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The-Fool-n-SP-art - 3/7/07


"The Historical Fool in Shakespeare's King Lear" by Lady Eleanor Cleavely.


NOTE: See also the files: jesters-msg, Jestrs-Mumrs-lnks, masks-mumming-lnks, theater-bib, P-Polit-Songs-art, poetry-msg.





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Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



The Historical Fool in Shakespeare's King Lear

by Lady Eleanor Cleavely





Throughout history, the fool has served as both a historical and a literary device.  Kings and Queens have used the fool as a truth-teller, a calm voice amid the chaos of the royal court.  Authors and playwrights have used the fool to deliver the moral of the story or as a foil to the main character that helps the action along.  This thesis is an in-depth look into the role of the fool in history and how Shakespeare employs the fool as a literary device.


"A jester's chief employment is to kill himself for your enjoyment!

And a jester unemployed is nobody's fool!"

– Danny Kaye ("The Court Jester", 1956)


The fool is one of the more interesting characters on a royal court.  The fool is responsible for the entertainment of the court, especially the reigning monarchs.  In history and in literature, the fool is the truth-teller – the one person to whom the King can expect honest and frank comment on the world around him.  Throughout history, there have been many famous fools.  However, the study of the fool as a vital part of the court is recent.  In literature, however, the fool is quite prevalent, especially in William Shakespeare's plays.  This paper will discuss the Fool, as well as the historical fools and their impact on their monarchs and history.  In Shakespeare's King Lear, the Fool serves a three-fold purpose: the Fool is the conscience of the King and his courtiers, the "Greek Chorus" that informs the audience of the goings-on in the play as well as some comic relief.


History of the Fool


The role of the fool in history and literature is a rich and vibrant one.  However before one can consider the role of the fool in history and literature, the term must be defined.  Webster's dictionary defines a fool as "a member of a royal or noble household who provided entertainment, as with jokes or antics; a jester."  A jester is "a fool or buffoon at medieval courts."  There are many names for a fool.  Some are called jesters, others are known as jongleurs (a wandering minstrel, poet, or entertainer).  The primary purpose of a fool was to entertain the royal court and to comment on the world around him.  A fool need not be of noble birth to be a member of the court.  A fool could "emerge from a wide range of backgrounds: an erudite but nonconformist university dropout, a monk thrown out of a priory for nun frolics, a jongleur with exceptional verbal or physical dexterity, or the apprentice of a village blacksmith whose fooling impressed a passing nobleman" (Fools are Everywhere, 2001, 2).  Queen Elizabeth I's fool, Richard Tarlton, achieved his foolish court position in this way.  Enid Welsford describes the day when "ÉTarlton was in the field keeping his father's swine, when a servant of Robert, Earl of Leicester, passing this wayÉwas so pleased with his happy/unhappy answers, that he brought him to court, where he became the most famous jester to Queen Elizabeth."  (The Fool, His Social and Literary History, 1969, 282)


Beatrice Otto states that a good jester possessed "the ability to extemporize and trot out rhyming retorts or cringe-inspiring doggerel.  Poetic skill was a vital part of the jester's ragbag of tricks at all times and in all places."  (Otto, 2)  One of the most famous historical fools, Will Somers (sometimes spelled as Sommers or Summers), was jester to King Henry VIII and Mary I and was known as "the poor man's friend."  There is a story of how Will Somers attracted the eye of King Henry VIII.  "While [Cardinal Wolsey] walking around Greenwich Palace discussing matters of State with King Henry, Will Sommers came up to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardinal_Wolseley" title="Cardinal Wolseley">Cardinal Wolseley and told him that people to whom he owed money were at the Palace gate.  Wolsey did not want to appear flustered by this in front of the King nor rebuff his company, hurriedly handed the jester £10 (the equivalent of £4000) from his belt and turned his attention back to the King.  Upon Will Sommers' gleeful return, Wolsey pensively enquired if the tax collectors were satisfied.  Sommers then told Wolsey how he had taken his money to the poor, the people whom Wolsey truly owned money to, which usually congregated at the Palace gates in the hope to see the King and gave them his money."  (www.wikipedia.org, 08/12/06)  Somers was so well loved by the people that when "[he] fell asleep against a post and an old woman, fearing he might fall and injure himself, not only placed a cushion behind him, but actually tied him to the postÉ"  (A Social History of the Fool, 1984, 33).  Somers had a reputation of spurring Henry VIII to acts of kindness towards his people and often made remarks jesting at the king's litany of wives.  Billington goes on to say that, "Somers' reputation earned him a place in playsÉhis talents were the standard of a professional foolÉ"  However, no matter how good or well respected a fool was, he was still the property of his lord.  Billington states, "Édespite Somers' intelligence and the respect Henry showed for him, Somers' life was bounded by the court: amusing the King and eating and sleeping with the spaniels" (35).


