Last Updated 10 Mar 2020

The Image of Fool in King Lear: from Page to Sage

Category King Lear
Words 2956 (11 pages)

The Fool – from text to screen. The concept of a fool in Shakespearean plays is nearly as popular as the very figure of a fool used to be in Middle Ages at royal courts and some private households of aristocrats. The characters that could be described as fools appear in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Feste) and As You Like It (Touchstone). And there is of course the most famous of the fools, named simply The Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear – the one with reference to whom this essay is created. A fool, according to Encyclop? ia Britannica was a person, often retarded, handicapped, dwarfed or mad, kept on court for luck and amusement of his patron. Due to his questionable mental abilities he was given license to mock persons of nobility, even the king himself. The origins of his function are sought for in the tribal scapegoat, who served as a sacrifice alternative for the king. Probably for that reason he was endowed with some attributes prescribed to a king such as a bauble (mock scepter) and a motley coat. His entertaining function was marked by other attributes in his possession such as a coxcomb, bells and a horny or ass-eared hood.

All those gadgets, apart from arousing amusement, served one more purpose – they made a jester stand out from all the other individuals. Even though some critics tend to perceive the Fool in King Lear as a character crucial to understanding of the play and the significance of particular characters, others are more inclined to categorize him as one of the minor characters. At some stage of King Lear’s development the figure of the Fool was even altogether removed from the play, which may constitute some indication of how different were the attitudes towards the importance of his presence in the play within the course of time.

As far as transposition of the text of the play into the film script is concerned, it is particularly worth noticing that cinematic space juxtaposed to theatrical space shows some vital dissimilarities, among which are different attitude of a producer towards presumable reactions of the audience, the supremacy of the camera’s angle over spectator’s inclination to see what takes their fancy and the possibility of creating more articulate spatial setting. Also G.

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Wilson Knight considers the screening of any play an outstandingly challenging quest and warns against two main failures that may occur in the production. The first one may be described as mechanical failure, when the director is trying to put the main emphasis on the melodrama, into which the play is turned, while the second one is described by the author as ‘the would-be ‘symbolical’ production’, in which some significant enigmatic and sometimes supernatural values are blurred or not displayed at all.

He reports to have heard Juliet’s potion speech, which he found, by the cause of a thunder introduced arbitrarily by the scriptwriter, utterly disturbed and demolished. He expressed a conviction, that Shakespeare would have arranged a thunder in that place, if that had been what he had intended to. Knight argues also that ‘the sounds – words and additional effects – are (.. ) given’ and all that a director or a screenwriter or particular actors are expected to do is to pour life into them and arrange a proper setting for them.

So much for the possible area of scrutiny as far as some comparison between the text and the screen versions is put to question. Of course some temporal or verbal ellipses are inevitable as they are undeniably a part of producer’s license, as well as a kind of a landmark in every screen production, though the vital parts of the play should not be omitted in order to preserve the original character of the artwork.

Having still some features of the analysed productions left to scrutinize, the focus may be put on the extratextual and non-verbal factors such as the costumes, the age of the actors playing Fools, their sex, the overall attitude towards the outer world as well as their demeanour towards other characters in the play that is not strictly implied by the original text. Some leaps in text as far as they are not dictated by thrift in time of production may also prove indicatory for the moulding of the character of the Fool.

If the text strays slightly from the original, this might also constitute an evidence of some deliberate interference within the character’s creation. Questions has been long posed what might be the actual age of the Fool. Maggie Williams is one of the advocates of the thesis that he ought to be presented as a young boy, which she justifies by Lear’s frequently addressing him as ‘boy’ and also by his vulnerability to poor weather conditions during the tempest, his fear at the sight of Edgar disguised as Poor Tom as well as his extraordinary attachment to Cordelia which proved itself in his pining after her departure .

Williams’ conviction, though not isolated, is not entirely shared by some circles of literary critics and a number of producers, who tend to bestow the role of the Fool to more experienced and aged actors. Such is the case with both productions: King Lear, directed by Jonathan Miller released in 1982 and King Lear, directed by Trevor Nunn released in 2008. The character of the Fool is played in both of them by middle-aged actors: in Miller’s film it is Frank Middlemass born in 1919 and in Nunn’s film it is Sylvester McCoy born in 1943.

Both actors were at their 60s at the time of each film being shot. In actuality the fool could not have been intended as a child (due to his frequent bawdy innuendos and banters), neither could he be equated to an old man, as it seems, but actually some screen versions of a play managed to picture him as one quite successfully. What can be inferred from the very text of the play is the fact that the Fool was the closest companion of the King.

The evidence of that could be the fact of Lear’s desperate need for the Fool’s company, when he asks his servants to summon him four times in the act I scene 4 intermittently amid occupying himself with other affairs (interviewing Kent, then Oswald, then a Knight and at the end Oswald again), although, as he claims, he haven’t seen him for two days, which is not an extraordinarily long period of time. He also accompanies King from then on in every venture even in the worst conditions of the tempest until the end of act III scene 6, when he mysteriously disappears.

