King Lear
Second lecture
The Fool
• One of the most wonderful conceptions, and wonderful roles, in the
• He’s a jester, Lear’s “all-licensed fool,” who’s allowed to say
• Court jesters were originally mental defectives, retarded adults.
• But later professional entertainers, comedians allowed to enliven
court proceedings.
• King James had a jester, Archie Armstrong, who was well known for
an impudence verging on arrogance.
• Lear’s fool is certainly impudent, cheeky.
• But he has an almost filial relation with him.
• Calls Lear “nuncle,” uncle; Lear calls him “boy” (even though Armin
was in his early 40s).
• His strange link with Cordelia: “Since my young lady’s going into
France, the fool hath much pined away.”
• “And my poor fool is hanged,” Lear says in the last scene; he seems
to mean Cordelia, but speaks of the Fool?
• It’s the Fool who needles Lear mercilessly about the foolishness of
what he has done in giving up his kingdom.
• And the fool disappears from the play after Act III, scene 6.
The characters dividing along
“moral” lines
• Kent’s intervention: begins ceremoniously: l. 140ff
• But Lear demands plainness.
• So Kent lets him have it: “Be Kent unmannerly/ When Lear is mad.
What wouldst thou do, old man?” Note the familiarity of thou.
• And his rhyming at 185ff seems to round off the exchange.
• The play is dividing characters according to their language and
rhetoric, their relation to a core truth.
• The Burgundy/France “test”; Cordelia becomes more desirable to
France because of her dowerless poverty.
• When Kent returns in disguise in 1.4, plainness becomes his middle
name, devotion to Lear his absolute truth.
• And his “truth” defines his quarrel with Oswald.
• And his opposition to Oswald at II.2: his wonderfully inventive list of
insults at l. 13ff.
• “No contraries hold more antipathy/ Than I and such a knave.”
• And even to Cornwall: “Sir, ‘tis my occupation to be plain./ I have
seen better faces . . .” (89ff).
• Characters seem to run to the moral poles of the world of the play:
Cordelia vs. her sisters, Kent vs. Oswald, Edgar vs. Edmund.
Moral polarities
• Goneril and Regan’s opposition to Lear at first seems
understandable, commonsensical.
• Their brief dialogue at the end of I.1.
• Goneril’s objections to the Fool, her problems with the
hundred knights (1.4.195ff).
• Her desire that he “a little to disquantity your train.”
• Lear’s terrible curse of Goneril: 1.4.271.
• But Albany’s reaction complicates.
• Regan’s sympathy with Goneril, II.4
• And they whittle down his 100 knights.
• “Oh reason not the need!” What gives us our grip on
• By this point their opposition seems to involve a basic
opposition to Lear.
Moral polarities (cont.)
• Edmund and Edgar
• Edmund’s role as a sort of renaissance “new
man”: his soliloquy at 1.2.
• With a new sense of “Nature” – almost
• His opposition to Edgar and Gloucester.
• And his eventual alliance with Goneril and
• Edgar’s choice of disguise – “Poor Tom,” the
poorest, craziest, most abject sort of person to
be found in Jacobean England.
• Why such a role? He’s the son of an earl.
• His feigned madness in stark contrast to
Lear’s journey
• Freud, in essay “The Theme of the Three
Caskets,” thought death was somehow implicit in
Cordelia’s “Nothing,” that she somehow
represented death for Lear.
• The parallel in an old morality play, “The Pride of
Life” – again the choice of three.
• Lear says he wishes to “unburdened crawl
toward death.
• But Goneril and Regan’s complaints about the
course of his life: “he hath ever but slenderly
known himself.”
• “The best and soundest of his time hath been
but rash.”
• Lear’s journey seems to be one of discovering
who he is – before he faces death.
The Fool’s lesson for Lear
• To the Fool, Lear is “this fellow who has banished two
on’s daughters, and did the third a blessing against his
• He deserves a coxcomb.
• The Fool’s “wisdom,” which is nothing.
• “Dost thou call me fool, boy?”
• “All thy other titles thou has given away; that thou wast
born with.”
• Who is Lear: Lear’s irony at l.4.220.
• But the Fool answers: “Lear’s shadow.”
• And in I.5 the Fool decides that Lear would make a good
fool himself.
• If Lear were his fool, he would have him beaten for being
old before his time.
• “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been
• And the first stirrings of Lear’s madness: ll. 43-44.
Second stage of that journey
• In II.4 Lear meets with Cornwall and Regan, who
similarly chips away at his self.
• “O sir, you are old . . .”
• And she and Goneril begin to strip away his 100
• And he feels himself becoming less and less.
• “You see me here, you gods, a poor old man/ As
full of grief as age, wretched in both.”
• And he is on the verge of tears – and madness.
• The storm begins – and Lear goes out into it.
Third stage – the heath in the storm
• The storm as a great “anti-pastoral” – nature that shows
humanity its utter insignificance.
• But Lear – madly -- tries to match the ferocity of the
• And seems to revel in its ferocity?
• His concern for the Fool: III.2.69ff.
• And at III.4.28.
• His “prayer” that recognizes the “Poor naked wretches.”
• And the “pat” entrance of Edgar as Poor Tom.
• Poor Tom’s role as repentant Mankind.
• And Lear’s embracing of him as “unaccommodated
man,” “the thing itself” . . .
• . . . and attempting to imitate, identify with Poor Tom:
“Off, off, you lendings!”
• “Tom” becomes Lear’s “philosopher.”
Fourth stage: Lear completely mad
• IV.6: Lear on the heath, “mad, bedecked with
weeds” . . .
• . . . stripped of all his identity – he too
“unaccommodated man”?
• . . . encounters the blinded Gloucester.
• How much of Lear’s discourse is madness, how
much a new clarity? See Edgar’s “reason in
• Gloucester: “O let me kiss that hand.”
• Lear: “Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality.”
• Lear’s mad insights into authority: “a dog’s
obeyed in office”; “thou rascal beadle”
• And the newborn infant’s tragic understanding of
The meeting with Cordelia
• There was a climactic scene in the old morality plays
when the penitent protagonist was given a “garment of
repentance” by the saving Virtue character.
• IV.7: Lear brought in, freshly clothed, asleep in chair.
• Cordelia slowly wakens him with music, kisses him.
• Lear’s “true” delusion: “Thou art a soul in bliss . . .”
• And in kneeling plays the part of the morality play.
• And slowly recovers a sense of himself.
• But only in a relational sense to Cordelia? “as I am a
man, I think this lady/ To be my child Cordelia.”
• His guilt? “No cause. No cause.”
• And then in V.3 he imagines his contented life in prison
with Cordelia.