King Lear and the Fool in the Storm William Dyce (1806 – 1864)

“King Lear and the Fool in the Storm” by William Dyce (1806 – 1864)

 

One unexpected criticism of the “Only You” music video leveled at me was the complaint that it was too light-hearted. What I thought was a positive feature of the video for at least one viewer was a negative. I was astonished to hear this, but on further reflection I realized that my grim critic had an important point to make. His argument was that the Trump Phenomenon, which I poke fun at in the video, is a tragic, polarizing and destructive development in the cultural and political life of the once United States of America. The Trump Follies represent the flowering of several corrosive trends in American life which have been unfolding for several decades. These include:

  • a general coarsening in our manner of public discourse, including the language we use and our attitude in expressing it;
  • a lack of respect for those with whom we disagree, the loss of courtesy and graciousness in disagreement and an unwillingness to try to understand the rational basis for the other person’s point of view;
  • less willingness to think logically and deeply regarding public issues and less ability to use reason to persuade others to our point of view;
  • the increased reliance on ad hominem arguments which focus on attacking the person instead of dealing rationally with the content of what the other person is advocating;
  • a greater tendency toward tribalism (an attitude of my group versus the rest of the world) which manifests itself in politics by increased political partisanship and fear- mongering;
  • the cult of celebrity and our fascination with national gossip;
  • the transformation of news into entertainment;
  • our preoccupation, fanned by the media, with human conflict as a source of entertainment; and
  • in general, a loss of civility and self-restraint which gives free rein for passion and self-indulgence to trample truth and violate the good.

For my critic this litany of ills is not a laughing matter and I would have to agree with him. The corruption and coarsening of public discourse over the years is an undeniably serious problem with far reaching consequences for us individually and corporately as a nation. And now comes Donald Trump as the most dramatic and well publicized representative of this movement of our national soul, advocating and authenticating the continuation of these disturbing trends from his bully pulpit as a candidate for President of the United States.

How then can I justify my light-hearted video in the face of these observations? In thinking about this I immediately realized that Shakespeare and the motley band of jesters he created would come to my defense. In Shakespeare the wise fool is a recurring character which can be found in his comedies, histories and tragedies. These clever souls, employed by kings and dukes to serve as jugglers, musicians and comedians, serve a dual purpose in Shakespeare. In addition to providing entertainment and comic relief, the fool in Shakespeare, because he is also wise, can poke fun at the ruler to help him recognize his own foolishness.

Although King Lear, is a horrific story which ends in multiple tragedies, Shakespeare still includes a part in his play for the Fool. This comic genius loves the king and through humor tries to draw him out of his blindness and help him see the folly of the choices he has made. For those of you who know the play you will remember that the stage for deep tragedy is set at the beginning when the king expresses his deep narcissism in a challenge to his three daughters. In dividing his kingdom among Cordelia, Goneril and Regan, the king asks his three children to prove to him which of them loves him most. In return the daughter who makes the greatest show of love will inherit the largest share of the kingdom. Goneril goes first and declares that all of her love is fastened on him. Then comes Regan who proclaims that her love for her father is greater than Goneril’s. When it is time for Cordelia (the one whom Lear loved the most) to speak, she refuses to play the flattery game and honestly confesses. Not all of her love shall go to the king, for half of her love shall be reserved for her husband. Upon hearing this the king becomes enraged, disinherits honest Cordelia and divides the largest share of the kingdom (which he had been planning to give to Cordelia) between Goneril and Regan.

From this single narcissistic event the entire tragedy of King Lear unfolds: the banishment of the king’s faithful advisor (Kent), the deterioration of the relationship between Lear and his two remaining daughters as their ingratitude toward him becomes crystal clear, war between England and France as Cordelia (who marries the King of France) seeks to protect Lear from the abusive treatment of his two conniving daughters, the false accusation by Edmund (one of the sons of Gloucester) resulting in the unjustified banishment of Edgar (the other son of Gloucester), the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes, the slaying of Cornwall (the husband of Regan), the conspiracy by Goneril to murder her husband (Albany), the poisoning of Regan by Goneril, Goneril’s suicide, the death of Edmund, the death of Gloucester, and finally, the murder of Cordelia and the death of King Lear. Whew! It’s exhausting just trying to recount the hideous consequences of one man’s narcissism.*

Notwithstanding the backdrop of all of this tragedy Shakespeare still utilized the humor of a fool to help King Lear understand the consequences of his folly. After Lear sets the tragedy in motion the Fool, through clever bantering, makes the case to him that there are two fools, the one wearing motley and the one who just disinherited his daughter.** Later, after the King fails to hold on to the trappings of royal power, after giving away his kingdom to two ungrateful daughters, the Fool points out that the king is now “an O without a figure” (a zero without a digit). “I am better than thou art now: I am a Fool, thou art nothing.”*** In saying this the Fool skillfully unmasks the nothingness that lies at the heart of the identity of a narcissist. The narcissist is one who is constantly trying to create an identity for himself through the acquisition of wealth, power, fame or merely the approval of a loved one who has withheld the blessing of personal affirmation. Such a one is preoccupied with escaping the emptiness of his or her self-preoccupied life. The wise fool, however, knows who he is. Although powerless by the world’s standards, this kind of fool is a lover of wisdom who has found his identity through fidelity to the truth which bubbles out of him in the midst of his jesting.

This is a long way around to get to the defense of my humorous video about an agonizingly serious subject. If I (a self-confessed recovering narcissist) can make fun of my fellow narcissists and evoke a few laughs along the way, perhaps some of those who suffer from this affliction may be opened by humor to the truth about their own condition. The loving Fool endured storm and persecution for the sake of serving his narcissistic master, hoping for his transformation from a foolish fool into a wise fool. Perhaps, in the spirit of Shakespeare’s Fool, I can perform a similar service for others with a song and a video using that most powerful weapon of self-understanding: humor.

Until next time,
Doug

 

* For an insightful discussion of Shakespeare’s understanding of the effect of narcissism on family dynamics see: Hanley, Charles, “Lear and his Daughters,” The International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 13:211-220 (1986) accessible online at http://www.dgapractice.com/documents/LearandhisDaughters.pdf

** King Lear, I, iv, 97–155

*** King Lear, I, iv, 198-200

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1 Comment

  1. RB says:

    I am in sympathy with the unidentified person who was the source of the unexpected criticism. You sum up his complaints and their ramifications much better than I could have myself. Thanks.

    One of the sweetest ironies is in the name Cordelia, the daughter with the “heart from God”. Your summary conveniently reminds one of Shakespeare’s Lear, and the poor judgment that attends insanity. There are gradations between sanity and insanity, marked by increasing incidence of poor judgment. In Lear’s case it started with tempting his three daughters to compete as rivals for the largest share of the inheritance. Even without having made this mistake, the gulf of virtue between Cordelia and her sisters would have become evident eventually to a moderately sane father, who could then have quietly disposed of his estate , in equal shares, or otherwise, without taunting any of his children about it in advance.

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