This section, which contains notes from the director Bill Alexander's notebooks, puts the Fool in an historical context and offers information about King James VI/I's fool, Archie Armstrong. There is also a personal view, by Joy Leslie Gibson, of the relationship between Lear and his Fool in nine productions of the play.
Dost thou call me fool, boy?
All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.
Oliver Ford Davies played King Lear in Jonathan Kent's production at the Almeida in 1998 and recorded many of the journeys he made, in rehearsal and performance in his book, Playing Lear
The Fool is the first person, indeed the only person in the play, to criticise Lear for abdicating and dividing the kingdom. Lear hears him out, seems to join in the fun, and threatens him with the whip. Is this the tempo of their relationship?
The profession of the jester is ambiguous and abounds in internal contradictions, arising out of the discrepancy between profession and philosophy. The profession of a jester, like that of an intellectual, consists in providing entertainment. His philosophy demands of him that he tell the truth and abolish myths. The Fool in King Lear does not even have a name, he is just a Fool, pure Fool. But he is the first fool to be aware of the fool's position:
I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. They'll have me whipped for speaking true; thou'lt have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace. I had rather be any kind o'thing than a fool. And yet I would not be thee, nuncle. Thou has pared thy wit o'both sides and left nothing in the middle. [1.4.178-184]
Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary
'The Fool… the uncanniest character in Shakespeare… humanizes Lear, and makes the dread king accessible to us.'
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare : The invention of the human
In ancient times courts employed fools and by the Middle Ages the jester was a familiar figure. In Renaissance times, aristocratic households in Britain employed licensed fools or jesters, who sometimes dressed as other servants were dressed, but generally wore a motley (i.e. parti-coloured) coat, hood with ass's ears or a red-flannel coxcomb and bells. Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her. Excessive behaviour, however, could lead to a fool being whipped, as Lear threatens to whip his fool.
'That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool - that he is no fool at all.'
Isaac Asimov, Guide to Shakespeare.
Distinction was made between fools and clowns, or country bumpkins. The fool's status was one of privilege within a royal or noble household. His folly could be regarded as the raving of a madman but was often deemed to be divinely inspired. The 'natural' fool was touched by God. Much to Gonerill's annoyance, Lear's 'all-licensed' Fool enjoys a privileged status. His characteristic idiom suggests he is a 'natural' fool, not an artificial one, though his perceptiveness and wit show that he is far from being an idiot, however 'touched' he might be.
The status of court fool was greatly elevated under the early Stuart kings. Archie Armstrong was official fool both to King James VI/I and his son, King Charles I. To King James, Armstrong was, in a sense, a gentleman groom of the chambers as well as a source of amusement. He had the ear of the king and part of his income derived from bribes from those wishing to petition the king. Despite King James' well known dislike of tobacco, Archie was granted a royal patent for the manufacture of tobacco pipes. He was also made a free citizen of Aberdeen.
The Fool does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good. Lear, insisting on his fictitious majesty, seems ridiculous to him. All the more ridiculous because he does not see how ridiculous he is. But the Fool does not desert his ridiculous, degraded king, and accompanies him on his way to madness. The Fool knows that the only true madness is to recognize this world as rational.
Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary
Joy Leslie Gibson writes about Lear's Relationship with the Fool, with particularly reference to 9 productions of King Lear seen over a 60-year period:
In Elizabethan and Jacobean Fools were primarily servants, yet, in many cases, they were indulged. At the beginning of King Lear (Act 1 scene 4 line 95 Quarto Scene 4;94) Lear calls the Fool 'my pretty knave', yet also threatens him with a beating (1.4.109 Quarto 106). Fools were allowed some license when 'entertaining' their employers. The Fool's criticism of Lear's lack of foresight is particularly trenchant:
When thou clovest thy crown i'th'middle and gavest away both parts, thou borest thy ass o'th'back o'er the dirt. Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gavest the golden one away (1.4.142: Quarto Scene 4.153)
As the play progresses, the Fool becomes less forthright and as circumstances worsen, more and more frail. In Act 1 scene 4 it is said that he is pining for Cordelia and in doing so, pricks Lear's conscience. In the storm scene the Fool speaks with a great deal of common-sense. While Lear pours out great rhetoric and becomes the storm, the Fool is practical:
O nuncle, court holy water in a dry house is better than this rain water out o'door. Good nuncle, in; ask thy daughters' blessing. Here's a night pities neither wise men nor fools (3:2:10 Quarto Scene 9:10).
In the hovel the Fool rallies a little, though he has not much to say. His final words in the Folio 'And I'll go to bed at noon' suggest that the Fool is worn out and has reached the end (NB the line does not appear in the Quarto). The Fool disappears from the play in Act 3 scene 6. Some critics think that this is because, in the original production, a boy player acted both Cordelia and the Fool, but others point out that Richard Armin had joined Shakespeare's company, the King's Men, after Will Kemp had left it and as his 'line' was pathetic fools. Armin also played Feste (in Twelfth Night).
