This will probably be a rant. Why do you like the fool in Lear so much?
Dudes. Quit trying to rant-bait me. It won’t work. But about the Fool:
The Fool is just a really, really fascinating character. He’s kind of the epitome of the Fool as conceived by Shakespeare and Robert Armin together. I wrote a paper about this earlier this year, but basically if you look at Shakespeare’s fool characters chronologically, you notice a pattern: after Will Kemp leaves and Armin takes his place as resident clown c. 1599, there’s a change in the type of fool we see. Though we can’t say this with any certainty, it’s a pretty safe guess that Touchstone was the first role written specifically for Armin–reason being that the timing is right and also because Armin had actually originated a character called ‘Tutch’ which he wrote himself for performance with a different company before he joined the Chamberlain’s Men. And with Touchstone we get a new class of clown. Gone are the bumbling bumpkins like Dogberry that Kemp was so famous for. Instead we have this quick-witted, sharp-tongued fool who plays the part of jester and truth-teller simultaneously. (This is called an ‘artificial’ as opposed to a ‘natural’ fool–and Shakespeare was definitely highlighting the difference. Touchstone says “Such a one is a natural philosopher!” to mock the uneducated shepherds of Arden. ‘Natural,’ at the time and in this context, was a word referring to someone who was genuinely mentally unbalanced or handicapped, rather than ‘playing’ the fool.) And this role gets refined through characters like Feste until we finally get the magnificently complex character of the unnamed Fool of King Lear in 1606.
Now, partly what makes the Fool complex is that a lot of his lines actually change between the Quarto and the Folio. (Robert Hornback does a whole chapter about this in his book The English Clown Tradition from the Middle Ages to Shakespeare, and I really recommend reading it if you’re interested in the Fool, Lear, or just textual variation. He pushes his argument a little too hard but it’s still fascinating stuff. And if you’re interested in this in general there’s a whole list of resources on it here.) While there could be any number of reasons for that, the Fool is actually more stoic and cynical in the Quarto than he is the Folio–and by the time we get to the Folio, the Fool actually seems to be genuinely mad in places. He still plays the role of truth-speaker, he still calls Lear out on all his follies, but he also seems to be grappling with his own version of madness. So the Fool of Lear is natural and artificial at the same time–it’s incredibly intricate, and if done right, it’s heartbreaking.
The Fool is the only character who remains consistently in Lear’s good graces, despite the fact that time and again he questions his judgment and mocks his poor choices. But there’s something that keeps Lear from losing his temper with the Fool when he can’t do the same with his own beloved daughter. And I think that’s partly where the Fool’s little mad streak becomes really important. Lear, for all his cruelty, is protective of this smart-mouthed court jester who might actually be a little insane. Their relationship is curiously familial–the Fool consistently calls Lear “nuncle” and Lear consistently calls him “my boy,” and when they’re out on the heath, for the first time in the whole play Lear puts somebody else’s needs before his own. “Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?” Lear asks, in the midst of the storm, and when they finally find Edgar’s hovel he says to the Fool, “In, boy, go first.” And this might not look like much, but it really is. Nobody goes before the king, but Lear is actually worried about the Fool, and why? Look at the storm scenes. Look at how differently Lear and the Fool react to the storm. Lear is full of rage, daring the sky to do its worst:
“Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow,
You cataracts and hurricanos, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks.
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head.”
But now look at the Fool:
“O nuncle, court holy water in a dry house is better than this rainwater out a-door. Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughter’s blessing. Here’s a night pities neither wise man nor fool.”
