Logo for Joe Sobranšs newsletter: Sobran's -- The Real News of the Month

The Reactionary Utopian

 Lear’s Fool 

August 18, 2005 
I haven’t written about King Lear for several weeks now, and I can hear my public clamoring for more. Today's column is "Lear's Fool" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.This is the season when Congress is on vacation, so we can turn to topics more worthy of our attention.

If you ask me, King Lear is a very good play, even better than The Odd Couple. This is not an original opinion, I admit; earlier critics, some more reputable than I, have said much the same thing. But I would call your notice to some fine details.

Everyone knows that the scene in which Lear and his daughter Cordelia are reconciled is one of the most moving things ever written. I can’t even quote it with dry eyes, and I’ve been reading it since I was about 16. The final scene, a pinnacle of tragedy, may even surpass it. Yet the play owes much of its grandeur and emotional power to the homely character of Lear’s Fool, who is quite unnecessary to the plot. I love him like an old friend.

In the opening scene, the old king flies into a rage when Cordelia, his youngest and favorite daughter, refuses to flatter him like her two evil sisters, Goneril and Regan. He disinherits and banishes her, but the king of France, recognizing that “she is herself a dowry,” takes her as his queen. The kingdom of Britain is divided between Lear’s other two daughters. At the age of “fourscore and upwards,” Lear is still remarkably immature, whiling away his time hunting with his rowdy knights.

Then, unexpectedly, Shakespeare inserts a magical touch only he could have conceived. After a day’s hunting, the self-indulgent Lear wants to be amused by his Fool. He complains, “I have not seen him this two days.” One of his knights hesitantly explains the Fool’s absence: “Since my young lady’s going into France, sir, the Fool hath much pined away.”

Sheer genius. You hardly notice that simple line the first time you see or read the play, but as you grow familiar with it you get the import: it tells you how much the Fool adores Cordelia and how deeply he is hurt by what his master has done to her.

The insolent Fool is one of Shakespeare’s most inspired creations. Throughout the first half of the play, he takes his revenge on Lear with bitter, wounding humor. Lear threatens to have him whipped, but the Fool won’t lay off, and for some reason Lear puts up with his taunts. Like Cordelia, the Fool is a truth-teller. (Goneril hates him.)

[Breaker quote for Lear's Fool: Shakespeare's homely artistry]Gradually we realize that the Fool is Cordelia’s surrogate during her absence. The two never appear in the same scene and hardly even refer to each other, but we have been casually, and very subtly, made aware of their mutual love.

Shortly afterward, Lear angrily falls out with the heartless Goneril and, taking his entire retinue, leaves her household to move in with the equally heartless Regan (who will soon be the target of another of his furies). Along the way, the Fool continues to bait Lear for his folly.

Then Shakespeare plants another of his tremendous subtleties. As the Fool keeps teasing him, Lear mutters to himself, “I did her wrong.” We immediately realize that by “her” he means Cordelia.

In those four simple syllables we learn that Lear’s stubborn pride is beginning to crack. There will be more curses and tantrums, but his redemption has begun.

Despite her absence, Cordelia is present to him in his Fool. Instead of threatening him with whipping, Lear, in the midst of his own suffering and madness, treats him with the utmost tenderness, affectionately calling him “my boy.” It’s his indirect way of expressing his love and regret for his cruelty to his only true-hearted daughter.

All these tiny touches prepare us for the matchless scene of reconciliation, when Lear, totally transformed (though still half-insane), tearfully begs Cordelia to forgive him. Instead, she weeps too and tells him there is nothing to forgive.

King Lear is certainly Shakespeare’s grimmest play, with no cerebral hero like Hamlet, but its gallery of good and evil characters makes it unique. Those who remain loyal to Lear — as the little Fool, in spite of his own anger, always does — prevail, when the others have been consumed by their own depravity.

The Fool mysteriously disappears halfway through the play. We are left uncertain whether he is even still alive. But before he vanishes, he has helped give King Lear its incomparable emotional depth.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate

small Griffin logo
Send this article to a friend.

Recipient’s e-mail address:
(You may have multiple e-mail addresses; separate them by spaces.)

Your e-mail address:

Enter a subject for your e-mail:

Mailarticle © 2001 by Gavin Spomer
Archive Table of Contents

Current Column

Return to the SOBRANS home page.

FGF E-Package columns by Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and others are available in a special e-mail subscription provided by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Click here for more information.

Search This Site

Search the Web     Search SOBRANS

What’s New?

Articles and Columns by Joe Sobran
 FGF E-Package “Reactionary Utopian” Columns 
  Wanderer column (“Washington Watch”) 
 Essays and Articles | Biography of Joe Sobran | Sobran’s Cynosure 
 The Shakespeare Library | The Hive
 WebLinks | Books by Joe 
 Subscribe to Joe Sobran’s Columns 

Other FGF E-Package Columns and Articles
 Sam Francis Classics | Paul Gottfried, “The Ornery Observer” 
 Mark Wegierski, “View from the North” 
 Chilton Williamson Jr., “At a Distance” 
 Kevin Lamb, “Lamb amongst Wolves” 
 Subscribe to the FGF E-Package 

Products and Gift Ideas
Back to the home page 


SOBRANS and Joe Sobran’s columns are available by subscription. Details are available on-line; or call 800-513-5053; or write Fran Griffin.

Reprinted with permission
This page is copyright © 2005 by The Vere Company
and may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of The Vere Company.