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King Lear is without doubt Shakespeare's most nihilistic play. It is a storm without clearing. In this version of reality, faith is absurd. The play is set in the pagan era, where King Lear loses all his faith in the gods. However, we see the need for Christian revelation in the hopelessness of the play. We also see in the character of the Fool a character who resembles the wisdom and words of the Apostle Paul "Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool that he may be wise."1 These words are very similar to the function and meaning of the word fool in the play. While fool in Shakespeare's plays can represent a "dupe", a "madman", a "beloved one", a "court jester", or a "victim", it means all of these in King Lear. For the Fool is the court jester, Cordelia is Lear's beloved one, and Lear, himself, is at various times duped, a madman, and a victim. Yet, when we look at the words of Paul, we see the Fool tell Lear virtually the same thing in this play. For Lear believes himself to be wise, when, in reality, he is a duped fool:
Fool. If thou wert my Fool, Nuncle, I'd have thee beaten for being old before they time.
Lear. How's that?
Fool. Thou should'st not have been old till thou hadst been wise.2
The Fool loves Lear as much as anyone in the play, save for his youngest daughter Cordelia. The Fool knows Lear's only mistake is not accepting Cordelia's expression of love. Once he has divided his kingdom between Goneril and Regan it is too late for any advice to Lear to resolve the matter. The Fool tries to get Lear to understand what a dupe and bungler he has been, but Lear cannot see himself as the portrait the Fool paints. Lear needs nothing more than himself; he has everything in himself. However, he goes from everything in himself to nothing because he has been unwise:
Lear. Does any here know me? This is not Lear:
Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied-Ha! waking? 'tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?
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Fool. Lear's shadow.3
The main meaning of fool in King Lear is being unwise, a foolishness that makes Lear the victim and dupe of his daughters, and eventually a madman who has nothing. As the Fool tells Lear "Thou has pared thy wit o'both sides, and left nothing i'th'middle."4 The irony of the King being the fool and the Fool having wisdom does not go unnoticed by the Fool, but it does by Lear who fails to understand he has erred in judgement and wisdom. Kent does understand this as well, which is why when the Fool tells Lear his lands, thus, his power, have come to nothing, he beseeches Kent to tell him because Lear does not understand:
Kent. This is nothing, fool.
Fool. Then 'tis like the breath of an unfee'd lawyer,--you gave nothing for't.-Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?
Lear. Why, no, boy; nothing can be made out of nothing.
Fool. Pr'ythee, tell him, so much the rent of his lands comes to: he will not believe a fool.5
The saying from Paul is similar to the dilemma of Lear. He deceives himself into thinking he is everything in himself, but he comes to nothing because he thinks he is wise without realizing he is a fool. Fool, in this case, meaning duped and victimized by his daughters because of foolishly dividing Cordelia's lands between them. The King will eventually be driven to madness because of his foolish actions. He will lose everything, including Cordelia who he comes to realize is the only daughter that truly loves him. Lear does, indeed, in the words of the Apostle Paul, become a fool before he becomes wise. However, it is too late for him to save his kingdom or his beloved Cordelia. Thus, the King who is everything in himself becomes, by his own foolishness, nothing. Though the Fool loves Lear, Lear, from the beginning of the play, does not listen to the admonitions and forebodings of doom from the Fool. This, in fact, is what actually makes him a fool. He thinks himself all wise and all knowing, which, in turn, makes him unable to heed the very advice that might give him wisdom:
Fool. -Nuncle, give me an egg, and I'll give thee two crowns.
Lear. What two crowns shall they be?
Fool. Why, after I have cut the egg i' the middle, and eat up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou clovest thy crown i' the middle, and gavest away both parts, thou borest thine ass on thy back o'er the dirt: thou hadst little wit in they bald crown when thou gavest thy golden one away. If I speak like myself in this, let him be whipped first finds it so.6
In conclusion, we can see that the meaning of fool in King Lear does stand for a court jester, a beloved one, a dupe, a madman, and a victim. We also see that Lear does, indeed, in the words of the Apostle Paul, have to become a fool before he becomes wise to Cordelia's love for him and the unnatural motives of his other two daughters. Only then does he recognize his own foolishness, but by then all is lost and it comes to late to save him, his kingdom, or Cordelia.
The New American Bible. (1983). New York, Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Shakespeare, W. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York, Gramercy Books, 1975.
1 The New American Bible. (1983). New York, Thomas Nelson Publishers, I Corinthians 3:18.
2 Shakespeare, W. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York, Gramercy Books, 1975, I.v.38-44.
3 Shakespeare, W. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York, Gramercy Books, 1975, I.iv.223-228.
4 Shakespeare, W. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York, Gramercy Books, 1975, I.iv.212-213.
5 Shakespeare, W. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York, Gramercy Books, 1975, I.iv.140-146.
6 Shakespeare, W. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York, Gramercy Books, 1975, I.iv.177-188.