King Lear [William Shakespeare]: Essay Three [35 out of 50, 2001/2002]


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Remind yourself of the language used by the Fool in Act 1 Scene 4, lines 94-201, from “Let me hire me too” to “That’s a sheal’d peascod”.

a.) How does the Fool attempt to make Lear understand here what Lear has done?
b.) How typical is this of the role of the Fool in the play as a whole?

In your responses you should include an evaluation of the literary and linguistic approaches you have used in analysing the language of the Fool in this extract and his role in the play as a whole.

“How does the Fool attempt to make Lear understand here what Lear has done?”

{Essay One CONTENTS: Use of vers libre; Subtle approach; Fool’s reasons for subtle approach; Infantile form; Parallels with Cordelia; Dramatic irony; Abstract and metaphorical language; Criticism of Lear’s intelligence; Use of double entendre; Juxtapositions; Critique of Lear’s actions & contempt for Goneril; Highlighting Lear’s loss of power; Highlighting Lear’s exposure to sharp vicissitudes of fortune; Conclusion.}
{Skip to Essay Two}

The ‘Fool’ articulates his attempts to make Lear understand what Lear has done through the use of a light-hearted verse form. In fact, it could be argued that Fool talks in vers libre, a term which refers to “rhymes in which various metres, or various rhythms, are combined, or the ordinary rules of prosody disregarded.” This can be seen through his mixture of statements and rhymes in the same speech- coupled with his sudden changes in metres- for example, “I have used it nuncle, e’er since thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers {an unrhyming declaration}… Then they for sudden joy did weep,/ And I for sorrow sung,/ That such a King should play bo-peep,/ And go the fools among {an ordered abab rhyme, with an 8/6/8/6 syllable structure}”. Upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that much of his wisdom-filled homespun philosophy is conveyed through the use of such a seemingly meaningless, harmless form.[^]

Fool takes an approach that could, at first glance, be considered direct. For example, the audience infers from his comment “Sirrah, you were best take my coxcomb”, that he means, “Here- you’re the fool, you wear this fool’s cap!” However, because Lear doesn’t have the necessary insight to fully grasp Fool’s conversational implicature, it becomes obvious that Fool’s attempts to make Lear aware of what Lear has done are, actually, very subtle. Only on one later occasion does it strike Lear to ask, “Dost thou call me fool boy?” Fortunately, his short attention span and ineffective selective attention render him unable to pursue this point.[^]

Fool’s subtle approach can be explained in terms of his desire to avoid a good thrashing from Lear’s short-sighted hands. This can be seen when Fool makes a comment which highlights the old adage, “Truth hurts”: “If I gave them all my living, I’d keep my coxcombs myself, there’s mine, beg another of thy daughters.” Indeed, Fool says as much (“Truth’s a dog must…be whipp’d out (Truth Hurts), when the Lady Brach may stand by th’ fire and stink”) in response to Lear’s threat, “Take heed sirrah, the whip.”[^]

The Fool proceeds to ‘teach’ Lear a how-to-prosper ‘speech’, using a succession of rhyming couplets: “Have more than thou showest,/ Speak less than thou knowest,/ …” Thus, Fool again uses a jokey, almost infantile form to express his wise words.[^]

In the interchange which follows, Lear comments “Why no, boy, nothing can be made out of nothing.” By paralleling his lecture to Cordelia, “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again”, Lear puts Fool in the likeable, under-appreciated group with which the audience empathise. However, the audience may also begin to feel slightly despondent at the fact that Lear apparently dismisses Fool in the same way as he rejected Cordelia.[^]

Repeating an earlier implication, ‘Fool’ indirectly labels Lear a fool by saying “All thy other titles thou hast given away, that thou wast born with”, in response to Lear’s question “Dost thou call me fool boy?” Following on from Kent’s defensive “This is not altogether fool my Lord”, Fool continues with “Lords and great men will not let me, if I had a monopoly out, they would have part an’t, and Ladies too… They’ll be snatching…” As Lear would consider himself to be a ‘great’ man, the subtext again is that Fool calls Lear a fool; an example of dramatic irony.[^]

Using the “two crowns of the egg” as a device for getting across his point of view, Fool declares that Lear has made a big mistake in abdicating his throne. “When thou clovest thy crown I’ th’ middle, and gav’st away both parts, thou bor’st thine ass on thy back o’er the dirt” is Fool’s way of making this point. It becomes increasingly obvious as the scene progresses that Fool talks in abstract and metaphorical language.[^]

He follows up this comment with a thinly veiled criticism of Lear’s intelligence, a repetition of his earlier sentiments, “thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown, when thou gav’st thy golden one away”. The four-line, abab rhyme “Fools had ne’er less grace in a year,/… Their manners so apish” translates to the effect that there is no job left for ‘fools’ like himself now, as the ‘wise’ men have become so much like them.[^]

Fool appears to use a double entendre when he says, “e’er since thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers…” This could be read in the traditional sense of ‘made’, or perhaps a play on words concerning Lear’s mental state – starting to go ‘mad’. Such ambiguous comments reinforce the idea of Fool taking a subtle approach.[^]

Fool’s ‘wit’ is highlighted through his use of the four-line, abab rhyme “Then they for sudden joy did weep,/ And I for sorrow sung… And go the fools among.” He says to Lear – through the use of the juxtapositions ‘joy… weep’ and ‘sorrow… sung’ – that Lear acted like a fool, and that Fool immediately saw through Goneril and Regan’s superficiality; demonstrating an insight that Lear is sadly lacking.[^]

When Lear quickly makes his customary “we’ll have you whipp’d” threat, Fool ‘marvels’ at the fact that Lear and his daughters would have him “whipp’d for speaking true: thou’lt have me whipp’d for lying, and sometimes I am whipp’d for holding my peace.” He continues with “I had rather be any kind o’ thing than a fool, and yet I would not be thee nuncle”, justifying his outspoken comments by suggesting that Lear shared not only the Kingdom between his daughters, but also his intelligence; in both cases, he left nothing for himself. Fool then declares “here comes one o’ the parings (referring to Goneril’s imminent entrance), perhaps expressing his contempt for Goneril through the use of such a vocative – Goneril isn’t wholly her own person, she is merely half of an inheritance.[^]

When Lear shows his concern about Goneril’s ‘frontlet’, saying “you are too much of late I’ th’ frown”, Fool helpfully explains the predicament in which Lear finds himself by pointing out that when he had no cause for concern regarding Goneril’s changing moods (before he abdicated his throne) he “wast a pretty fellow… now [that his future could be changed on a hormonal whim] thou art an O without a figure”.[^]

As if to really rub salt into the wound, Fool maintains “I am better than thou art now, I am a fool, thou art nothing.” Fool appears to reveal something of a vindictive streak at this point, as he says that Lear has no place in the world: he has become “a sheal’d peascod.”[^]

In conclusion Fool uses a child-like verse form to convey his well-thought-out attempts to make Lear understand here what Lear has done. By mixing philosophical rhymes with declarative statements, Fool subtly gets across his point of view. It is unfortunate, then, that Lear seems to gain nothing from Fool but a varying degree of enjoyment from his ‘songs’. I suppose that Fool’s response to this suggestion would be, “Some fell on stony ground…”[^]

“How typical is this of the role of the Fool in the play as a whole?”[^]

{Essay Two CONTENTS: Disguise; Insight; Role as social observer; Provider of comedy amidst tragedy; Cryptic language; Role as philosopher; Conclusion.}

Fool’s ‘dressing up’ of wise words in a superficially trivial verse form is evident throughout the play, adding to the theme of disguise started by Lear’s daughters (Goneril and Regan, in professing their ‘love’ of Lear); continued by Edmund (who is eventually called “Loyal and natural boy” by Gloucester); Kent (following his banishment from the kingdom, disguising himself as an uninformed “honest-hearted fellow, and as poor as the King” in order to work again with Lear); and Edgar (who disguises himself – to avoid death – as “poor Tom The Bedlam Beggar”).[^]

The perceptive, insight-packed comments made by Fool concerning Lear’s current predicament – ably demonstrated by his clever use of the broken egg/crown metaphor – are completely typical of his role in the play as a whole, reflective of the fact that he is a sage, philosophical man in a jester’s costume.[^]

As shown in this scene, Fool is less selfish than most, in that his wise words are usually in the form of social observations, thus, he isn’t always thinking about himself. Fool’s profound musings often land him in trouble, as shown by the repeated threats of whipping from Lear. However, his concern for others comes across in a very positive way in Act III, Scene II, when he sensibly tells Lear to “ask thy daughter’s blessing; here’s a night pities neither wise men, nor fools” as Lear taunts the storm to do its worst, “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks; rage, blow/ You cataracts, and hurricanoes spout…”. Similarly, in Act III, Scene IV, he says to Lear, “Prithee nuncle be contented, ’tis a naughty night to swim in”, when Lear is ready to “unbutton” his ‘lendings’, and face the elements of the storm naked.[^]

Another function of Fool is to provide comedy amidst the tragedy – this would be an effective way to entertain Shakespearean audiences, before the days of intermissions. As Fool’s language works on so many levels, the less educated members of the audience could have simply laughed at his bizarre intonation and sentence structures, while the more educated could have appreciated the subtleties of his wit, and made higher-level inferences. In this way, he becomes a figure to whom the audience can strongly relate; in many ways, he is the voice of the audience – pointing out things that we’d all love to be able to tell Lear.[^]

A further example of Fool using deliberately cryptic language to remark on Lear’s situation comes in Act III, Scene II, as he says “The cod-piece that will house,/ Before the head has any;/ The head, and he shall louse:/ So beggars marry many {abab}… And turn his sleep to wake.” The important gist of his rhyme translates roughly to “Lear – you have been kinder to your daughters than to yourself. As a result of this, you will be kept awake by your troubles.” Thus, Fool can be seen in his typical role as a social observer.[^]

Fool’s symbolic and philosophical, “He that has and little tiny wit,/… Though the rain it raineth every day”, speaks of making the most of a bad situation, and draws the first acknowledgement from Lear of his comments, “True boy: come, bring us to this hovel.” This can be attributed to the fact that the unfortunate sequence of events preceding this incident has opened Lear’s mind to the point where he has the necessary insight to see the method in Fool’s artificial madness.[^]

To conclude, this extract of the play portrays Fool in an entirely typical light. Free-thinking and philosophical, Fool contributes to the play by making social observations which would be of particular relevance to Lear… if only he could understand them.[^]

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Forty-year-old father of three wonderful children [William, Seth, and Alyssa]. Works as an Assistant Technical Officer in the Sterile Services Department of Treliske Hospital, Cornwall. Enjoys jogging, web design, learning programming languages, and supporting Arsenal FC. Obtained a BA degree in English from the University of Bolton in 2008, and has continued to gain qualifications in a diverse range of subjects thereafter.

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Posted in A Level English [A2]

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