“The Fool remains a better critic of Lear than all later resenters of the king, because he accepts Lear’s sublimity and uniqueness and they cannot.”

King Lear

Act Two, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


lear-fool-rscTo start, a bit about the Fool.  It’s the changes in the Folio that affect the Fool more than other character in the play.  And in fact, his dramatic importance in the play seems somehow much greater than his actual role, which is limited to about 225 lines in six scenes; 54, or almost one quarter of his lines, are changed in F.  But while critics in general do agree on his importance (Bloom talks about him in the excerpt below), they differ enormously in their conception of the character, as do theater directors. He may be seen as half-witted, a natural whose wisdom is a form of instinctive clairvoyance, or as a sage rationalist, shrewd and thoughtful; he can be seen as a boy (Lear addresses him as such, and he calls Lear “nuncle”), as a mature perhaps even elderly man (after all, he calls Lear “boy” too in Q); or even as an androgynous youth, perhaps a kind of alter ego for Cordelia – in the productions in 1990 by the Royal Shakespeare Theater and the English Renaissance Company, the Fool was played by an actress (Emma Thompson in the ERC production). He has been portrayed as embodying the conscience of the King, as a voice of social protest, and as a court fool who ultimately “shrivels into a wretched little human being on the soaking heath:” (Bayley). Two famous interpretations of the Fool couldn’t be more different.  In 1982, Antony Sher played him as ‘a clown – a Charlie from the late Victorian circus with Dan Leno boots, a Grock violin, and a red button nose on the length of elastic.” (Shrimpton). He was a skilled entertainer, an artist who enjoyed both cross-talks with Lear and an easy rapport with the audience.  But in his notable film version, Grigroi Kozintsev (1970), removed “from the role of the Fool everything that is associated with clownery,” and portrayed him as a youthful village idiot, costumed as a beggar with a shaved head.

I’ll get into this more in later posts…


From Bloom:

arts-graphics-2008_1185790aKing Lear is Lear’s play, not Edmund’s, but as I’ve continued to say, it is also Edgar’s play, and ironically the later Edgar is Edmund’s unintended creation. The sullen or assumed humor of Tom O’Bedlam is the central emblem of the play: philosopher, fool, madman, nihilist, dissembler – at once all of these and none of these. There is a horror of generation that intensifies as the tragedy grows starker, and Edgar, harsher as he proceeds, shares it with Lear. Nothing sweetens Edgar’s imagination of sexuality, whereas Edmund, icy libertine, is deliciously indifferent. ‘Which of them shall I take?/Both? one? Or neither?’ A double-date with Goneril and Regan might faze even King Richard III or Aaron the Moor, but it is second nature to Edmund, who attributes his vivacity, freedom from hypocrisy, and power of plotting to his bastardy, at once provocation to his pride and to some uneasiness of spirit:

     Why brand they us

With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?

Who in the lusty stealth of nature take

More composition and fierce quality

Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,

Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops,

Got ‘tween asleep and awake?


That is Edmund in his ‘fierce quality,’ not the mortally wounded man who has the continued accuracy to say, ‘Tis past, and so am I.’ Edgar, at that moment, takes an opposite view of that ‘lusty stealth of nature’:

The Gods are just, and of our pleasant vices

Make instruments to plague us;

The dark and vicious place where thee he got

Cost him his eyes.


The dying Edmund accepts this, but it can be judged very disconcerting, since that ‘dark and vicious place’ does not appear to be an adulterous bed  but is identical with what Lear stigmatizes in his madness:

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,

Though women all above:

But to the girdle do the Gods inherit,

Beneath is all the fiends’: there’s hell, there’s darkness,

There is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding,

Stench, consumption.


[MY NOTE:  Keep in mind Northrop Frye’s view of “nature” from my last post.]

