KING LEAR'S FOOL

by: Wilhelm Oechelhäuser
The following biography was originally published in Shakespeare dramatische Werke, Einleitung. 1871.

The Fool in King Lear is the last and, at the same time, the noblest creation of the kind in Shakespeare; he is by far the most intellectual and noblest of his fools. Two prevailing currents of feeling are conspicuous in the Fool. The first is his sorrow over Cordelia, to whom he is as faithful as a dog. 'Since my young lady's going into France, the Fool hath much 'pined away.' This sorrow is expressed by the merciless blows which, far exceeding his traditional privilege, he deals at the king for his folly in abdicating his crown, and for his lack of just appreciation of his youngest daughter. We should hold the Fool to be hard-hearted, malicious, if it were not for his motive. But, with the increasing misfortunes of the old king, the tone of the Fool changes; sympathy with his old master gives another direction to his mind, and sweetens his bitterness. In the fearful night on the heath he still plays the fool only to meet the humour of the king in the usual way; for the rest he is all anxiety for his unhappy lord. He 'labours to outjest his [the king's] heartstruck injuries.' The rôle requires a skilful portrayer of character. Comic actors hardly ever know how to master this. It is all the more difficult, as we have quite lost the understanding of this class, which still flourished even in Shakespeare's time. The endeavour to support this rôle by nonsensical mimicry should cease; the part is sustained by its own intellectual power. I would have the Fool represented as an elderly man, as a sort of family piece in the house of the eighty-year-old king. His office would naturally have become less perfunctory and easier. His probable years released him from the traditional demands made upon his class for physical activity. His speeches bear the stamp of the biting irony which is not an acquired thing, but which usually comes with age in one whose humble station does not correspond with his intellectual abilities. However this may be, the effect of this rôle would be greatly increased if, in the stormy night, the mask of the Fool is allowed ever more and more to fall off, and the sad, faithful servant becomes more and more prominent, as in this scene the surroundings of the unhappy king must render the sympathy and concern of the Fool more lively. With this scene, alas! the Fool vanishes from the stage; he is in this piece treated, as his class were in actual life, as a simple object, having no claim upon one's personal interest.

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