Moreover, the text makes it evident, that the King and the Fool are in close intimacy, the indication of which is Lear’s constant addressing Fool as ‘my boy’, ‘lad’, ‘my pretty knave’ as also this line of his spoken during the storm: ‘Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart/ That’s sorry yet for thee. ’(3. 2. 70-71). Another clue derived from the text pertains to the Fool’s mental disposition. He is probably neither mad nor retarded in any way, which is marked by Kent’s words: ‘This is not altogether fool, my Lord’ after Fool had made it clear to the King that he had no more titles left but this of a fool.

Also Gonerill seems not to underestimate Fool’s power in his actions taken against her in his many quips. She calls him ‘more knave than fool’ (I. 4. 269), which may imply that she lets him know that she can see through his witticisms and reveal his real intentions which basically come to dissuading King from trusting his daughters. This and other functions in the play, such as comforting Lear and presaging him from superfluous faith and expectations put in his daughters with aid of ‘folk-wisdom’ are ascribed to the Fool by S.

L. Goldberg, who highlights also Fool’s passivity in the course of action and his pathos expressed by his loyalty and heightened feelings, being the spur of his actions. But Goldberg foreworns from over‘sentimentalizing’ Fool, as he is also ‘clear-eyed’ and knows that ‘facts and ideals are always and always will be at odds’, which he tries to express in his wry witticisms, for which Lear calls him a ‘bitter fool’ (I. 4. 119).

His figure can be also perceived as a relic of ancient Greek chorus, commenting on other characters and the plot, but presumably his main function comes down to making exertions to entertain the king, or ,as Kent calls it in some moment of the play, ‘to out-jest his heart-struck injuries’. Some of these functions were amplified in particular cinematic productions and others were diminished or even expunged. This is to be analysed with reference to the abovementioned cinematic productions. Apparently in Miller’s King Lear the character of the Fool is more accentuated than in the other production.

He is a kind of an old fellow, loyal to his master, who cares for his fate and is not able to come to terms with his fatal misstep of giving away his royal authority and his land to his ungrateful daughters and even worse error of disinheriting and repelling Cordelia. He acts as though he had a strong feeling of responsibility for the king and his providence and as he was striving for something more than just a mere profession of court jester. All his behaviour gives the impression that he assumes the pose of a fool solely in order to remain beside the king regardless the changeable circumstances.

Being a court jester allows him to reproach the king, sometimes in extremely harsh words, which make the king look like an idiot. However, what is worth highlighting is the fact that he never does it to impress the king’s escort and other surrounding him people, but he addresses the king directly as though he was his personal counsellor. His own jokes do not amuse him, what can be easily deduced from the fact of his ability of assuming a grave facial expression almost instantly after making some jests and fooling about.

Perchance this alongside with uttering some statements unpleasant to king’s ears earns him an opinion of a ‘bitter fool’, as Lear calls him (I. 4. 119). Given this one may come to a conclusion that he forces himself to play the role of the fool as this seems to be the only way to rebuke the king and talk him through to common sense without falling out of favour as Kant did after speaking the words of truth to his seigneur. The case is utterly different with another Fool – the one played by Sylvester McCoy in Nunn’s film. He is by no means a sedate adviser caged in the uncomfortable disguise of a fool.

He is a ‘fool-blooded’ fool, who actually enjoys his position on the court and aspires for nothing more. His confidentiality with the king is verily striking, especially when the spectators see him sitting in Lear’s lap, patting his face, sleeking his hair or kissing him in a childlike manner. If the title ‘nuncle’ customarily used by court jesters in addressing the king sounds derisively spoken by Middlemass’ Fool, the same word articulated by McCoy sounds as though a child was addressing his real uncle. His jovial and at times childish behaviour contrasts with his bawdy innuendos and gestures.

Unlike Middlemass’ Fool, he enjoys being the life and soul of a party, entertaining king’s escort and jesting with them. He is fond of making fool of himself, playing the spoons using them as castanets, singing and cheering others up. Moreover, he is not eager to put himself at risk. As he speaks to Goneril, he quiets himself down in order not to utter an offence. Also the last words, that Fool was meant to speak about Goneril at her court and within her presence were cut out. So were many other lines originally spoken by the Fool. This omission sometimes results in Fool’s appearing to be talking nonsense.

Passing over Fool’s lines may also have another effect: the Fool appears in the whole play as a character of secondary importance, whose only purpose is to entertain the king and his comrades. And he does it, deriving pleasure from it. As it has been illustrated, the approaches towards the Fool in literary critique and cinematography were numerous and sundry, some of them conventional and others more innovative, but definitely each one of them bore some intrinsic artistic values, which cannot be fully apprehended without scrupulous scrutiny, which couldn’t have been contained within the volume of these few pages.

