The Fool is a tremendously substantial character in William Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear. Traditionally, fools were the equivalent of court jesters and were thought to be insane. They were customarily physically and sometimes even mentally impaired. Persons became fools as the result of an aristocratic individual's compassion or boredom. Often times, fools were taken in by kings and given room and board in exchange for their tomfoolery. Fools such as Lear's were never held accountable for what they said or did.
The role of the Fool in King Lear is that of Lear's entertainer, educator, and most importantly, his conscience. The Fool's intended purpose in the time of Lear is that of an entertainer. The Fool amuses Lear by belittling him. In one scenario, Lear is just about to set out for his daughter's house when he decides to converse with the Fool.
The Fool insults Lear's wit when he says, "Then, I prithee, be merry; thy wit shall not go slipshod" (I, v, ll. 11-12). After hearing this, Lear responds by laughing. He does not discern that the Fool is alleging that either Lear has no brains or that his decision to live with his daughters is senseless.
Furthermore, the Fool entertains Lear by belittling others. During Lear's imaginary trial for his daughters, the Fool makes a whimsical remark to Lear's daughter, Goneril, "Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint stool" (III, vi, ll. 55). The Fool is actually insulting the imagined Goneril by saying that he did not notice her.
The Fool is a jocose man who can also be quite wise at times. The Fool serves to educate Lear throughout the foremost part of the play. The Fool acquaints Lear with that which he does not know concerning his family and the consequences of his actions. When Lear is staying at Goneril's house, she threatens him because she dislikes the company he keeps.
The Fool then observes to Lear, "For you know, nuncle the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, that it's had it head bit off by it young. So out went the candle, and we were left darkling" (I, iv, 220-224). The Fool is referring to Lear's kindness to his daughters and how he is now being "repaid" as the sparrow was. The Fool is a very ingenious man who seems to act as Lear's inner voice. The Fool acts as Lear's conscience in the play.
It is almost as if the Fool is a part of Lear. After Kent has returned in disguise to serve Lear, Lear asks one of his knights where his fool is. The Knight replies, "Since my young lady's going into France, sir, the fool hath much pined away" (I, iv, ll. 73-74). The Knight's response means that ever since the King's youngest daughter Cordelia departed, the Fool has been despondent. This turn of events symbolizes Lear's affection for his youngest daughter and how much he longs for her company.
It is apparent that the Fool is a representation of Lear's inner consciousness. The Fool in King Lear plays the roll of a performer, pedagogue and of Lear's innermost self. He caters to Lear in many different ways. As a performer, he serves to entertain Lear by defaming him and those encompassing him.
As an educator, the Fool provides Lear with insightful observations and anecdotes concerning Lear's family and the world at large. Most importantly, as Lear's conscience, the Fool displays Lear's true thoughts and feelings through the Fool's own words and conduct. The Fool is most definitely an instrumental part of the tragedy of King Lear. Based on the pivotal roles that he plays, it is apparent that King Lear without the Fool would be like peanut butter without jelly.