The Great Stage of Fools

My favorite element of King Lear is not a particular image or subtheme, but rather the continuous contrast between what characters appear to be and what they really are. This pattern has repeated several times, and I continue to discover more examples as I read.

Take, for example, Cordelia, one of the first characters to have such a development. Although her sisters sing lofty praises of their father while she refuses to profess such love, she is the one who really loves Lear. As the play continues, Regan and Goneril continue to plot behind their father’s back, even closing doors on him during a storm. On the other hand, Cordelia cries tears of “diamonds” and “pearls” from her “heavenly eyes” when she learns of her father’s poor treatment (187). Despite what one might think after reading the first scene of Act 1, Cordelia is the caring and loyal daughter.

Other examples include Lear, who begins as the powerful, mighty King. However, by the middle of the play, he stands as a “slave” to the tempest and the forces of nature. He admits that he has become a “poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man” (129). The Fool is another example. Although his name suggests otherwise, he remains the wisest character in any scene that he is in. This is particularly clear through his insightful and accurate reflections that he expresses through poetry such as on page 51. 

Recently, Gloucester has proved to be one of these characters. Once he is blinded, he says, “I have no way and therefore want no eyes. I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ‘tis seen our means secure us, and our mere defects prove our commodities” (173). In other words, he states a thematic revelation: our weaknesses/losses can make us better people. Even though he is literally blind, Gloucester seems to “see” a lot. Yet again, this difference between what he is and what he seems to be serves a vehicle for Shakespeare to deliver sub themes.

Although individual sub themes related to suffering or vision may be tied to these different characters, this overarching pattern ties to the larger idea about the “play of life.” It makes us wonder to what extent everyone is simply playing a character; furthermore, it makes us realize how terrible “actors” they all are. All of the characters mentioned above are assigned a role, but they don’t always fit it. King Lear, who becomes increasingly aware of himself and his relation to others as the play progresses, puts it best in Act 4: “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools” (207).

2 thoughts on “The Great Stage of Fools

  1. HANNAH R

    I like that this highlights the contrasts between the characters in “King Lear”. I also think that it’s good to remember that Gloucester goes through a similar contrast before he loses his eyes. When he has his eyes, he is unable to see through Edmund’s deception. It’s only after he loses his eyes, does he “see” everything.

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  2. Sam S

    I definitely agree with your analysis, and I think it’s interesting to consider how some of the things you point out could contribute to the idea of literary foils. For instance, Cordelia is clearly a foil for her sisters, precisely because of the sort of contrast you point too. It could be argued that other less intuitive pairs, like King Lear and the fool, are foils for a similar reason — they have complimentary strengths and lacks (the king has power/had power but lacks wisdom, the fool has wisdom but lack power).

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