King Lear

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Fooling and Madness Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Old Age Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in King Lear, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon

From early on in the play, the Fool is probably the character with the greatest insight into what the consequences of Lear's misjudgments of his daughers will be. (The Fool's only competition in this respect comes from Kent in 1.1; in 1.2 Gloucester seems only to have a vague intuition that Lear's decision was a mistake.) Calling Lear himself a Fool and admonishing him that he has reduced himself to "nothing" by dividing and handing off his kingdom, the Fool recognizes that by giving up his authority Lear is essentially ensuring his own destruction and the destruction of his kingdom.

Just as the Fool's apparently nonsensical comments contain some of the most sensible advice that Lear receives on his behavior, Lear himself gains increasing insight into his situation as he moves from sanity to madness. His raving—for instance, in the storm or on Dover Beach—often resembles the riddling, but incisive, barbs of the Fool. It is possible to argue that in a world that itself does not seem to make sense—a world of death, of raging storms, of children who turn against their parents—it makes sense that madness might be the most sane reaction.

Deliberately adopting the mad manner of a bedlam beggar, Edgar provides a counterpoint to Lear's uncontrollable madness, particularly in the storm scene (3.2).

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Fooling and Madness Quotes in King Lear

Below you will find the important quotes in King Lear related to the theme of Fooling and Madness.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
"As if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion."
Related Characters: Edmund (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 1.2.128-129
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gloucester departs, Edmund mocks his father’s comments on the heavens. He believes that the motion of the planets do nothing to ordain human action.

With these characters, Shakespeare establishes two poles on the question of human agency in the context of heavenly predestination. Whereas Gloucester believes that eclipses in the sky predict negative events in the human world, Edmund finds this perspective ridiculous. This debate speaks to a philosophical question on free will, but it also expresses a generational difference. Just as Lear values ceremonial behavior and adherence to tradition, Gloucester finds deference the heavens to be important. Friction arises with both sets of children because the younger generations seek increased personal control.

To substantiate his claim on the heavens, Edmund gives two examples of where human identities should not reasonably conform to fate: “villains” and “fools.” Shakespeare has not arbitrarily selected these terms. Being himself a villain (as he has just decided), Edmund is implicitly claiming that he acts according to his own will as opposed to the effect of any celestial body. Yet we could take his exploits as proof that Gloucester was correct that eclipses foretold negative events. “Fools” will play an important role later in the tragedy, when both actual and artificial fools render unclear whether the heavens or human action lead to madness. Thus even as Edmund disparages his father’s belief in destiny, Shakespeare subtly designs the structure of the tragedy to reiterate the ever-present role of fate.

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Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
"Old fools are babes again."
Related Characters: Goneril (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 1.3.20
Explanation and Analysis:

During Lear’s visit, Goneril becomes increasingly frustrated with her father. She complains about how elderly people regress to a stage of seeming infancy.

This passage corroborates the selfish qualities of Goneril’s character. As with her earlier observations on Lear’s aging, these comments are highly uncharitable considering Lear’s generosity—and they explicitly conflict with the kind words Goneril offered at the onset of the tragedy. Shakespeare presents her character as deeply opportunistic, motivated only by self-advancement as opposed to genuine love.

Her comment also clarifies the tragedy’s presentation of old age. Claiming that age makes men “babes again” defines a cyclical model of time, in which people revert back to their infancy—as opposed to, say, becoming wiser and more esteemed. This model helps justify Goneril’s command over her father. Furthermore, the phrase “old fools” implies that age brings a particular brand of madness that deviates from rational control and which thus mimics the behavior of children. The question of the fool will become increasingly important as Lear slowly looses his mind, and Goneril’s comment here prefaces the way age can intersect with and mimic insanity.

Act 1, scene 4 Quotes
"Thou hast pared thy wit o' both sides and left nothing in the middle."
Related Characters: Fool (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 1.4.191-192
Explanation and Analysis:

As Lear prepares to depart from Goneril’s palace, he is chastised by his Fool (the jester who attends to him, offering entertainment and often wisdom) for his irrational actions. The Fool claims that Lear has lost his mind.