And he talks this way through the whole scene. I think the Fool is genuinely afraid of the storm–and I saw a production recently that played it that way. While Lear was stumbling around and cursing the skies the terrified Fool was in a ball on the ground, weeping and singing with his hands cupped over his ears to drown the storm out, and it was one of the most gut-wrenching things I’ve ever seen. And I think this is key, because this is where the Fool’s real madness comes out. You see it at the end of 3.2 in the Folio, where the Fool delivers this completely bizarre soliloquy that scholars still can’t makes heads or tails of 400 years later:
FOOL This is a brave night to cool a courtesan. I’ll speak a
prophecy ere I go:
When priests are more in word than matter,
When brewers mar their malt with water,
When nobles are their tailors’ tutors,
No heretics burned but wenches’ suitors,
When every case in law is right,
No squire in debt, nor no poor knight,
When slanders do not live in tongues,
Nor cutpurses come not to throngs,
When usurers tell their gold i’th’ field,
And bawds and whores do churches build,
Then shall the realm of Albion come to great confusion.
Then comes the time, who lives to see’t,
That going shall be used with feet.
This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time.
Literally the only thing that’s clear from this speech is that the Fool knows the world is going to Hell in a handbasket. But how does he know that? There are so many weird lines in this play about the prophetic nature of the slightly insane (”Jesters do oft proves prophets”) and in that context this speech is so important. He’s talking about Merlin. This play takes place way before Merlin was supposed to have existed, and the Fool knows that: “This prophecy shall Merlin make, for I live before his time.” What the utter fuck, Will. What is happening here?? Is the Fool able to predict the future because he’s actually insane? It’s impossible to know. But the next scene is equally fascinating, because we have Lear and Edgar and the Fool together.
What’s interesting about this is that for the first and last time in any of Shakespeare’s plays we get the full spectrum of madness in the same room. Lear is genuinely mad by now, Edgar is only pretending to be mad, and the Fool is something in between. They hold this absolutely bizarre mock trial of Regan and Goneril, who aren’t even there, and their language is so riddled with metaphor it’s like walking into a linguistic labyrinth with no way out. But what we do see is the Fool kind of translating between Edgar and Lear, bridging the gap between real madness and make believe. I think Leslie Hotson puts it really well (albeit a little dramatically) in Shakespeare’s Motley, and brings the argument back to Armin: “If any player breathed who could explore with Shakespeare the shadows and fitful flashes of the borderland of insanity, that player was Armin… Never for a moment did he forget that ‘God’s fools’ stand under a special protection, and are at times granted an insight denied to the merely sane. With Armin at hand, Shakespeare could dare to present the tortured Lear hounded by unnatural and bemadding sorrow to the verge of the abyss, held back by one who knew its deeps.”
And I think this partial madness is really important, because it explains the Fool’s otherwise inexplicable behavior. Throughout the play the Fool draws attention to Lear’s foolishness and failing mental capacities. He knows before anyone else does that Lear is literally on the edge. When Lear asks “Who is that can tell me what I am?” it’s the Fool who says, “Lear’s shadow.” And despite the fact that the Fool clearly knows Lear is headed for disaster, he never leaves him. He follows him out into the storm even when he’s terrified, even when he knows the old man is doomed and why? Well, I think partly it goes back to love. I really do think he loves Lear, and vice versa. But I also think he knows that Lear is losing his mind, and he’ll need looking after. It’s not until Kent and Gloucester come to take care of him that the Fool finally disappears. Kent says to him, “Come, help to bear thy master. / Thou must not stay behind.” And this is the last the Fool is spoken of. Presumably he helps Lear offstage, but after that he completely vanishes from the play and is never mentioned again except for possibly in Lear’s ambiguous line “My poor fool is hanged.” Some scholars argue this is a reference to Cordelia, and some argue that it’s a reference to the Fool, and still others have made the (imo) far-fetched argument that this means Cordelia and the Fool were double-cast or even the same character. But even if it’s not an explicit reference to the Fool’s death offstage, it’s a very evocative epithet for Lear to apply to Cordelia in this particular moment.
So, what the hell happens to him? Maybe he disappears on purpose, once he knows Lear is in good hands. Or maybe he’s hanged. There’s no knowing. And I think that’s partly what so intrigues me about the Fool. We’ve never had a fool like this before and we never get a fool like this again. He’s so complex, and so precious, and the fact that he disappears in a puff of smoke will probably confuse and fascinate me until the day I die.