The expectation of the Fool was to remark on his surroundings to entertain the nobles.  There is a story of a king who glimpsed himself in the mirror one day and found that he had grown old.  The king began to weep pitifully, and the court along with him (for the court always did what the king did) – even the jester.  When the king had stopped crying, as did the court, he noticed that the jester still cried.  The king asked, "Fool, why do you cry still?"  The fool replied, "Sire, you looked at yourself but a moment and you cried.  I have to look at you all the time." Only a royal fool could state such things and escape unscathed!


How would one recognize a fool?  The fool is usually dressed in a coat that was "an elaborate work of red and white sarsenet, lined with buckram.  The four hanging points of his coat were each hung with twelve bells, nine dozen bells hung from the Fool's arms and legsÉ"  (Billington, 39)  There is the stereotypical fool dressed in multi-colored motley fabric, a diamond-shaped pattern using the brilliant colors of blue, yellow, red, and orange.  Medieval re-enactors use the motley to symbolize their jesters, fools, and storytellers and base their studies on the fools of Medieval and Renaissance Europe.


The Fool of Shakespeare's King Lear


The Fool in Shakespeare's King Lear may seem like the usual court fool of history.  However, Enid Welsford describes him as, "Éthe sage-fool who sees the truth, and his role has even more intellectual than emotional significance." (Welsford, 256)  This Fool does not merely entertain the King and his Court. He speaks to Lear as an equal.  He criticizes Lear's poor judgment of his daughter, Cordelia.  His role is to act as Lear's conscience as the King goes mad and becomes the fool.  In regards to the fool and his role in King Lear, Rev. H. N. Hudson states, "[i]t seems hardly possible that Lear's character should be properly developed without him: indeed he serves as a common gauge and exponent of all the characters about him, --  the mirror in which their finest and deepest lineaments are reflected."  (SC, Hudson, 128)  Instead of using his position to ridicule Lear and his court, the Fool soothes the mad King and helps him to realize the folly of his decision.  Hermann Ulrici states that "In no other piece has Shakespeare placed the comic in such close and immediate neighbourhood [sic] with the tragic as in this, and with no one has the bold attempt been more successful as with Shakespeare."  (SC, Ulrici, 114)


In the play, Lear has asked his three daughters – Reagan, Goneril, and Cordelia – how much they love him.  Lear says,


"Tell me, my daughters,--
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,--
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. (I.i.47-52)


Reagan and Goneril profess unending love for their father in the hopes of inheriting a larger portion of the Kingdom than the other sister inherits.  When Cordelia refuses to give her father her entire love, Lear banishes her, marrying her to the King of France and disinheriting her.


In Act I, Scene 5, the Fool speaks to the King, intimating the mistake he may have made with Cordelia:



She will taste as like this as a crab does to a
crab.  Thou canst tell why one's nose stands i'
the middle on's face?






Why, to keep one's eyes of either side's nose; that
what a man cannot smell out, he may spy into.



I did her wrong—(I.v.13-23)


The Fool is telling Lear what a fool he has become by banishing the one daughter who truly loves him.  This is the primary function of the Fool in the play.  He is Lear's conscience – his heart.  Hudson says, "His being heralded by the announcement of his pining away at the banishment of Cordelia sends a consecration before him: that his spirit feeds on her presence hallows everything about him."  (SC, Hudson, 128).


It is worth noting that the Fool and Cordelia are never in the same room.  They also suffer the same fate of execution at the hands of Lear.  Some critics believe that the Fool and Cordelia are the same person.  It is quite possible that the Fool and Cordelia are the same person -- they both have the best interests of the King at heart and both love him dearly as King and father.  However, Shakespeare leaves us no clues within the text as to whether or not this is true.  Catherine Dominic, editor of "Shakespeare for Students" (1997), states, "the Fool's apparent devotion to Cordelia has also been frequently noted.  Commentators have pointed out that he disappears from the play before she reappears, and there is speculation at the complimentary roles they play in curing the King's madness."  (Dominic et al, 120)