Admirable son of Gloucester and admirable godson of Lear, approved avenger and future king, Edgar nevertheless emerges impaired in may respects from his long ordeal of abnegation. Not least of these impairments is his evident horror of female sexuality, ‘the dark and vicious place.’ A high price has been exacted for the long descent into the sullen and assumed humor of Tom O’ Bedlam. The cost of confirmation for Edgar is a savage wound in his psyche, but the entire play is more of a wound than the critical tradition has cared to acknowledge. Feminist critics, and those influence by them, at least address themselves to the rhetoric of male trauma and hysteria that governs the apparent misogyny of Lear’s drama. I say ‘apparent’ because the revulsion from all sexuality by Lear and by Edgar is a mark for an even more profound alienation, not so much from excessive familial love as from bewilderment by such love. Edmund is brilliant and resourceful, but his prime, initial advantage over everyone else in the play is his total freedom from all familial affect, a freedom that enhances his fatal fascination for Goneril and Regan.

Are Shakespeare’s perspectives in Lear incurably male? The only woman in the play who is not a fiend is Cordelia, whom some recent feminist critics see as Lear’s own victim, a child he seeks to enclose as much at the end as at the beginning. Such a view is certainly not Cordelia’s perspective on her relationship with her father, and I am inclined to credit her rather than her critics. Yet their sense of being troubled is an authentic and accurate reaction to a play that divests all of us, male and female auditors and readers alike, of not less than everything. Dr. Johnson’s inability to sustain the murder of the virtuous Cordelia is another form of the same reaction. When Nietzsche said that we possess art lest we perish of the truth, he gave a very equivocal homage to art, and yet his apothegm is emptied out by King Lear, where we do perish of the truth. The Freudian, witty oxymoron of ‘family romances’ loses its wit in the context of King Lear, where familiar love offers you only a choice between destructions. You can live and die as Gloucester, Lear, and Cordelia do, or as Goneril, Regan, and Edmund so, or you can survive as Edgar does, a fate darker than that of all the others.

The noun value in Shakespeare lacks our high-mindedness: it means either an ‘estimation’ of worth, or a more speculative ‘estimate,’ both being commercial terms rather bluntly carried over into human relations. Sometimes I think that our only certain knowledge of the man Shakespeare is that his commercial shrewdness rivaled or overtopped every other author’s, before or since. Economy in Shakespeare extends to the noun love, which can mean ‘lover’ but also means ‘friends,’ or a ‘kind act,’ and sometimes for love’s sake means ‘for one’s own sake.’ Johnson wonderfully tells us that, unlike every other dramatist, Shakespeare refuses to make love a universal agent:

‘but love is only one of many passions, and as it has no great influence upon the sum of live, it has little operation in the dramas of a poet, who caught his ideas from the living world, and exhibited only what he saw before him. He knew, that any other passion, as it was regular or exorbitant, was a cause of happiness or calamity.’

Johnson speaks of sexual love, rather than familial love, a distinction that Shakespeare taught Freud partly to void. Repressed incestuous desire for Cordelia, according to Freud, causes Lear’s madness. Cordelia, again according to Freud, is so darkly silent at the play’s opening because of her continued desire for her father. Certainly the family romance of Sigmund and Anna Freud has its effect in these rather too interesting weak misreadings. Lear’s excessive love transcends even his attachment to Cordelia: it comprehends the Fool and others. The worship of Lear by Kent, Gloucester, Albany, and most of all his godson Edgar is directed not only at the great image of authority but at the central emblem of familial love, or patriarchal love (if you would have it so). The exorbitant passion or drive of familial love both in Lear and in Edgar is the cause of calamity. Tragedy, at its most exorbitant, whether in Athens or at the Globe, must be domestic tragedy, or tragedy of blood in both senses of blood. We don’t want to come away from a reading or performance of King Lear murmuring to ourselves that the domestic is necessarily a tragedy, but that may be the ultimate nihilism of this play.