Nevertheless the character of the Fool in two analysed above productions was given a closer insight. Two actors performing the role of the Fool in collaboration with the directors of each production created two different images of this figure. One of them was an image of a wise old man, whose role of a king’s personal adviser and tutor required a disguise of a court jester; a ‘bitter fool’, whose witticisms were wry, acute, sardonical, but whose exertions were aimed at only one goal – to save the king: from ill-advised decisions, from madness, from despair.

The other one was a full-blooded fool, whose fondness of playing for laughs and entertaining others was tangible and whose, sometimes shocking, intimacy with the king could be explained only by mental impairment. This proved that the creation of a character is not entirely and solely dependent on the source text of a play, but is largely affected by the artistic vision and the license of a producer as well as by the original and individual skills of an actor. Works cited: 1. Davies Anthony, Filming Shakespeare’s Plays.

The Adaptations of Laurence Olivier, Orson Wells, Peter Brook and Akira Kurosawa, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh 1994. 2. Encyclop? dia Britannica Online, s. v. "fool", accessed May 27, 2012,http://www. britannica. com/EBchecked/topic/212748/fool. 3. Goldberg S. L. , An Essay on King Lear, Cambridge University Press, London, New York 1974. 4. King Lear, DVD, directed by Jonathan Miller (1982; British Broadcasting Corporation, Time-Life Television Productions) 5. King Lear, DVD, directed by Trevor Nunn (2008; Richard Price TV Associates Ltd. 6. Knight G. Wilson, Shakespearean Production with Especial Reference to the Tragedies, Faber and Faber LTD, London 1964. 7. Shakespeare William, The Tragedy of King Lear, Halio Jay L. ed. , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh 1997. 8. Williams, Maggie. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co. , 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (27. 05. 2012) <http://www. shakespeare-online. com/plays/kinglear/examq/meightaes. html >. Sara Wilczynska -------------------------------------------- 1 ]. See for example: Williams, Maggie. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co. , 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (27. 05. 2012) . [ 2 ]. See for example: Goldberg S. L. , An Essay on King Lear, Cambridge University Press, London, New York 1974, pp. 84-92. [ 3 ]. i. e. in Nahum Tate’s amended version of King Lear from 1681; see: Introduction to: Shakespeare William, The Tragedy of King Lear, Halio Jay L. ed. , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh 1997, p. 36. [ 4 ].

See: Davies Anthony, Filming Shakespeare’s Plays. The Adaptations of Laurence Olivier, Orson Wells, Peter Brook and Akira Kurosawa, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh 1994, p. 8. [ 5 ]. Ibidem. [ 6 ]. Knight G. Wilson, Shakespearean Production with Especial Reference to the Tragedies, Faber and Faber LTD, London 1964, p. 47. [ 7 ]. Ibidem, p. 54. [ 8 ]. Ibidem, p. 48. [ 9 ]. Op. cit. Williams, Maggie. Shakespeare Examinations… [ 10 ]. See: Shakespeare William, The Tragedy of King Lear: ‘Where’s my knave? my fool?

Go you and call my fool hither’ (I. 4. 38); ‘Where’s my fool’ (I. 4. 42); ‘But where’s my fool? ’ (I,4. 60-61); ‘Go you, call hither my fool’ (I. 4. 66) [ 11 ]. Op. cit. Goldberg S. L. , An Essay on King Lear... , pp 90-91. [ 12 ]. Ibidem, p. 90. [ 13 ]. Ibidem. [ 14 ]. Ibidem. [ 15 ]. It becomes particularly visible when the Fool says to the king: ‘If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time. ’. When Lear asks for the explanation, Fool replies: ‘Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise’ (I. 5. 33-36) [ 16 ].

As in the case when he complains at being whipped for holding his ‘peace’ (meaning being silent in contradistinction to telling truth or telling lies as his earlier words suggest), speaking which he reaches to his crotch, as if he was peeing . [ 17 ]. The words that spoken by the Fool could have enraged Goneril were such: ‘A fox, when one has caught her,/ And such a daughter,/ Should sure to the slaughter,/ If my cap can buy a halter’ – McCoy’s Fool does not speak these words, as he probably is intended by the director as a harmless and joyful character. [ 18 ].

Like when he says : ‘All that follow their noses are led by their eyes but blind men, and there’s not a nose among twenty but can smell him that’s stinking’ (2. 4. 63-65) as an explanation for why Kent should be put in the stocks for asking for the reason of King’s escort being so diminished. The rest of the lines from this speech is simply left out, so that it may look like the Fool was talking poppycock. The same situation occurs a while earlier when Fool declares with a blank stare: ‘Winter’s not gone yet, if the wild geese fly that way’ (2. 4. 43). Similarly the rest of the lines is left out.

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