only there for the material gain, he would have abandoned Lear when things became difficult. The fool is doing what he believes is right. He recognizes that he is one of the few sources of wisdom that the king listens to; therefore, he declares that he will remain faithful to the king when he says, "but I will tarry, the fool will stay." Through his redundancy by emphasizing "the fool," he realizes that loyalty to Lear has become foolish due to the uncomfortable situation they are in during the storm.
Fortunately for Lear, the fool remains by Lear's side, acting as a source of wisdom until the third act, after which the fool no longer appears in the play again. This does not indicate that wisdom has left Lear. In fact, it means quite the opposite. Even though King Lear is becoming more and more insane, he begins proving his wisdom. For instance, when he reunites with Cordelia, he states, "I am a very foolish fond old man." The fact that he realizes that he is foolish shows wisdom in and of itself. He later recognizes that Cordelia had a right to be angry with him when he states, "I know you do not love me; for your sisters / Have (as I do remember) done me wrong. / You have some cause, they have not." This shows great humility on the part of the king. He now sees Goneril and Regan for the cruel individuals they are. He also realizes his own foolishness when he says, "I am even / The natural fool of fortune." The lack of the fool's presence shows that Lear does not need wisdom walking at his side any longer, even though he has become completely mad.
The fool’s willingness to stay with the king is one of many examples where the characters within King Lear act with “moral foolishness.” Moral foolishness is when the line between what is moral and what is foolish becomes blurred. For instance, Goneril calls Albany a “moral fool” because he condemns her for her dishonesty and treachery. Goneril views Albany as a fool because he places his morals before his goals. She feels that one should do whatever they can in order to get a desired outcome. An unwillingness to do whatever it takes is seen as a weakness; therefore, in Goneril’s eyes, trying to live a life with a moral code will not result in getting what one desires.
Morals Used Foolishly
The idea that morals can be used foolishly is present throughout the play. Another example is “foolish honesty.” Edmund uses the phrase "foolish honesty" when he describes the ability to manipulate his brother Edgar and his father. He says, "A credulous father, and a brother noble, / Whose nature is so far from doing harms / That he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty / My practices ride easy." Edmund believes that because his father and his brother are honest, they are easily manipulated. In his eyes, honesty is seen as a weakness rather than an asset. Therefore, it is "foolish" to be honest. Edmund feels the only way to get what you want is through deceit. He also feels that due to their honesty, his plans to usurp his brother's birthright will be much easier. From a worldly perspective, honesty seems foolish to a person who is selfishly motivated by money and power, which are merely worldly effects.
On the other hand, from a religious or moralist perspective, it is seen differently. Kim Pathenroth, a religious essayist, said it best when she states:
The characters who behave foolishly according to the world’s standards… turn out to have real, life-giving, divine wisdom; on the other hand, the characters obsessed with being wise by worldly standards… participate in a fatal folly, a blinding self-absorption that makes them not only cruel and rapacious but ultimately miserable and self-destructive.
Edmund is obsessed with being wise by the world’s standards, and as a result, has become self-absorbed, cruel, and miserable. Not only does he make this clear when he plots against his brother and father, but also after he has won the affection of both Goneril and Regan. He says,
To both these sisters have I sworn my love;
Each jealous of the other, as the stung
Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take
Both? One? Or neither? Neither can be enjoyed,
If both remain alive…
It is clear he does not love either of them. He is only thinking of his own lustful nature and what the women could provide for him financially; therefore, he misses out on wonderful parts of life that could be enjoyed.
Cordelia, on the other hand, recognizes that life has more to offer than financial gain. She appears to act with “foolish honesty” when her father asks her about her love for him. Her response is not foolish at all. She is appalled by her sisters' false flattery and chooses to be honest when she says, "I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more or less." Even though she states that she loves him, she does not flatter him by speaking of a love that is inappropriate between a father and a daughter as her sister's Goneril and Regan do. Instead, she explains her lack of flattery by saying,
Why have my sisters husbands if they say
They love you all? Haply when I shall wed,
That Lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
She points out that if her sisters truly love their father in the way they claim, they would not have enough love to share with their husbands. Due to the king's foolishness, he believes her sisters' great claims of love and feels Cordelia's love pales in comparison. Despite the risk of losing her inheritance, Cordelia values honesty and risks revealing her appropriate level of love for her father.
Just as Goneril and Regan gain their land and kingdoms through their dishonesty, Cordelia gains her goal of love and respect through her truthfulness. The King of France looks beyond her loss of rank as he states,
Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich being poor,
Most choice forsaken and most loved despised,
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon.
Be it lawful I take up what's cast away.
Gods, gods! 'Tis strange that from their cold'st neglect
My love should kindle to inflamed respect.
This beautiful proposal contains paradoxes that seem to be foolish at first. For instance, how can one become rich by being poor? What he means is that because of her willingness to be honest and to risk losing all her wealth, she shows that she is rich in "virtues" that are irreplaceable, such as integrity and love. Even though “he forfeits a [financial] dowry," he gains love, which reflects his wisdom. Despite Cordelia’s death, she finds true love. She may not have survived the play, but then if “all the world’s a stage,” who in life does?
