The Foolishness of Fools in Shakespeare’s King LearShakespeare’s tragedy King Lear is comprised of many distinct themes. His contrasts of light and dark, good and evil, and his brilliant illustration of parallels between the foolishness of the play’s characters and society allowed him to craft a masterpiece. Just as well, Shakespeare’s dynamic use of linguistic techniques such as pun and irony aid this illustration of the perfect microcosm, not only of 16th century Britain, but of all times and places. By far the theme that best allowed the furthering of this superb contrast between Victorian England and Lear’s own defined world is Shakespeare’s discussion of fools and their foolishness. This discussion allows Shakespeare to not only more fully portray human nature, but also seems to illicit a sort of Socratic introspection into the nature of society’s own ignorance as well.
One type of fool that Shakespeare involves in King Lear is the literal fool. This does not, of course, necessarily mean that they are fools all the time; or fools in the denotative sense of the term. Edmund, for instance, may definitely be seen as a fool in the sense that he is morally weak. His foolishness derives from the fact that he has no sense of right or justice. He discusses this as his father, Gloucester, leaves to ponder the “plotting” of his son Edgar. Edmund states that, “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that / when we are sick in fortune../…we make guilty of our disasters / the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains / on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion” seemingly for the soul purpose of illustrating his wickedness (I, ii, 32). Edmund realizes that his evil was borne by himself. This soliloquy shows the a…
… evil in foolishness, implicitly stating that it is not necessarily foolish deeds that lead to evil, but evil that leads to foolish deeds. The truth of the play is that the only way one can avoid playing the fool is to take care to heed one’s own inner voice. As Edgar says in the last line of the play, “The weight of this sad time we must obey / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”(V, iii, 261)
Works Cited and Consulted
Barber, C.L. “Tragedy of Foolishness.” 20th Century Interpretations of King Lear. Ed. Jane Adelman. Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1978.
Jayne, Sears. “Foolishness in King Lear.” Shakespeare Quarterly. Spring, 1964. pps. 27-7-288.
Knights, L.C. “On the Fool”. 20th Century Interpretations of King Lear. Ed. Jane Adelman. New Jersey; Prentice-Hall, 1978.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2000.