lear2_372Leo Tolstoy raged against King Lear, partly because he accurately sensed the drama’s profound nihilism, but also out of creative envy, and perhaps, too, he had the uncanny premonition that Lear’s scenes upon the heath would approximate his own final moments. For those who believe that divine justice somehow prevails in this world, King Lear ought to be offensive. At once the least secular and yet the least Christian of all Shakespeare’s plays, Lear’s tragedy shows us that we are all ‘fools,’ in the Shakespearean sense, except for those among us who are outright villains. ‘Fools’ in Shakespeare can mean ‘dupes,’ ‘beloved ones,’ ‘madmen,’ ‘court jesters,’ or most of all, ‘victims.’ Lear’s suffering is neither redeemable nor redeemed. Carefully stationing his play nine centuries before Christ (the time of Solomon), Shakespeare knows he has a (more or less) Christian audience, and so give them a pagan, legendary king who loses all faith in the gods. If you were King James I, you could be provoked by King Lear to the idea that Christian revelation was implied as a deep human need by the hopelessness of Shakespeare’s play. But I think that skeptical Jacobeans (and there were more such than modern criticism concedes) could be stimulated to just the opposite conclusion. Faith is absurd or irrelevant in regard to this dark vision of reality. Shakespeare, as always, stands apart from such reductiveness, and we cannot know what he believed or disbelieved, and yet the burden of King Lear allows us finally only four perspectives: Lear’s own, the Fool’s, Edmunds, Edgar’s. You have to be a very determined Christianizer of literature to take any comfort from this most tragic of all tragedies. The play is a storm, with no subsequent clearing.

Lear himself is Shakespeare’s most sublime and most demanding character. Hamlet is incommensurate with us, because he is both charismatic and superbly intelligent, and yet we at least comprehend our distance from Hamlet. Lear, beyond us in grandeur and in essential authority, is still a startlingly intimate figure, since he is an emblem of fatherhood itself. Outrageously hyperbolical, insanely eloquent, Lear nevertheless always demands more love than can be given (within the limitations of the human), and so he scarcely can speak without crossing into the realms of the unsayable. He is thus Hamlet’s contrary: we feel that Hamlet says everything that can be said, much more than we can say, whoever we are. Lear overwhelms us, by Shakespearean design, because he somehow succeeds in saying what no one else, not even Hamlet, ever could say. From his first words (‘Meantime, we shall express our darker purpose’) through his last…he cannot speak without disturbing us. Lear’s rhetorical power itself largely renders Cordelia mute and recalcitrant. ‘Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth.’ Upon the malevolences Goneril and Regan, it has the contrary effect: everything they speak is stilted, pompous, hollow, false, quite hateful, as we see in Goneril’s ‘A love that makes breath poor and speech unable’ and Regan’s ‘I am alone felicitate/In your dear highness’s love.’

Lear’s verbal force almost always preempts all spontaneity of speech in others. The exception is his Fool, the uncanniest character in Shakespeare, and the third, with Ophelia and Lear, in the play’s true family, its community of love. In Hamlet, the prince’s authentic family ties are to Yorick, in the past, and to Horatio, in the play’s present time. One function of Lear’s Fool is precisely that of Hamlet’s Horatio: to mediate, for the audience, a personage otherwise beyond our knowing. Hamlet being too far beyond us, and Lear being blindingly close. Much of what we know in Hamlet we receive from Horatio, just as the Fool similarly humanizes Lear, and makes the dread king accessible to us. Horatio survives Hamlet, much against his own will. The Fool bewilderingly vanishes, another Shakespearean ellipsis that challenges the audience to reflect upon the meanings of this strangest of characters. A fascinating presence that provokes Lear further into madness, the Fool becomes an absence still provocative, though then to the audience, not to the king. The Fool, again like Horatio, is a chorus, which is to be something other than a character in a play. You could remove the Fool and Horatio and not alter much in the way of plot structures, but you would remove our surrogates from these plays, for the Fool and Horatio are the true voices of our feelings. Horatio loves Hamlet; his only other attribute is a capacity for surmise, of woe or of wonder. The Fool loves Lear and Cordelia, and he is loved by them; otherwise he is an amazing blend of bitter wisdom and witty terror. Horatio is a comfort to us, but the Fool drives us a little mad even as he pushes Lear further into madness, so as to punish the King for his great folly. Shakespeare uses the Fool in many ways, and one of them clearly involves Erasmus’s preference for folly over knowing. Blake may have been thinking of Lear’s Fool in the Proverb of Hell: ‘ If the Fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.’

