The Fool in King Lear


There is much to enjoy in the recent RSC production of King Lear: Greg Hicks as a very good Lear, there were a pair of deliciously evil sisters,some nicely spoken verse from some of the senior players and a remarkable interpretation of the Fool from Kathryn Hunter. She is tiny, five foot nothing, frightened and trembling, crouching under tables but nimble and quick in mind and body, she knows her King…and is as much supported by him, as supporting him. The mutual trust is very touching and this is a tactile relationship too,wrapping him up within her tiny frame, rocking him gently as she would a frightened child.


Early in the play the Fool’s plain wisdom reminds us of Polonius:

‘Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest,
Ride more than thou goest.’

However in this production a rich, many sided relationship with the King is gradually revealed: Lear understands the Fool’s language very well, it is the counterpart to his bombast,his gruffness, his perplexing rush to judgment in the matter of Cordelia’s love for him. When asked by the King to declare it she says, in contrast to the insincerity of her sisters, that it is ‘according to my bond, no more nor less…’. Here the Fool is challenging but secure enough in the relationship to Lear to say to him, ‘Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no need to care for her frowning;now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou art nothing’.

And a light touch just at the right moment:

Fool: The reason why the seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason.
Lear: Because they are not eight?
Fool: Yes, indeed: thou wouldst make a good fool.

At other times there is simplicity and directness:

Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?
Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that, thou wast born with.

Ms Hunter reveals a touching fragility: hiding, running about the stage in all directions, fearful in the great storm and of Lear’s increasing madness, human reactions which we share.

However, what is so vividly illustrated in this production is that even in the context of extreme human emotion, gross misunderstanding, foul murder and the impending madness of a great King, there is a strand of another level running parallel with the inevitability of the unfolding drama. It appears to be saying: such life is not necessarily all there is for human beings, there may be something else too,a possibility of inner separation from all the externals, in which even kingly life is experienced as only one part of a greater whole. The theme is made unusually clear in this production. Or perhaps we begin to realise after many years of Shakespeare-play-going that it is something the author has been telling us all along, but which we were not ready to hear. And more… we sense this other strand may abide in us also, safe and protected; in this case within the garment of The Fool. It is brought out brilliantly and excitingly in the performances of Ms. Hunter and Mr.Hicks and in the sensitive direction of this towering play.

Ray Abis


Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to 26 August 2010.

Transfers to Newcastle Theatre Royal from Tuesday 5 to Saturday 9 October 2010.

In London at the Roundhouse 21 Jan 2011 – 04 Feb 2011

In New York in repertoire from 15 July – 12 August 2011

Photos Manuel Harlan