Just Foolin’

Some quick (ok, maybe not so quick) thoughts on the Fool in King Lear…

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a fool could be “One who professionally counterfeits folly for the entertainment of others, a jester, clown” (“fool, n. 2.a.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 28 April 2016.). On the other hand, that same definition runs with the following addendum: “The ‘fool’ in great households was often actually a harmless ‘lunatic’ or a person of weak intellect, so that this sense and sense [One who is deficient in, or destitute of reason or intellect; a weak-minded or idiotic person. Obs. exc. in natural (also born) fool, a born idiot] are often hard to distinguish” (“fool, n. 2.a. addendum[4 bracketed]” OED Online). So our Fool, here in Lear–jokester, harmless lunatic or idiot?

My vote is definitely for the former, though I think that while he “professionally counterfeits folly for the entertainment of others,” I believe that he is not above “counterfeit(ing) folly” for his own self preservation. And, of course, in this case “folly” would refer to a “weakness or derangement of mind” (“folly, n. 1.a.” OED Online) as opposed to “lewdness, wantonness” (“folly, n. 3.a.” OED Online) or “madness, insanity” (“folly, n. 4.a.” OED Online). On the other hand, I think the title character in Christopher Moore’s comic retelling of Lear, Fool, most definitely falls under that more wanton definition (I’m in the midst of listening to the book on Audible, and it’s giving this bawdy ol’ Bill a number of things to chuckle about).

So the Fool’s primarily an entertainer, though obviously a satirical one, protected not only by satire and counterfeited folly, but by his official “all-licensed” (I.iv.184) and Lear-allowed freedom. Still, he’s one whose modus operandi (entertaindi?) is evolving. Did no one else pause at Lear’s question in the Fool’s first scene, “When were you want to be so full of songs, sirrah?” (I.iv.153). The Fool’s response shows how recently this changes has taken place: “e’er since thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers” (I.iv.154). I find it interesting that the Fool is smart enough to mention only the two older daughters here; a knight earlier stated that “since [Cordelia]’s going into France…the fool hath much pined away” (I.iv.72-3)–a comment that elicits a kingly “No more of that” (I.iv.74). I find even more interesting the dynamics of pronouns in the Lear/Fool exchange.

In the past, I’ve discussed the difference between the use of “thou” and “you.” As “thou” was slowly being replaced by “you” in common usage, that older diction (despite its Biblical connections) took on a more inferior connotation. It became a slight, if not a complete insult. Interesting then that Lear uses the more respectful “you” with the Fool, while the Fool uses the disrespectful “you” with Lear. Could this be passive aggression from a Fool who was reduced to “pin[ing] away” after the banishment of Cordelia? Regardless, the Fool’s “license” allows him some leeway (I’ll posit that the king’s warning of “the whip” [I.iv.109] and being “whipped” [I.iv.163] are more a part of their ongoing banter than actual abuse).

But back to his entertainment.

Nearly a fifth of the Fool’s speeches are either songs or rhymed verse, almost evenly split between the two types of speech. The Fool appears in six scenes, with songs in only his first scene (Act One, Scene Four) and rhymed verse in his third and fourth appearances (Act Two, Scene Four, and Act Three, Scene Two, respectively). This sort of artificial language tips the scale in favor of entertainment over derangement.

But what I find truly interesting is this: once the Fool meets another counterfeiter of folly, Edgar as Poor Tom, the Fool neither rhymes nor sings. But Edgar/Tom does. And without the Fool’s entertainer role, there is nothing for him to do, save for “go[ing] to bed at noon” (III.vi.45), his final line in the play–what is often read as his realization/resignation that he prematurely no longer has a role or life (and thus is going to sleep before the day is done).

[Note: this sudden disappearance of song is the case in the Folio version, The Tragedy of King Lear. In the Fool’s final scene in the Folio version, The History of King Lear, the Fool does sing three lines, a bawdy completion of a song that Edgar begins, but this late long seems too late for a character who is fading away.]

Interesting, too, is that the Fool is one of only two of the thirteen major characters in the play who shares no scenes with two of the other major characters in the play. Lear, Goneril, Albany, Regan, Kent and Gloucester, all share at least one scene with each of the other twelve major characters in the play; Edgar, Edmund, Cornwall and Oswald each have one other character with whom they share no scene. Only the Fool and one other character fails to share a scene with two other characters, and one of those absent characters is the other character with two missing scene-mates: Cordelia. In other words: only the Fool and Cordelia have more than one other major character with whom they share no scenes. And the Fool and Cordelia share no scenes together. Fascinating, given the supposed emotional distress the Fool feels because of Cordelia’s punishment. Why don’t we ever see them together? Jonathan Miller’s BBC production has the Fool present in the opening scene, but there no support for it in the text.

[Another note: While technically true that Edgar and Cordelia both appear in the play’s final scene, they are not onstage together… at least not alive.]

Now from the page to the stage: But how to play the Fool?

Aging vaudevillian? Bitter old Fool? A contemporary confidante?

Lear’s first words to the Fool are “How now, my pretty knave” (I.iv.96). Though now most commonly seen as “a villain…a term of abuse” (“knave, n. 3.a.” OED Online), “knave”’s original meaning was that of “a male child, a boy. Also: a young man” (“knave, n. 1.” OED Online). And I think that’s the use here. Repeatedly, Lear calls the Fool “my boy” (I.iv. 98, 106; III.ii.69 [twice]) and simply “boy” (I.iv.131; I.v.10, 17, and 48; III.ii.79; III.iv.26). [Point of interest: all of these “boy” references occur before Edgar/Tom enters the scene. After this point, the Fool is ignored by Lear (save for two short references found in the “trial” sequence in the Quarto [History] version)]

Is this a clue to casting? Is the Fool meant to be young? Or is “boy” just a relative term by a much older man? A term of endearment?

If this diction points to a boy actor, might this not tie into the fact that the Fool and Cordelia don’t appear in any scene together? As we know, women (particularly young ones) were played by boys in the acting company–was this actor double-cast in both roles? Does this have implications in more modern castings? Could the two roles still be played by the same performer, only now female?

Yes, we get “knave” and “boy” from the mouth of Lear, but the definition of the household fool was specifically non-gender-specific. The Brian Blessed film used an older woman (Blessed’s real-life wife) in the role of the Fool. And I have memories of seeing Emma Thompson play the role in her then-husband Kenneth Branagh’s touring King Lear back in 1990 (she did not, alas, also play Cordelia). I think it could work. It would add particular poignancy to Lear’s statement, “And my poor fool is hanged” (V.iii.282), made over the body of dead Cordelia.

O, one last thing:

If the Fool is replaced by Edgar, the “knave” or “boy” replaced by “the thing itself” (III.iv.106), “this philosopher” (III.iv.152), “this same learned Theban” (III.iv.155), then this man becomes a kind of surrogate son to Lear.

Is this why Edgar is the de facto king at the end of the play?