The Fool’s point is not direct, here, but rather conveyed through an odd image. That Lear has “pared thy wit o’ both sides” means that he has sliced or cut off his intelligence—so the Fool imagines “wit” as a physical object that can be cut. Symbolically, the “both sides” could represent Goneril and Regan, to whom Lear has apportioned each half of his estate. For in doing so, he has indeed “left nothing in the middle”: he maintains no power or land of his own, and thus his action could be seen as the result of no “wit.”

This passage also plays with the idea of madness and role-playing in the tragedy. Though the Fool is supposed to be a jesting figure, he speaks here with remarkable insight. (That his words are lighthearted but his content weighty is an another example of how Shakespeare explores the difference between language and meaning.) Indeed, one would never expect him to be able to criticize a king in this way—so Shakespeare seems to have turned the Fool into a ruler at the very moment the King becomes a Fool. Thus even amidst the strict social roles that predominate the text, interactions like this speak to a fluidity in the identities of all the play's characters.

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
"Here's a night pities neither wise men nor fools."
Related Characters: Fool (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.14-15
Explanation and Analysis:

Lear and his Fool stand amidst the overpowering storm. The first shouts at the natural forces, while the second offers these more reasoned statements.

The Fool is here describing the way Nature does not affect humans differently based on their social status. This night “pities” none more than others, because it affects all equally. Physically, this would be taking place on the stage as we would see King Lear and the Fool equally affected by the “night.” This statement quite cleverly plays with the opposition between “wise men” and “fools.” Note how the Fool and Lear continue to switch roles: whereas the supposedly wise king is screaming insanely into the environment, the supposedly jesting Fool is offering poignant commentary. Yet that Fool’s wise comment is to once more equate wise men and fools! After all, it is in his madness rather than his earlier rationality that Lear seems more introspective and intelligent. Thus the effect is not particularly to invert their roles but rather to, amidst a physical and metaphorical storm, show how fluidly intelligence and insanity bleed together.

Act 3, scene 4 Quotes
"Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these? O I have taken
Too little care of this."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker)
Page Number: 3.4.32-37
Explanation and Analysis:

Lear has finally escaped from the overwhelming storm. Shaken by the experience, he reflects on how little attention he devoted as King to his impoverished subjects.

This passage shows that Lear’s experience has granted him a new level of empathy to others. He imagines that common people “bide the pelting of this pitiless storm” just as he has—and that they must therefore be in need of resources and aid just as Lear was. Nature, here, serves as an equalizer between king and subject, allowing Lear to understand how desperately others would need aid “from seasons such as these.” He is able, then, to imagine the significance of not having a castle and only owning “looped and windowed raggedness”: the paltry huts that would be owned by peasants. Having redefined his idea of a necessity, he comes to see even mere shacks as precious.

Shakespeare develops, then, the argument that supposed madness can actually bring one great clarity and insight. Lear is seen by the other characters to be insane, but his ravings in the wilderness have actually brought him greater empathy for his subjects—the exact quality that would be necessary for any accomplished ruler. That he renounces his previous actions places Lear in a traditional moral arc of recognition and repentance, but Shakespeare plays on this formula by making insanity the route to that realization.

"Child Rowland to the dark tower came
His word was still 'Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man."
Related Characters: Edgar (speaker)
Page Number: 3.4.195-197
Explanation and Analysis:

Edgar arrives disguised as the beggar “Poor Tom.” Here, he seems to speak a meaningless rhyme, but the tune actually carries a frightening threat.

What Edgar says is a play on a famous quatrain that is best known today for its appearance in Jack and the Beanstalk. However the rhyme was established before the Jack story, as well as before King Lear. The other part of the quote references the old fairy tale of "Childe Rowland." Edgar’s comment seems, at first, to just be a strange version of this tale—the sort of comment that is made by a madman who intermingles bits of story without much attention to what they mean.

