Fools In _King Lear_
April 26, 1999
"Fools and Kings"
Shakespeare's dynamic use of irony in King Lear aids the microcosmic illustration of not only 16th century Britain, but of all times and places. The theme that best develops this illustration is the discussion of fools and their foolishness. This discussion allows
Shakespeare not only to portray human nature, but also to elicit 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 immoral fool.
Edmund, for instance, may be seen as a fool in the sense that he is morally weak. His
foolishness lies in the fact that he has no sense of right or justice, which rewards him with
an untimely, ironic death. He discusses this as his father, Gloucester, leaves to ponder the
"plotting" of his son Edgar. Edmund soliloquizes,
"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." (I. ii. 32)
for the sole purpose of illustrating his wickedness. Edmund realizes that his evil is self-
taught. This soliloquy shows the audience Edgar's foolishness in his belief that
malevolence is the force that drives one to greatness or prosperity. It also illustrates the
bastard's mistaken belief that by fooling his father, he might be able to eliminate Edgar,
the competition for Gloucester's title, and possibly rid himself of his father in the same
act. This is a prime example of immoral foolishness in King Lear.
Another type of fool in King Lear is the ignorant fool. Whereas characters such as
Goneril, Regan, and Edmund are fools because of their tendency to harm others for self-
gain, the ignorant foolish are not necessarily driven to evil. However, the evil are almost
always driven to foolish actions. Gloucester, arguably Lear's foil, puts forth an interesting
perspective in the play. His character is presented as one who is blind to the truth, and
ironically, one who becomes physically blind in the end. In actuality, it is his blindness to
the truth of Edgar's love and Edmund's greed and apathy that ultimately brings about
Gloucester's demise. When he says, "I have no way and therefore want no eyes, / I
stumbled when I saw" (IV.i.173), he seems to be illustrating the realization of his own
foolishness. Gloucester illustrates, through his use of verbal irony, that his foolishness
lies in the fact that he never truly saw anything (e.g. the true nature of Edmund or Edgar)
until he was blind. Another example of Gloucester's ignorant foolishness is the
misfortune he predicts at the beginning of the play. He says,
"These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the
wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by
the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide...in palaces,
treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt son and father" (I, ii, 103-109).
This statement ironically predicts the vast majority of the play with uncanny accuracy.
Shakespeare seems to be using Gloucester as a tool to provide more insight into the
nature of foolishness.
Another ignorant fool, and obviously one of the most important, is King Lear
himself. Shakespeare deliberately uses Lear as a representation of the darker side of
human foolishness. He appears to be illustrating the folly of not listening to one's inner
voice, as well as discussing the corruption of power and wealth. He first demonstrates his
foolishness by saying to his daughters, "Only we shall retain the name, and all the
addition of a king" (I, i, 15). His wish is to maintain the kingdom without all the
accompanying responsibility of the crown. However, in a more complicated manner, Lear's foolishness is derived from his inability to see that although he was king, he was a simple man as well. As a king, he wished to have his daughters openly display an undying affection for him. He shows that his practices are derived from that of a king, in that he can only see life through the eyes of