King Lear – The Fool’s Almost-Great Speech

The plot thus far: Lear starts off the play by basically firing a gun at his daughters’ feet telling them to dance pretty, then has a fit of pique when Cordelia stays rooted. She’s banished.  Married off to the King of France, who loves her just the way she is, unbowed and very recently undowered.  While marriage to a French guy is not explicitly part of the punishment… well, you could interpret how Shakespeare may have felt about the French by his treatment of Joan of Arc in Henry VI Part One.  She’s captured and about to meet the fate history is familiar with when her own father drops by and says  ‘yeah, burn the witch, beheading’s too good for her.’ Le ouch.

After Cordelia leaves, Lear takes aim at his own foot by dividing his kingdom between daughters Regan and Goneril, with nary a caveat such as: ‘but you’re not allowed to turn me out into the elements where I shall go howling mad’.  Quite the oversight, it turns out.

So cut to Act III.  Lear’s humiliation has been perfectly meted out. Bereft and betrayed, deserted by his regiment and reduced to just a fool and Kent-In-Disguise as his stewards, with the heavens turning against him and all his rage spent – the scene is set for a great speech.  Something about the cruel capriciousness of fate.   Something a little bitter.  Maybe a little of that ol’ Shakespeare ‘PSYCH!’  he does so well.

Consider the ‘What A Piece of Work is Man’ speech from Hamlet. It’s starts out such a crowd pleaser, you find yourself saying, yes, by golly, what a piece of work is man.  Infinite in faculties, paragon of animals!  Then he hits you: ‘Man delights not me’.  Psych!

Or the ‘Now is the Summer of Our Discontent’ speech from Richard III.  Yes, finally, his family rules!  All the struggles have borne fruit.  All is well.  And then he says something to the effect of: ‘peace, tranquility… can’t say I care for it.’

It’s a pattern Shakespeare employs again and again, and it’s so effective.  The elation makes the plummet that much more startling.  This would have been the perfect spot for the Shakespeare Psych.

Act III, Scene II, step up fool, let’s hear it:

I’ll speak a prophecy ere I go:

When priests are more in word than matter;
When brewers mar their malt with water;
When nobles are their tailors’ tutors,
No heretics burn’d, but wenches’ suitors;
When every case in law is right,
No squire in debt nor no poor knight;
When slanders do not live in tongues,
Nor cutpurses come not to throngs;
When usurers tell their gold i’ th’ field
And bawds and whores do churches build:
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion.
Then comes the time, who lives to see’t,
That going shall be us’d with feet.

Basically he starts with:

When priests have more integrity in their speech than their acts, when brewers water down the brew, when nobles are better at tailoring than tailors, when decent men are burned instead of heretics… all these things go counter to what we’d expect or want – the priest should act with integrity not just talk about it, the brewers should produce undiluted malt, the tailor should know more about his craft than a noble, the heretic should burn, not the suitor…

Then the speech takes a turn counter to counter, it’s what we’d like: when every case in law is right (well, that sounds good), and no squire in debt (nice), no slander, no one stealing, usurers saving not lending, whores build churches.  All good.  Maybe a little duller.  But good.

Then shall the realm of Albion come to great confusion.
Albion = England, btw.  Are they confused that the first four lines of the prophecy don’t jive with the following six? Me too.

The prophecy ends with: Then comes the time to see’t, that going shall be us’d with feet.
I.e.: Then shall we all walk WITH OUR FEET. I love this type of absurdist tautology.  Like ‘all the trees were made of wood’ (Laurie Anderson) or ‘there is water at the bottom of the ocean’ (David Byrne).

But here it’s so anticlimactic.

And the glossary informs me this speech is based on the Prophecies of Merlin – which were the 2012 theories of Shakespeare’s time, spreading fear and forecasting all sorts of colorful apocalyptic doom (famine, downpours of blood, etc.)  So perhaps the absurdity was a way to undercut the scaremongering of the day.

And yes, I’m considering the source.  It’s not like the rest of the fool’s speeches aren’t full of contradictions and absurdities.

But I think here in the soggy depths of Lear’s despair, I was expecting the speech, and when I read ‘when priests are more in word than matter’ –  I thought ‘oooh, hang on, here it comes!’.  The dang fool fooled me.  And doesn’t it have the makings of a great speech?  If only it had been injected with a little vitriol instead of deflated with absurdity.  If only it had that edge, that Shakespeare Psych… I could see it silkscreened onto t-shirts, championed by the disaffected, referred to in hallowed halls as simply ‘The Fools Speech’.

But best not to dwell.  That way madness lies.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. dsgetch
    Jan 31, 2011 @ 17:03:17

    The Fool’s Speech.

    Isn’t that the movie where Colin Firth puts on a fool’s cap, and goes around the castle making fun of aristocrats with speech impediments?


  2. dsgetch
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 06:20:38

    Okay, actually this speech was a bit of let down for me, on an entirely different basis.

    I look at the Fool as this light and airy figure. The Fool doesn’t have a care in the world. Even if the whole world is crumbling down around him, the perfect Fool won’t notice the danger, just the beauty of the destruction.

    In this speech Lear is a fake Fool. He doesn’t have access to the wisdom of the true Fool because he’s only acting the Fool.

    I don’t remember which play it is, but one of the saddest scenes in Shakespeare is the one where they kill the Fool. Then the main character comments something like, “They’ve killed my poor Fool.”

    It’s not quite as sad as when King Kong dies at the end of the original King Kong, but it’s up there.


    • Sue
      Feb 01, 2011 @ 17:26:11

      Hey – that bit you remember, I’m pretty sure it’s from King Lear. ‘And my poor fool is hanged’ – A line or two before he says ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breath at all?’ And ‘fool’ in this case is thought to be a term of endearment for Cordelia (later he says ‘look on her, look her lips’). But this did get me wondering – what the hell happened to the fool?? Collective internet wisdom states he simply disappears from the narrative. So mourn not the fool. Let’s assume when tragedy descends he went skipping off, the bells on his jester hat jingling ever softer into the distance. No fool he.

      (And the fool, at least in Shakespeare plays, aren’t all that light and airy. They’re like a one-man roast for the royal, delivering zingers that would send anyone else straight to the the tower. A nice foil for a king believing his own PR.)


  3. ignatzz
    Apr 11, 2018 @ 20:34:25

    I think it’s possible that the Fool and Cordelia were played by the same actor (almost certainly Robert Armin, who played Shakespeare’s jesters). Which would explain why the Fool comes on so late (after Cordelia disappears) and leaves so early (going “to bed at noon”) before Cordelia returns. And would make “And my poor fool is hanged!” ironic, since the audience would certainly be aware that they were the same actor.

    But I always wondered why the fool refers to the Prophecy of Merlin when nothing in this poem appears in the Prophecy of Merlin, which was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th Century. The Prophecy was very well-known to Shakespeare’s audience, but the Fool’s poem seem to have no connection to it.


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