fool scofieldLear loves him and treats him as a child, but the Fool is of no determinate age, though clearly he will not grow up. Is he altogether human, or a sprite or changeling? His utterance differ sharply from those of any court fool in Shakespeare; he alone seems to belong to an occult world. Yet his acute ambivalence toward Lear, founded upon an outrage at Cordelia’s exile and Lear’s self-destructiveness, is one of Shakespeare’s crucial inventions of human affect. We do not encounter the Fool until Scene iv of the play, when Lear notes his two-day absence and is told, ‘Since my young Lady’s going into France, Sir, the Fool hath much pined away.’ ‘Nothing will come of nothing: speak again,’ Lear’s earlier warning to Cordelia, echoes in the Fool’s questioning of Lear (‘Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?’) and in the king’s reply (‘Why no, boy, nothing can be made out of nothing.’) These are pagans speaking, yet they almost seem to mock the Christian doctrine of creation out of nothing. ‘Thou hast pared thy wit o’both sides, and left nothing i’ th’ middle,’ one of the Fool’s most reverberatory observations, holds the kernel of the play’s troubles; Lear fails to maintain the middle ground of his sovereignty, by dividing Cordelia’s central portion between Goneril’s northern realm and Regan’s southern tyranny. Lear, who was everything in himself, is now nothing:


Does any here know me? This is not Lear:

Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?

Either his notion weakens, his discernings

Are lethargied – Ha! waking? ‘tis not so.

Who is it that can tell me who I am.


Lear’s shadow.

From nothing, Lear rises to madness, spurred to it by the Fool’s continuous taunts:


O me! my heart, my rising heart; but, down!


Cry to it, Nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put ‘em i’ the’ paste alive; she knapp’d ‘em o’th’coxcombs with a stick, and cried ‘Down, wantons, down!’ ‘Twas her brother that, in pure kindness to his horse, buttered his hay.

Lear’s madness is much debated: his revulsion from Goneril and Regan becomes an involuntary horror of female sexuality, and the king appears to equate his own torments with female elements he senses in his own nature. In the best commentary on this difficult matter, Janet Adelman (in her Suffocating Mothers, 1992) goes so far as to say that Shakespeare himself rescues a ‘threatened masculinity’ by murdering Cordelia. On that argument, subtle and extreme, Flaubert does the same to Emma Bovary, and even the protofeminist Samuel Richardson violates his Clarissa Harlowe into her suicidal decline and demise. Adelman is the most accomplished and formidable of all those who now emphasizes Lear’s culpability for his disasters. I find it a curious irony that feminist criticism has taken up the Fool’s ambivalence toward Lear, and in doing so has gone beyond the Fool, who after all never ceases to love the King. To feminist critics, Lear is a man more sinning than sinned against. If you really cannot see Goneril and Regan as monsters of the deep, then it must be that your ideology constrains you to believe all men are culpable, Shakespeare and Lear included. But we are back in the fundamental dilemma of School of Resentment criticism of Shakespeare, whether feminist, Marxist, or historicist (Foucault-inspired). The contextualizations are never distinctly appropriate to Shakespeare; they do as well or as badly for minor writers as for major, and if the governing designs are feminist, then they work equally well or badly for all male writers whatsoever. That Shakespeare, another mere male, is also afflicted by fantasies of maternal origin in no way helps explain how and why King Lear is arguably the most powerful and inescapable of literary works. The Fool remains a better critic of Lear than all later resenters of the king, because he accepts Lear’s sublimity and uniqueness and they cannot.

