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King Lear | Shakespeare and comedy | Birmingham City Council

King Lear

Behind the jokes and nonsense burbling (motley), there is a witty and rather well read character who only pretends in order to make a point, as King Lear discovers in the words of his jester:

The lord that counselled thee
To give away thy land
Come place him here by me
Do thou for him stand.
The sweet and bitter fool
Will presently appear.
The one in motley here
The other found out there.

In many of the comedies the fool is the driving force of the plot. King Lear’s fool is a well liked boy, showing great tenderness towards the old king and gets Lear’s sympathy (‘Dost thou call me fool, boy?’). This familiar double act between the king and his fool carries the action in the early parts of the play to reveal the major themes of power, love and madness.

The fool’s joke is: who is the real fool here? The character that is supposed to be the object of everybody’s laughter reveals the real life fools. Touchstone is an experienced commentator on life in court:

I have trod a measure;
I have flattered a lady;
I have been politic with my friend, smooth with mine enemy;
I have undone three tailors….
There is privilege in the position of the court jester to say things that others might be executed or punished for. The clown is the only one permitted to tell the truth and get away with it because it all comes under the veil of laughter.