Jonathan Bate
Soul of the Age

In the great theatre of the world, with the gods as audience, we are the fools on stage. Under the aspect of Folly, we see that a king is no different from any other man. The trappings of monarchy are but a costume: this is both Folly's and Lear's discovery.

Folly tells us that there are two kinds of madness—one is the thirst for gold, sex and power. That is the madness of Regan, Cornwall, Edmund and company. Their madness is what Lear and Timon reject. The second madness is the desirable one, the state of folly in which 'a certain pleasant raving, or error of the mind, delivereth the heart of that man whom it possesseth from all wonted carefulness, and rendreth it dives ways much recreated with new delectation.' This 'error of the mind' is a special gift of the goddess Folly. Thus Lear is happy when his mind is free, when he's running around in his madness like a child on a country holiday. 'Look, look, a mouse: peace, peace, this piece of toasted cheese will do't.' That brings a smile to our faces, not least because the mouse isn't really there. In the Folio text of the play, Lear repeats his demand to 'look, look' at the end of his life. Cordelia is dead, but he deceives himself into the belief that she lives—that the feather moves, that her breath mists the looking-glass. His final words are spoken in the delusion that her lips are moving—'Look on her, look, her lips,/Look there, look there!' Her lips aren't moving, just as there isn't a mouse, but it's better for Lear that he should not know this. Philosophers say that it is miserable to be deceived. Folly replies that it is most miserable 'not to be deceived,' for nothing could be further from the truth than the notion that man's happiness resides in things as they actually are.

We are far from the pursuit of conventional wisdom now, from the pantaloonish cliches of Polonius with his 'To thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man.' Deception may conceivably be a good thing, says this darker, more paradoxical play. As the wise Fool puts it, 'I would fain learn to lie.' Lying is destructive in the mouths of Goneril, Regan and Edmund at the beginning of the play, but Cordelia—the Fool's double—has to learn to lie. At the beginning, she can only tell the truth (hence her banishment), but later she lies beautifully and generously when Lear says that she has cause to do him wrong, and she replies 'No cause, no cause.'

The closing section of Erasmus' praise of Folly undertakes a serious praise of Christian 'madness.' Christ says that the mystery of salvation is hidden from the wise and given to the simple. He delighted in common people, surrounded himself not with the rich and the powerful, but with working fishermen and humble women. He chose to ride an ass when he could have mounted a lion. The language of his parables is steeped in simple, natural things—lilies, mustardseed, sparrows. We might compare Lear's language of wren, dog and garden waterpots in act four of the play. The fundamental fully of Christianity is its demand that you throw away your possessions. Lear pretends to do this in act one, but actually he wants to keep 'The name, and all th'addition to a king.' Only when he loses his knights, his clothes and his sanity does he find happiness.

But he also becomes kind. Little things show us this: in act one, he's still always giving orders. Even in the storm he continues to make demands: 'come, unbutton here.' In the end, though, he learns to say please and thank you: 'pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.' He has begun to learn true manners not at court, but through the love he shows for poor Tom, the image of unaccommodated man, the image of himself : 'Didst thou give all to thy daughters? And art thou come to this?'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.