Not all "foolish honesty" is as good as it is in the case of Cordelia. Kent speaks honest words foolishly while the king is angry and sternly rebuking a man who is of a higher authority. This “foolish honesty” is seen in the following speech from Kent to Lear:
When majesty falls to folly. Reserve thy state,
And in thy best consideration check
This hideous rashness. Answer my life my judgment,
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,
Nor are those empty-headed whose love sounds
Reverb no hollowness.
Kent's honesty could have resulted in death due to his harsh words to a king. Examples of his harsh words are when he states, "When majesty falls to folly" and refers to his actions as "hideous rashness." One difference between this "foolish honesty" to that of the King of France's and Cordelia's is that Kent's brashness did not result in the fulfillment of his desires. Although he did finally get Lear to listen to him, it was only when he became dishonest by pretending to be someone else. While his speech is truthful, his timing and manner are unwise. Because Kent chooses to speak harshly while the king is angry, he does not bring about a change in Lear's perception. Instead, Kent is banished.
A King's Folly
Despite Kent's ignorance, King Lear also acts ignorantly when he banishes Kent and Cordelia. He chooses to banish two of the few people who remain loyal to him. His daughter even was willing to risk her life because of her love for her father. A poem written by Richard Johnson based on the play King Lear called “King Lear and His Three Daughters” portrays this well when it talks about her death. The poem says she “dy’d indeed for love.” Ironically, this is the same love she describes to her father in the beginning when he rejects and banishes her. It is not until Lear has lost everything, including his sanity, that he realizes his foolishness in sending them away. This foolish act is obvious to all.
Goneril even recognizes it when she says, "He always loved our sister most and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly." Goneril becomes frightened by Kent’s reaction to Cordelia. She realizes that if he is willing to do this to his favored daughter, he may be willing to do worse to her. Frye points out that Goneril and Regan’s recognition of Lear’s foolishness motivates them to disallow any further authority that he may still have had. Frye agrees with this and expresses the sisters’ feelings when he explains,
…while they’re not surprised that Lear acts like an old fool, even they are startled by how big a fool he is, and they realize that they have to be on their guard to stop him from ever having the power to do to them what he’s just done to Cordelia. The hundred knights Lear insists on could easily start a palace revolution in such a society, so the hundred knights will have to go.
In this, the two women act wisely, even if their intent is void of scruples. Goneril again shows great insight when she exclaims,
Idle old man,
That still would manage those authorities
That he hath given away. Now, by my life,
Old fools are babes again...
She not only recognizes that he loves Cordelia most, but that banishing her is very "poor judgment." She calls Lear an "idle old man," which refers to his decision on giving away his land as laziness. He not only transfers his "authorities" before it is necessary, but does so in order to be able to act as a young child again. She makes this clear by comparing "old fools" to "babes." This reference not only points out how babies are not required to do anything, but also that they are not yet able to discern and have not yet learned crucial reasoning skills.
As a result of Lear’s lack of discernment and wanting to live a carefree life, his life becomes filled with grief. If he had chosen to listen to those, like Kent, who spoke with wisdom, he would have avoided the catastrophes that followed. Shakespeare shows how when a person chooses to live a life of irresponsibility, there are consequences. The more responsibility that is given up, the bigger the consequences are. Michelle Lee, another Shakespearean critic, remarks that by giving up his power, Lear loses the ability to fight against his thankless daughters. “What he will do is suffer, and Shakespeare will make sure his suffering is among the greatest chronicled suffering of the earth.”
King Lear shows that wisdom is not always as it appears, and there are severe consequences for acting foolishly. Wisdom does not denote social class, as in the case of the king and the fool. Those who should be wise may not always have the right answers, whereas people who are thought of as foolish may be astute. True wisdom can only be found in those who are honest and have integrity. Dishonest people confuse what is wise and what is foolish, as in the example of Cordelia. Many may view her as being unwise because of the way she spoke with her father when he asked her how much she loves him. Although she loses her share in the dowry, she receives what she wants, which is love from her husband. In the end, she also regains the love of her father. Her reward for her honesty is greater than all the land both her sisters inherit, because Cordelia gains love.
- "fool1noun" The Oxford Dictionary of English (revised edition). Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson. Oxford University Press, 2005. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Grand Valley State University. 11 April 2009 <http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezproxy.gvsu.edu/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t140.e28794>
- "knave noun" The Oxford Dictionary of English (revised edition). Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson. Oxford University Press, 2005. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Grand Valley State University. 11 April 2009 <http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezproxy.gvsu.edu/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t140.e41724>
- Frye, Northrop. "Northop Frye on Shakespeare." Edited by Robert Sandler, 101-121.( Markham, Ontario: Yale University Press, 1986), 111.
- Johnson, Richard. "King Lear and his three daughters." 1775.( London: British Library: reproduction found through electronic source: EEBO, 1620),275.
- Lee, Michelle. Shakespearean Criticism. Vol. 103. (Detroit: Thomas Gale, 2007), 107.
- Paffenroth, Kim. "'Reason in Madness': The Wisdom in Folly in the New Testament and King Lear ." In In Praise of Wisdom: Literary and Theological Reflections on Faith and Reason, 53-83. (New York : Continuum, 2004), 53.
- Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” In The Complete Pelican: Shakespeare, by Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller, 1574-1615. (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), IV.
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© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz