The Fool in Shakespeare's "King Lear". Roles and Function

Term Paper, 2013

8 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1. Aim of this Paper

2. Main Part
2.1. The Fool as the Provider of Truth and Wisdom
2.2. The Fool as the Substitute for Cordelia in her Absence
2.3. The Fool as the Representation of Goodness in Lear

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

1.1. Aim of this Paper

Throughout history the traditional function of the fool in a royal household was to entertain the members of the court by being an imbecile and a jester. In ‘King Lear’ Shakespeare allows his Fool to take over the unique position of the person who is able to correct his master without being punished. Nevertheless, the Fool does not seem to have any direct influence on the behavior of the king, as he is not taken seriously. The aim of this paper is to present the various roles of the Fool and to analyze his function within the play.

2. Main Part

2.1. The Fool as the Provider of Truth and Wisdom

“[…] Lear’s fool serves primarily to tell his master the bitter truth about his actions, and so bring him to the light of spiritual wisdom” (Pyle, Mirth and Morality of Shakespeare’s Holy Fools 66). Throughout the play the Fool takes over the role of the person who constantly reminds Lear of his mistakes in order to enlighten him and make him realize his folly. He first appears in the middle of Act I Scene IV of the play and immediately points out that Lear has made a mistake by dividing his kingdom among his daughters. When talking to Kent he says:

[…] if thou follow him [King Lear] thou must needs

wear my coxcomb. How now, Nuncle! Would

I had two coxcombs and two daughters! (King Lear, Act I, sc. iv, l. 109-111)

In this scene the Fool is offering his coxcomb to Kent. By referring to his cap as a coxcomb1, he uses the ambiguous meaning of this word in order to suggest the king to be the fool rather than himself. Kent before him had criticized Lear for his decision causing him to be banished from the kingdom, however, the Fool receives no such punishment showing that he can get away with actions that are far more courageous. When Lear first warns him, he replies:

Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be

whipp’d out when the Lady Brach may stand by th’ fire and stink.2 (Act I, sc. iv, l. 117-119)

This statement further supports the idea of the Fool being able to talk to the king in the manner he does without having any effect on their relation. Although the king does not want to hear the truth and therefore tries to avoid it, the Fool essentially points out his false behavior through his speeches. “Wie eine Art Chorus, als betrachtender und seinem Beruf entsprechend kommentierender Zuschauer geht er neben dem Geschehen her” (Edgar Neis, Erläuterungen zu William Shakespeare, König Lear, Der Sturm 49).

The Fools’ giving advices to the king further develops by the following statement:

Mark it, Nuncle:

Have more than thou showest,

Speak less than thou knowest,

Lend less than thou owest,

Ride more than thou goest,

Learn more than thou trowest,

Set less than thou throwest,

And keep in-a-door,

And thou shalt have more,

Than two tens to a score. (Act I, sc. iv, l. 123-133)

The speech of the Fool carries a great weight in foreshadowing mistakes the king will make, but it also offers solutions. The main message the Fool is trying to tell King Lear here is: Be careful what you give in accordance to what you have.


1 coxcomb: - a conceited foolish person (Webster’s New Students Dictionary, Springfield, Massachusetts, U.S.A.: G. & C. Merriam Webster, 1974.) - cockscomb (Pons Großwörterbuch, Englisch-Deutsch/Deutsch Englisch. Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Sprachen GmbH, 2005.)

2 „Der Narr schildert in seinem Bild den Gegensatz zwischen dem gemeinen Hund (=Wahrheit) und der hochgezüchteten, verfeinerten Jagdhündin, die von der niederen Rasse himmelweit entfernt ist und sich wegen ihrer Vornehmheit alles erlauben kann: die höfische Schmeichelei.“ (Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz: Anmerkungen in: Shakespeare, William. King Lear: englisch/deutsch = König Lear. Trans. Raimund Borgmeier, Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz, Bernd Santesson und Dieter Wessels, mit einem Vorw. von Ulrich Suerbaum. Hrsg. mit einem Nachw. und Erl. von Raimund Borgmeier und, Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2008, p. 240.)

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The Fool in Shakespeare's "King Lear". Roles and Function
University of Potsdam  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
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fool, shakespeare, king, lear, roles, function
Quote paper
Anne Lipp (Author), 2013, The Fool in Shakespeare's "King Lear". Roles and Function, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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