Comic Relief in King Lear
Combining the antics of a circus with the pomp of a royal court is a difficult task indeed. William Shakespeare’s genius came from how closely he intertwined the two seemingly mutually exclusive realms to appeal to all socioeconomic groups in his audience. In King Lear, Edgar’s appearance as Tom of Bedlam, Lear’s insanity, and Lear’s Fool provide the comic relief which slices the dramatic tension. Among these, Lear’s Fool provides the closest intercourse of the two realms of royalty and tomfoolery while still maintaining their separation.
Fools, as I understand them, were kept by kings as entertainment devices prior to the advent of television. Lear’s Fool, how-ever, transcends the role as entertainer to assume the role of both Ann Landers and Jim Davis. Particularly intriguing to me are his witticisms and humorous tidbits which interweave foreshadowing, practical advice, humor, and characterization into a succinct, meterical saying.
The Fool begins by offering his jester’s cap to Kent, saying that if Kent is to follow Lear, he had better have a coxcomb, insinuating the folly of following Lear. He goes on to say that “if I gave my daughters all my property,” I’d have to keep a coxcomb. The Fool is quick to juxtapose his comment against his statement that he does not have a “monopoly” on foolishness. The Fool further points out the presence of a “wise man and a fool” without saying who is who, and he criticizes Lear for “going the fools among,” implying that Lear is usurping the Fool’s position as one prone to lapses of judgment and sheer stupidity. He tacitly insinuates through his actions and statements that he is among the company of fools, which provides the hint of foreshadowing the audience needs to know that Lear is losing his wits.
The Fool also uses argument by analogy several times. He first relates Lear to a hedge sparrow which feeds cuckoo babies, which then bit the sparrow’s head off. The Fool also relates empty egg shells to Lear and his crown. Shakespeare’s unique touch comes in the double meaning of the egg shells. The Fool says that Lear is left with two empty egg shells for a crown, but he also implies that Lear’s head is like an empty egg, related most clearly in the comparison of the color of Lear’s head to the color of an egg.