From the Fool’s perspective, Lear indeed is culpable, but only because he was not patriarchal enough to accept Cordelia’s recalcitrance at expressing her love. On that view, Lear is condemned for having forsaken his own fatherhood: to divide his kingdom and betray royalty authority was also to abandon Cordelia. The Fool’s visionary terror is neither antifeminist nor feminist; it is curiously Nietzschean in that it, too, insists upon the image of fatherhood as being the necessary middle ground that alone can keep origins and ends from turning into each other. And the Fool is accurate, certainly in regard to Lear’s fall into division and despair, and also in his terror that the cosmos centered upon Lear itself undergoes degradation with the king. Precisely apocalyptic in his forebodings, the Fool ironically is understood only by the audience (and Kent) but almost never by Lear, who listens yet never hears, and cannot identify himself with the bungler the Fool evokes. Yet what drives the Fool? Once Lear has divided Cordelia’s portion between Goneril and Regan, it is simply too late for warnings and admonishments to make any pragmatic difference, and the Fool knows this. Ambivalence runs wild in the Fool: yet punishing Lear by increasing his madness can do no good, except to drama itself:


If thou wert my Fool, Nuncle, I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time.


How’s that?


Thou shouldn’t not have been old till thou hadst been wise.


O! let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven;

Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!

The Fool and Lear sing trios with the undertaker, in this great spiritual chorus of things falling apart. When a Gentlemen tells Kent, at the start of Act III, that the Fool labors to outjest Lear’s heart-stricken injuries, we feel that this is wrong. As Kent leads Lear and the Fool to a hovel-shelter from the storm, Shakespeare allows the Fool a prophecy premonitory of William Blake:

This is a brave night to cool a courtezan.

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 burn’d, but wenches’ suitors;

When every case in law is right;

No squire in debt, nor now poor knight;

When slanders do not live in tongues;

Nor cut-purses 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 us’d with feet.

The prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.


Weird and wonderful, this exuberant chant transcends Lear’s anguished situation and the Fool’s childlike fury. Who is the Fool to utter this, and what inspired Shakespeare to such an outburst? After his prophesying, the Fool ceases to madden Lear, and becomes touchingly waiflike, until soon enough he mysteriously vanishes from the play. Shakespeare probably thought he was parodying Chaucer in the opening lines of the Fool’s verses, and directly quoting the same passage (wrongly ascribed to Chaucer) in lines 91-92, yet he goes well beyond parody into an obliquely powerful condemnation of a Jacobean England where priests, brewers, nobles, and tailors are all condemned. This goes along merrily enough, and the ‘great confusion’ of an Albion where matters are righted is genially ironic, ensuing in the grand anticlimax of Englishmen employing their feet for walking: ‘This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time’ concludes a fine chant of nonsense, while associating the Fool with Merlin’s magic. Though trapped in Lear’s endgame, the Fool is also free of time, and presumably drifts out of the play into another era…”


And finally from the book Living with Shakespeare; a bit from British actor Tobias Menzies’ essay “Method and Madness”

edgar menzies“I worked with Rupert [Goold] again as Edgar in his production of King Lear, which starred the late Pete Postelthwaite. It was certainly a type of production that’s more in fashion in Germany, for instance, than it is in England. One of the most thrilling productions of Hamlet I’ve seen in recent years was a German production that came over from the Schaubuhne in Berlin. While doing the play, they were also playing with the fact that there was an audience there, using us to illuminate the play, which is a play that is so much about what is true and what is not. There were moments which were completely naturalist – obeying the dramatic unities, if you like – but then they would flip that and comment on the fact that we were all in a theatre, participating in this make-believe. It felt incredibly modern. Seeing that, I thought that I’m not sure that we’ve quite got to that point of playfulness with Shakespeare in England. Maybe it’s because it’s our language, and maybe because in German it’s in translation and so they feel they have more license. The play felt dangerous. It was anarchic, You weren’t quite sure what was going to happen next, and I think that in our production of Lear, Rupert was pushing at that door.

