The Old Fool: Lessons from King Lear

I recently wrote about the relationship between Shakespeare’s King Lear and his daughters. The behavior of Lear and his two eldest daughters demonstrate how family members shouldn’t treat one another. There’s much more to learn from King Lear than the problems that can occur between parents and adult children, though. For example, we learn a good deal about folly and wisdom. This post is mostly about the folly Lear shows in the first two acts. A subsequent post will examine how he acquires wisdom.

Though he is elderly, Lear initially is immature. He wants his daughters to fawn over him, becomes vindictive when youngest daughter Cordelia refuses to do so, and petulantly banishes the Earl of Kent when that loyal subject begs him to reconsider. Lear is apparently unaccustomed to anyone questioning him or even telling him the truth. In the absence of any sort of honest feedback, he is a man who thinks himself much different than how he is. In other words, Lear doesn’t know himself. This is evident in an interaction with his daughter Goneril. Goneril thinks him foolish (“Old fools are babes again….” Act I, Scene 3, Line 20) but to his face calls him wise in an effort to manipulate him:

“Come, sir,
I would you would make use of that good wisdom,
Whereof I know you are fraught; and put away
These dispositions, that of late transform you
From what you rightly are.” (I:4:225-229)

Lear’s response is odd in a way, yet appropriate for what Goneril is trying to do:

“Doth any here know me? This is not Lear:
Doth Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied–Ha! waking? ’tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (I:4:232-236)

In other words, I’ve lost track of who I am and no one seems able (or willing) to tell me. If the only information I am told about myself is false, I’ll never know myself.

After Lear has given his kingdom to daughters Goneril and Regan, they oppose his wishes and seek to impose their will on him. Lear starts to regret that he banished Cordelia, yet he won’t take responsibility for his decision. Instead, he claims his behavior stemmed from some external force that mislead him:

O most small fault,
How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show!
That, like an engine, wrench’d my frame of nature
From the fix’d place; drew from heart all love,
And added to the gall. O Lear, Lear, Lear!
Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in [Striking his head]
And thy dear judgment out!  (I:4:273-279)

Lear views Goneril as the main source of his troubles, and curses her. His Fool sees much more clearly than him that Lear himself is responsible for what is happening:

“…for when thou gavest them the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches,
[Singing] Then they for sudden joy did weep,
And I for sorrow sung,
That such a king should play bo-peep,
And go the fools among.” (I:4:177-182)

Lear listens, but doesn’t learn. He goes to Regan, the other daughter who received a portion of his kingdom, but gets no better treatment from her. Lear eventually suspects that he lacks some quality he needs to deal with his daughters’ insurrection, but initially (and incorrectly) thinks that what he needs is determination fueled by anger:

“You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks!” (II:4:270-277)

So Lear’s folly is that he doesn’t know himself, takes no responsibility for his faults, blames his hardships on others, and thinks angry confrontations will make life better. I’ve known some older adults who have pretty much the same set of characteristics. Usually, they are embroiled in tumultuous relationships and are themselves miserable. Is there any hope that such hardened personality dispositions will ever change?

Shakespeare must think so. At the end of Act II, Lear leaves in a rage, out to the heath, where a storm is brewing. He will come though the storm much wiser than he goes in. What happens to make him a different person? That will be a topic of another post.

"King Lear and the Fool in the Storm," by William Dyce

“King Lear and the Fool in the Storm,” by William Dyce

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About bobritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to my parents' home and provide them with assistance. I maintain part-time therapy practices in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. I currently worship at Square Inch Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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2 Responses to The Old Fool: Lessons from King Lear

  1. Oh dear we have many King Lears today

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