— Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act III, scene ii
In high school, I remember spending my time trying to understand what Shakespeare had to say about love, mostly through Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew. And since I’m fairly certain my brain at the time was more occupied with my own loves rather than those of the Bard or others, in the end my biggest takeaway was that Shakespeare taught me that love is an all-or-nothing, all-encompassing force. Meaningful? Sure. Superficial? A little.
Now that I’ve gained some more life experience, I enjoy Shakespeare’s works on a deeper level, drawing from them a broader worldview that my high school self missed, or perhaps wasn’t ready for. This time around, I’m drawn to the flawed, the foolish, and the irrational — King Lear, and the wisdom of his Fool; Hamlet, and his arguably foolish actions; and Macbeth, and the twisted insight he gains into the meaning of life.
Throughout these stories, there’s a clear message that comes through: In this silly, mixed-up world, we are trying to do our best, and only when we realize that we are fools can we see ourselves for who we really are. Shakespeare constantly reminds us of this. Let’s have a look.
King Lear and his Fool’s Wisdom
No, lad; teach me.
That lord that counseled thee
To give away thy land,
Come place him here by me,
Do thou for him stand:
The sweet and bitter fool
Will presently appear;
The one in motley here,
The other found out there.
Dost thou call me fool, boy?
All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast
King Lear, a play of generational differences, harsh realities, and mad antics, gives us subversive insight into what real wisdom is. Before we dissect this exchange from the Fool’s first scene with Lear, let’s briefly visit the historical role of a king’s fool, or jester.
Historically, fools did more than simply entertain the court; they were given license to jest and jeer at anyone, regardless of rank. On the one hand, this was part of the entertainment; on the other, it served a valuable function: fools could say what others could not, answerable as they were to the complex and stifling social hierarchies of the time.
So, returning to this scene, here we see that the Fool quickly reveals that he aims to do more than jest. He makes a poignant remark about Lear’s current condition: since Lear has lost all his titles, he returns to the state in which he was born — a fool. Through his puns, jokes, and tales, the Fool does not entertain Lear; he criticizes him. The Fool suffers no punishment from this because it is his role to ridicule the king. In contrast, in Act I, scene i Lear banishes Kent for daring to speak out against his actions.
Shakespeare leverages the role of the Fool to great effect in King Lear. The Fool becomes wise when Lear becomes foolish, and as Lear becomes more the Fool, he gains more insight into his condition. This subversion suggests something important. The Fool exists outside of restricted hierarchies, allowing him the freedom to truly express himself. When Lear and the fool trade roles, Lear learns of the dangers of his pride and is finally able to express his love for his daughter Cordelia.
Lear’s slide into foolishness raises the question: Is it more wise to be a fool? And no, I don’t mean to say that we should all go about jesting. My suggestion is that when all hierarchies, pretensions, and “titles” have been removed, we are left without distraction and are able to finally know ourselves.
Hamlet and His Relatable Irrationality
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself —
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on —
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumber’d thus, or this head-shake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As “Well, well, we know,” or “We could, an if we would,”
Or “If we list to speak” or “There be, an if they might,”
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me; this is not to do,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you,
— Hamlet, Hamlet Act I, scene v
Hamlet, a play of regicide, court intrigue, and mad plotting, offers us an opportunity to empathize with the titular character’s irrational actions.
In this scene, we learn of Prince Hamlet’s plan to feign madness in order to carry out his revenge against King Claudius. In acting foolish, he’s able to do and say things that he wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Much like Lear and the Fool, Hamlet can act outside the social hierarchies. Since others perceive his madness as the result of his grief over his father’s death, they tolerate his actions and words, allowing Hamlet the chance to gather the information he needs to carry out his plan. But if that’s the case, if Hamlet is acting with such intent, then why does he miss out on so many opportunities to kill Claudius?
I’ll tell you: Hamlet doesn’t really have a plan. He plays the fool because it affords him time. And when he is in those decisive moments, he hesitates. Only at the end of the play, when he has lost everything, does he succeed in carrying out his revenge. Only then is he able to act.
Despite his missteps, we can sympathize with his actions. We have all questioned our desires; we have all hesitated to act. Maybe it’s foolish to not seize what we can, when we can, but after all, it’s only human.
Macbeth and His Twisted (but Truthful) Insight
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
— Macbeth, Macbeth Act V, scene v
Macbeth, a play of witchcraft, ruthless murder, and mad ambition, provides us with a stark perspective on the nature of our reality.
In his blind pursuit of power, Macbeth suffers from deranged episodes, seeing imaginary daggers and ghosts, and Lady Macbeth eventually suffers a complete mental collapse and dies. By Act V, scene v, Macbeth’s hubris, ambition, and pride have led him to ruin.
In this moment, Macbeth realizes that all of his choices and actions lack meaning, that he is nothing more than one of the “lighted fools” on the “way to dusty death.” Whereas earlier he believed in his fate and destiny, now he knows that life is merely a “brief candle” ready to be extinguished, governed by rules that lack rhyme or reason.
We know of Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” trope, and here Macbeth uses this theatrical metaphor to claim that life is a foolishly scripted performance. Any illusions otherwise lead to further despair. Shakespeare’s message, then, is one of the inevitability of death and the transience of life.
To quote Touchstone, the fool from Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It: “but all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly.” The ephemerality of human life reveals the silliness of love, desire, ambition, power, and fear. To be in nature, to be alive, is to accept mortality, the brief candle of life.
It’s foolish to think otherwise.