Wisdom and Foolishness in Shakespeare's King Lear

Wisdom and Foolishness in Shakespeare's King Lear

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Tragedies are dominated by contrasts and conflicts between various entities such as, good and evil, legitimate and illegitimate, appearance and reality and so on. Another contrast is between wisdom and foolishness. If one associates foolishness with madmen and fools one will be surprised to find that in a tragedy such as King Lear this is not the case. Shakespeare portrays, the sane characters such as Kent and Cordelia as fools by virtue of loyalty, love and their willingness to speak the truth. On the otherhand, the Madman, Tom o’Bedlam and the fool are depicted as the true figures of wisdom. Moreover mirroring all this is King Lear’s transition from foolish behaviour through madness achieving wisdom.

Cordelia and Kent may classify as sane characters but still their behaviour is foolish.
Cordelia and Kent speak the truth which Lear does not want to hear. Their behaviour is foolish as they confront Lear, a mighty fortress of pride, in their willingness to be true and loyal to a father and to a king. Cordelia cannot heave her heart into her mouth and speaks plain, “I love your majesty according to my bond no more nor less”. In doing this she risks displeasing her father, furthermore she continues to displease him when she tries to make him realize his foolish behaviour. In the end she is willing to give her life for a father who has wronged her (when she returns to rescue him). Likewise Kent is also wronged when he confronts Lear with the true reality of things. In doing this he sacrifices his identity as Earl. Kent again risks his life when in disguise he returns to serve Lear again. In the end there are suggestions that he will follow Lear, his master, to the grave.

Therefore, if the sane characters commit foolish actions, obeying the same paradox, the implications are that Tom o’Bedlam and the fool have to be wise. The role of the fool in the play is to remind Lear of his foolish behaviour in giving everything to his two daughters and in banishing Cordelia. The audience can get much insight in the words of the fool. This was not new to the Elizabethan audience as it was a theatrical convention that the fool would speak the truth. Likewise is poor Tom o’Bedlam (Edgar in disguise). In him Lear finds reason and calls him philosopher.

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Lear finds himself in poor Tom and he identifies himself with him. Moreover Tom shows Lear the true essence of humanity.

In King Lear the madmen are portrayed as wise while the sane can be foolish sometimes. Shakespeare makes use of this paradox to further emphasise the psychological journey that Lear has to take. Being blinded by pride his actions are foolish. Failing to recognize Goneril’s and Regan’s false flatteries and Cordelia’s sincerity he banishes his truthful daughter. He is not less lenient in the treatment of Kent. However one may even argue that his first foolish action was to give all he had (as The Fool had said, that the snail has a house to live in and not to give it away). Although, Lear is old he is not wise: “Thou should not have been old till thou hadst been wise”. So Lear’s behaviour is foolish. Through this part of the play the fool is his companion, mirroring his state of mind. Poor Tom takes the role of the fool but instead he mirrors the madness of Lear. This path with poor Tom will allow Lear to find wisdom in madness and be able to see the truth once again, not only for his situation but also the truth about humanity.



Shakespeare depicts a paradox which can create a sense of ambiguity. How can the mad be wise and the supposed wise be foolish. The true answer is that King Lear is a tragedy where all is not what it seems, where what is wrong seems right and what’s right seems wrong, where an old king (a symbol of wisdom and duty) turns to folly downgrading to the basest of all things.

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