I think there’s a potential pitfall of working on Shakespeare, certainly in our country, where he’s our premier poet, is that one is too reverential. That attitude can affect the playing of it, and when I’ve watched Shakespeare I’ve always responded to something a little more visceral, a little more instinctual. When these industries grow up around Shakespeare they can entomb it in some way, and I’m not sure that it’s helpful; for example, the academia that has built up around Shakespeare studies. That’s not to deny that some of it is very interesting, but I think that if you’re too slavish with the scholarship, it can get in the way when you’re trying to perform Shakespeare, trying to bring it alive for our times. Sometimes you read notes on a play that make a statement on a character, but as an actor you know that whether or not the character is like that depends on how you say those lines. Shakespeare has been so enduring because he can be interpreted in so many different ways. You never tire of seeing Hamlet, for instance, because in a way each Hamlet is different depending on what each person brings to it, the different strands he draws out.

In Lear, for example, when Edgar is accused of intending to kill Gloucester, he flees the court and finds himself alone on the heath. He decides to pretend to be mad, and to become Poor Tom – and there are many ways of interpreting that decision. I felt that this choice was an instinctual, almost animal decision, not an intellectual one; that it would be through his body and through the physical reality of debasing himself that he would arrive at some sort of release, some sort of understanding. When Edgar heads onto the heath, it’s an exploration of the wild, of the human being as creature: in the middle of that great storm, all the normal, civilizing accoutrements don’t help you. For one of my physical models, I looked at a young Iggy Pop. I wanted Poor Tom to have that anarchic punkiness, to explore that wildness. One of the main challenges of playing Edgar was the very physicality of it. I was in the pouring rain every night, and I was cold, and got ill. So it was also about keeping fit, keeping healthy, not getting sick. There’s a difference between theorizing a play, and actually performing in it.

I’ve played Hamlet and Edgar, both characters that assume madness and then, as a result of their experiments with madness, learn about themselves and those around them. The idea of madness meant different things in Shakespeare’s time than it does in our own, for it had an existential dimension. I explored these larger ideas of madness through wildness. That’s how I accessed Edgar: through the expression of the wild, of freedom, of becoming a creature as Edgar debases himself to that animal place – a person who could say and do anything, a less medicalised, more existential idea of what is to be mad.

One of the hardest movements in Edgar’s journey is that first decision to turn himself into Poor Tom:

     Whiles I may scape,

I will preserve myself, and am  bethought

To take the basest and most poorest shape

That ever penury in contempt of man

Brought near to beast; my face I’ll grime with filth,

Blanket my loins, elf all my hairs in knots,

And with presented nakedness outface

The winds and persecutions of the sky.

           …Poor Turlygod, poor Tom!

That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am.

It’s a difficult pivot. It happens so quickly, and it’s such a bizarre thing to do. Having seen it played a number of times before I did it, I had always disliked and struggled with Edgar being too wimpy. Poor Tom is usually portrayed as this weak, pitiful creature, and he is all those things – ‘Poor Tom’s a-cold,’ he repeats again and again, stripped down to nothing and covered with mud. But he’s not just that. What is his attitude toward it? I felt, in a paradoxical way, that to debase himself like that is an aggressive thing to do. It’s kind of like saying, ‘You see what you’ve done?’ It is a weirdly backward way of punishing the people who have done it to you. It’s to outwardly demonstrate the fear and the anger and the hurt; and it’s not a passive or feeble thing to do.  It’s actually violent.

The trope of madness allows Shakespeare to explore so much, in both Lear and Hamlet. When Hamlet ‘goes mad,’ suddenly the possibilities of what he can think and feel and talk about really widen. With Lear, the meeting between Poor Tom and Lear is pivotal to Lear’s journey, ‘First let me talk with this philosopher,’ he says, and then tears off his clothes in imitation. You could argue that the meeting of Poor Tom on the heath is the moment Lear goes mad.”

More on this next week when we start Act Three


My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning – final thoughts on Act Two

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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