The fool as a Greek chorus


The Fool also serves as the Greek chorus for the play.  That is, he acts as a sort of social commentator on the goings-on in the play.  Welsford sees the Fool as "an all-licensed critic who sees and speaks the real truth about the people around him."  (Welsford, 256).  His commentary gives the audience insight into the madness of the King and the motivations of Kent, Gloucester, Goneril, and Reagan.  Dominic notes, "In the judgment of many modern commentators, the Fool in King Lear is a 'wiser fool,' a commentator on dramatic events who is impartial yet sympathetic to his master's suffering."  (Dominic, 120)  However, it is possible that the Fool's constant reiteration of the daughters' fates serve to accelerate the King's madness.  In this dual role of friend and commentator, he gives the audience a glimpse into why the King is going mad.  He is a compassionate chorus, one who cares about the King and what will happen to him because of his shallow, egotistical decisions. Welsford says, "Shakespeare makes the fullest possible use of the accepted convention that it is the Fool who speaks the truth, which he knows not by ratiocination, but by inspired intuition. The mere appearance of the familiar figure in cap and bells would at once indicate to the audience where the 'punctum indifferens,' the impartial critic, the mouthpiece of real sanity, was to be found."  (Welsford, 269)


The Fool as comic relief


As a comic relief device, the Lear's Fool performs his office well.  According to Cliff Davidson in his introduction to Fools and Folly, "Shakespeare's fools – e.g., the Fool in King Lear – will serve to amuse and yet teach, often however through irony, as when Lear's companion advises, 'Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs downhill, lest it break thy neck with following; but the great one that foes upward, let him draw thee after.'" (Davidson, 4) The Fool is poking fun at Lear's need to have control over every aspect of his daughters' lives, including the amount of love they have for him. William Willeford says, "The Fool is, in short, a silly or idiotic or mad personÉthe 'natural' fool and the 'artificial' fool, the latter being the person who 'professionally counterfeits folly,' either could serve as a jester or clown."  (Willeford, 10) Lear's Fool is a natural fool; that is, he uses humor to point out Lear's folly.




Throughout history, the fool has played the role of truth-teller and entertainer to the Crown.  From Will Somers to Richard Tarlton, the royal fool has spoken the truth to the great monarchs of the English royal family. This is most evident in Shakespeare's King Lear.  The Fool's compassion for the maddened Lear helps the sickly monarch to realize the error of his ways while showing the audience the pitfalls of choosing to suit one's ego. The Fool serves as the chorus, explaining the actions of royalty to the simple audience below.  He also serves to allow Lear to gain a saner view of his life and allow him to make some sort of amends, at least in his heart, to his daughter before her execution.  Within this single character, Shakespeare shows us the true soul of Lear.




1. Billington, Sandra. 1984. A Social History of the Fool.

      The Harvester Press: Sussex, UK.


2. Burnstein, Cynthia; Dominic, Catherine; and Veidemanis,

Gladys V., eds. 1997. Shakespeare For Students, Vol. II.

Gale Research Company: Detroit, MI.


3. Davidson, Clifford, ed. 1996. Fools and folly. Western

      Michigan University Medieval Institute Publications:

      Kalamazoo, MI.


4. Hudson, Rev. H.N. 1872. "Tragedies in King Lear" from

      Shakespeare: His life, art and characters. Ginn & Company:



5. Lazen Harris, Laurie and Scott, Mark W. 1985. Shakespearean

      Criticism, Volume II. Gale Research Company: Detroit, MI.


6. Otto, Beatrice. 2001. Fools are everywhere: The court jester

      around the world. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL.


7. Ulrici, Hermann. 1839. Uber Shakespeares dramatische Kunst

Und sein Verhaltniss zu Calderon und Goethe. Areprint Service: Berlin.


8. Welsford, Enid. 1966. The Fool, his social and literary history.

      Faber & Faber, Ltd.: Gloucester, MA.


9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Lear#Cordelia_and_the_Fool.

      Accessed 08/12/2006.


10. Willeford, William. 1969. The Fool and his scepter: A study in

Clowns and jesters and their audience. Northwestern University Press: Chicago, IL.


Copyright 2006 by Heather Nieto. <whiteoakbard at gmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>


























Informational only


1. Ashley, Leonard R.N. 1988. Elizabethan Pop Culture. Bowling

      Green State University Popular Press: Bowling Green, OH.


2. Empson, William. 1979. "Fool in Lear" from The Structure of

      complex words. Chatto and Winders: London.


3. Gies, Francis and Joseph. 1974. Life in a Medieval Castle.

      Perennial Library: New York.


4. Gurr, Andrew. 1980. The Shakespearean Stage: 1574-1642.

      Second edition. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.


5. Thomson, Peter. 1983. Shakespeare's Theatre. Routledge: London.



Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org