The Foolishness of Fools in Shakespeare's King Lear
Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear is comprised of many distinct themes. His contrasts of light and dark, good and evil, and his brilliant illustration of parallels between the foolishness of the play's characters and society allowed him to craft a masterpiece. Just as well, Shakespeare's dynamic use of linguistic techniques such as pun and irony aid this illustration of the perfect microcosm, not only of 16th century Britain, but of all times and places. By far the theme that best allowed the furthering of this superb contrast between Victorian England and Lear's own defined world is Shakespeare's discussion of fools and their foolishness. This discussion allows Shakespeare to not only more fully portray human nature, but also seems to illicit a sort of Socratic introspection into the nature of society's own ignorance as well.
One type of fool that Shakespeare involves in King Lear is the literal fool. This does not, of course, necessarily mean that they are fools all the time; or fools in the denotative sense of the term. Edmund, for instance, may definitely be seen as a fool in the sense that he is morally weak. His foolishness derives from the fact that he has no sense of right or justice. He discusses this as his father, Gloucester, leaves to ponder the "plotting" of his son Edgar. Edmund states that, "This is the excellent foppery of the world, that / when we are sick in fortune../...we make guilty of our disasters / the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains / on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion" seemingly for the soul purpose of illustrating his wickedness (I, ii, 32). Edmund realizes that his evil was borne by himself. This soliloquy shows the audience Edgar's foolishness in his mistaken belief that evil, or malevolence, is the force that drives one to greatness and/or prosperity. It also illustrates "the bastard's" mistaken belief that by fooling his father, he might be able to eliminate his competition for Gloucester's title, Edgar, and possibly rid himself of his father in the same token. This is a prime example of literal foolishness in King Lear, and Edmund is an excellent example of a literal fool, both in his beliefs and his actions...both of which are foolishly evil.
Another prime example of literal foolishness can be found in the foil characters of Regan and Goneril, the daughters of the King. These two women, much like Edmund, find foolishness in evil thoughts and evil deeds. As they plot to usurp Lear's power, their foolishness is illustrated in their single-minded decisions. Goneril states to Lear, "Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter..." in her insidious attempts to gain her father's land (I, i, 11). This is obviously a lie, as the audience can very well see. And it clearly illustrates her foolishness. Not to be outdone, however, Regan endeavors to use the same method in the theft of power from her father's hands. She attests...