There is no contemporary parallel for the role of Fool in the court of kings. As Shakespeare conceives it, the Fool is a servant and subject to punishment ('Take heed, sirrah - the whip ' 1:4:109) and yet Lear's relationship with his fool is one of friendship and dependency. The Fool acts as a commentator on events and is one of the characters (Kent being the other) who is fearless in speaking the truth. The Fool provides wit in this bleak play and unlike some of Shakespeare's clowns who seem unfunny to us today because their topical jokes no longer make sense, the Fool in King Lear ridicules Lear's actions and situation in such a way that audiences understand the point of his jokes. His 'mental eye' is the most acute in the beginning of the play: he sees Lear's daughters for what they are and has the foresight to see that Lear's decision will prove disastrous.
Different actors have given their own readings of this relationship. There follows a brief survey of the relationship in 9 productions of King Lear:
In the 1940s a generation of people were greatly in debt to the actor-manager Donald Wolfit (1902-68) who ceaselessly toured the country with productions of Shakespeare's plays. King Lear was his greatest part which well-suited his sonorous voice and declamatory delivery. His Fool was Richard Goolden, whose plaintiff voice gave great pathos to the part. Their relationship was one of friendship: there was an especially tender moment when, after the cursing of Gonerill, Lear left the stage leaning on the Fool for comfort. Peter Yate's film of Ronald Harwood's play The Dresser is the story of Wolfit (Albert Finney) and his relationship with his dresser (Tom Courtney) during a performance of King Lear in a provincial theatre during WW2. The ageing actor dies peacefully in his dressing room shortly after Lear has died on stage.
Alec Guinness played the Fool to Laurence Olivier's Lear in 1946. Kenneth Tynan talked of Guinness's 'lances of insolence' and wrote
I took most pleasure in Alec Guinness' vindictive Fool: he played the pathos of the part down to extinction. (He that Plays the King: p.59)
Paul Scofield, in Peter Brook's stage production [RSC 1962] played a stern, vigorous Lear, with Alec McCowen as his wry, acerbic Fool. Goolden, Guinness and McCowen all wore the traditional Jester's costume, pied, with a coxcomb hat.
This tradition was broken by Michael Williams, who played the role twice, first with Eric Porter as Lear [RSC 1968]. Writing of this time he said he saw the Fool as
Something of the monkey, clinging to Lear. I went to the Zoo to study monkeys. There I saw Alec McCowen who revealed that he had modelled his Fool on a red monkey...I chose a different one (p. 84 Flashback, A Pictorial History 1879-1979, One hundred years of Stratford-Upon-Avon and the Royal Shakespeare Company by Micheline Steinberg, RSC Publications 1985)
Williams play the part again when Donald Sinden played Lear [RSC 1970]. Set in the 19th century, this time Williams' Fool was a very old, hard-bitten music-hall comedian.
This idea of a comedian was one also used by Antony Sher, when Michael Gambon played Lear in Adrian Noble's production [RSC 1982]. Sher wore a white face, a red nose, loud suit and size 20 boots: he was 'a Wisdom-Hancock-Laurel pot pourri' speaking 'the voice of bitter truth' (Shropshire Star). Writing in The Year of the King, Sher says that what made the Fool fascinating to him was that the unintelligible jokes added to the nightmare of the madness. There was a scene in which Lear played a ventriloquist and the Fool the dummy and a Music Hall double act which emphasised the Fool as Lear's alter ego. In this production, Lear killed the Fool in his madness. A critic in the Shropshire Star wrote, 'It may seem contrived but never before have I noticed so dramatically the sudden absence of the Fool. Did he ever exist but in Lear's mind?'
In 1990 John Wood played the King [RSC, director Nicholas Hytner] and the part of the Fool was played by a woman, the Scottish actor Linda Kerr Scott. Macready had used a woman for the part in the nineteenth century. In Shakespeare's day, though, all parts would have been played by boys or men. Michael Billington wrote that Kerr Scott thought that she was reminiscent of a ventriloquist's dummy and that she lost the sense that the Fool is both 'Lear's external critic and inner conscience'.
When Robert Stephens played Lear in 1993 the play was set in the eighteenth century and the Fool was played by Ian Hughes as a witty, urbane court gentleman, whose comments were treated with respect. Charles Spencer wrote 'Lear's tender relationship with his Fool (a lovely, sad-faced performance from Ian Hughes) is beautifully drawn.' Another critic wrote 'I found Ian Hughes' interpretation of the Fool particularly interesting: he is no peripheral figure, rather he is the voice of reason and sanity… an image of genuine hope'.
Six years later the Japanese Director, Yukio Ninagawa direct the play with Nigel Hawthorne as Lear [RSC 1999]. The cast were all English with the exception of Hiroyuki Sanada who played the Fool. It was a distracting choice, for although Sanada, with his clown face and skilful acrobatics, gave an effective performance it was out of key with Hawthorne's reserved king. Richard Chilvers wrote 'he rarely engaged with Lear and the jokes were lost in the telling.'