Yet beneath that apparent insanity, the careful reader can note some darker meanings: for instance, Edgar is speaking of “Child Rowland,” thus pointing to the way children throughout the tragedy have threatened their parents. Similarly, the “dark tower” references the royal castles that the children are constantly seeking to own—and their way of gaining control would indeed be by “the blood a British man.” Revising the original term “Englishman” to “British man” might also speak cleverly to the political divides being played out in King Lear: for British refers more generally to the broader empire, whereas English refers only to English-citizens proper. Thus beneath Edgar’s simple play on a nursery rhyme, we can see a parable about the way children in the play are seeking to violently overtake power from their British fathers. Once more, Shakespeare has housed poignant social commentary in the words of a seeming madman.

Act 3, scene 6 Quotes
"All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience."
Related Characters: Kent (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 3.6.4-5
Explanation and Analysis:

Kent reports to Gloucester on Lear’s continual descent into insanity. He unexpectedly blames that decline on Lear’s restlessness.

This comment may catch the reader by surprise, considering that Lear’s behavior has been generally pegged to old age, anger, or illness. Kent, instead offers “his impatience” as the reason for Lear’s insanity, which seems to imply that Lear wishes to hasten some end. Perhaps Kent means an impatience for Lear’s daughters to serve him, which caused Lear to become increasingly frustrated to the point of insanity. Or perhaps “impatience” operates on a more metaphorical level—meaning an impatience for mental clarity or philosophical insight. Since Shakespeare has repeatedly likened that insight to madness, one could see that impatience in that domain would cause one’s “wits” to give way. In any case, Kent offers a model of “wits” that must maintain themselves with a consistent “power” against the threat of insanity, but which due a factor like impatience may fail and leave one privy to madness.

Act 4, scene 6 Quotes
"How fearful
And dizzy tis to cast one's eyes so low!
[…]
I'll look no more
Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong."
Related Characters: Edgar (speaker), Gloucester
Page Number: 4.6.16-29
Explanation and Analysis:

Edgar wonders how to help his father in his current decrepit state. He pretends, here, to be overlooking an enormous cliff, hoping that Gloucester will ask to be hurled off it.

The full effect of this passage is difficult to imagine without the image of the flat stage, but it comes off as somewhat farcical in an actual performance. Choosing words like “fearful” and “dizzy” to describe a flat stage would seem humorous and would allow the audience to comprehend better the metaphorical and literal blindness that is essential to this tragedy. And Edgar’s repeated references to vision—“cast one’s eyes so low” and “deficient sight”—make the irony of the scene entirely evident to the audience. The passage is, however, more than a humorous aside. It also transforms blindness into an odd asset for Gloucester. Edgar is able to set up a fake cliff for Gloucester, where he believes he has attempted to commit suicide and been saved by a miracle. Edgar thus harnesses the very quality in Gloucester that caused him to be treated so terribly—his blindness—and instead turns it into an opportunity for redemption.

Act 5, scene 3 Quotes
"No, no, no, no. Come, let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds in the cage."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 5.3.9-10
Explanation and Analysis:

When Lear and Cordelia are sentenced to prison, Cordelia wonders if they could find a way out of their fate. Lear instead chooses to idealize their time in prison. 

To do so, he uses the provocative image of "birds in the cage." Lear romanticizes the experience of prison not as one that restricts freedom but as a way for him and Cordelia to be safe from external harm. They would be birds singing--performing enjoyable melodies instead of unhappily bemoaning their fate. Lear's earlier insistence that humans are no more special than wild beasts clarifies that he would see no particular issue in being treated as a bird. Indeed, that role would finally fulfill his hope at the play's onset to offload responsibilities to his daughters and live with little concern in his old age. 

This is a somewhat unconventional tactic in Shakespearian tragedy: we have a character who accepts his tragic fate instead of rebelling against it. Lear's acceptance comes from a combination of existential rumination and insanity, which allow him to reach that conclusion. Lunacy thus offers a weird psychological route to beautify and escape his fate.