Not Altogether Fool Ray Cooney September 21, 2016 Argument, King Lear Kent’s language in Act One, Scene Four of “King Lear” is about language. “If but as well I other accents borrow/ That can my speech defuse,” he says, “my good intent/May carry through itself to that full issue/ For which I razed my likeness.” Immediately, even before deciding exactly what he means, it is clear he is talking about language. Words like “accents” and “speech” tell us that much. Moreover, “other accents,” “borrow” and “my likeness” suggest the notion of versions of himself, of disguise. We know it was his words that got him into trouble; now, it seems, he’s thinking that maybe words can get him out of trouble. When Lear approaches and asks him, “what are thou?” Kent says “A man, sir.” Such a seemingly simple answer must be full of meaning when Kent gives it. Plainness is a virtue with him, even in disguise; somethings never change. Earlier he asked Lear, “What wouldst thou do, old man? /Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak/ When power to flattery bows?” His conception of duty is obvious: tell the truth and value honesty in others. He says he wishes “to love him that is honest; to converse with him that is wise, and says little.” This idea of wisdom in small packages is not new. Cordelia gives short answers in Act One, Scene One. Kent applauds this wherever he finds it. Perhaps he perceives it in Edmund too. He says to him, “I must love you and sue to know you better.” He tries to help Lear see better: “in thy best consideration check this hideous rashness. Answer my life my judgement, / Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least/ Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound/ Reverbs no hollowness.” There is a modern version of this we’re more familiar with: “Empty vessels make the most noise.” So, we might say that Kent values words inasmuch as they are honest, considered and used for good. When Lear asks him what it is about him (Lear) that Kent respects, the latter simply says, “Authority.” It makes us think about the difference between authority and power. When asked his age, which is relatively inconsequential and trifling he has more to say: “Not young enough to fall in love with a woman because she sings well, but not old enough to dote on a woman for any reason.” How are we to interpret this? There’s certainly the notion of balance and discipline. He’s not fanciful; he’s not so young that he’ll fall for a woman just because she is attractive; neither is he desperate enough to accept any woman who looks his way. He calls Oswald a “base football player.” Football was a ruffian’s game in Shakespeare’s day, quite violent and played in the street. “Base” reminds us immediately of Edmund of course who, like footballers, is of the street, common, a product of his father’s lust and disinherited. He threatens to teach Oswald “differences;” in other words, to respect his betters. Can you imagine how Edmund would react to being told this by Kent? Kent can hardly be blamed for seeing no wisdom in The Fool’s words, especially when nobody else can either. The Fool is, after all, a jester, a professional idiot; this despite the Fool saying, “Speak less than thou knowest” and “Learn more than thou trowest.” These are the kinds of things with which, were somebody else to say them, Kent would heartily agree but here we learn that prejudice plays a role in how we perceive wisdom. In other words, when someone we look down upon is wise we don’t see it as wisdom. He says to The Fool, “This is nothing, Fool.” This reminds us of Cordelia who is the first person to use that word “nothing.” An attentive audience will see that The Fool is far from being foolish; he says that there are two kinds of fool: the sweet fool and the bitter fool. He suggests that Lear is a bitter fool and when Lear says, “Dost thou call me fool, boy?” the Fool replies, “All thy other titles thou hast given away that thou wast born with.” Then, Kent realises something about The Fool: “This is not altogether fool, my lord.” How can I be a complete fool, The Fool wonders, when other people insist of being foolish too? What follows is an exchange between Lear and The Fool about foolishness. Kent, presumably, now views The Fool differently, realising there’s something of value in his riddles. The Fool says he’d love to be able to lie because life would be easier that way. Such a thought can’t be lost on Kent whose life was turned upside down by being honest. Despite this, Lear finds The Fool objectionable and threatens to have him whipped. This is important because it shows that Lear is still reacting to words he doesn’t like with threats. Then Goneril arrives and we see the pattern extended. He fights with her, playing right into her hands. Remember when she said to Oswald, “I’ll have it come to question”? Her intention is to orchestrate a row that will provide the pretext for ostracising her father. Kent says nothing at all after he says, “This is not altogether fool, my lord.” We might well imagine that he is listening to The Fool intently. The Fool takes over Kent’s duties here. Like Kent did in Act One, Scene One, The Fool tries to educate Lear, to make him see what’s really going on but the latter is so enraged that he is incapable of really listening and so Goneril takes the initiative. Kent’s contribution to Act One, Scene Four is to move away from thinking that The Fool has nothing of value to contribute to seeing wisdom in his words. Unfortunately, Lear is not yet in a position to accept that meaning is more important than happiness. Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.