And My Poor Fool Is Hang’d! …. Or Is He?

You may have noticed this week that Caitlin Griffin’s 2012 “Everbody Dies” poster has gone viral (again) this week. Caitlin’s been a reader/contributor to this blog for quite some time, so if you’re talking about that graphic please make sure to give her the proper credit and links!

Of course with that much Shakespeare content all in one place it’s got to stir up some conversation. I was curious about “The Fool just disappears”.  I thought he was hanged?  I went back to the text:

Lear. And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! look! her lips!
Look there, look there!

And then Lear dies.  It’s even in Sir Ian McKellen’s version of King Lear that came out on video a few years ago. Not the quote, the quote’s always there – I mean you witness Fool being hanged in that one.   (Found a link!)

But I asked Bardfilm and he pointed me to the Arden footnotes (and I mean that literally, he messaged me a picture of him pointing to the footnote) that says Lear is referring affectionately to Cordelia (who, obviously, was hanged). It seems odd that all of a sudden he’d pull out a pet name for his daughter that wasn’t used previously in the play, that also happens to be the name of a character. But, the footnotes argue, Lear is basically confusing the two characters at this point and thinks them to be the same person. (I imagine this to be much like when you visit a relative who suffers from Alzheimer’s and discover yourself being called by the name of someone long dead).

Until right now I’d just always assumed that the fool was hanged, possibly even right in front of him.  I don’t know when or where or how (it’s strangely awkward in the McKellen version, and really dark), but it just always seemed to me like one more sorrow to be heaped upon us.  After all, what exactly did the fool do to deserve hanging?  He’s not even a soldier who could or would have defended himself. It’s like hanging a child. I just always imagined Lear having to watch his fool die.

What do you all think? Isn’t Shakespeare typically better at tying up his loose ends? Would he have just forgotten to tell us the fate of that character? Or is this his way of finding a place to squeeze it in? Have you just always read it as referring to Cordelia?

We can talk about whose button it is later. 🙂

8 thoughts on “And My Poor Fool Is Hang’d! …. Or Is He?

  1. Didn't see McKellan version, or ever watch one; just read the play. I think Lear is referring to Cordelia.

  2. I like the interpretation that the fool is hanged (although I do think he's referring to Cordelia there) but I have trouble imagining circumstances in which the fool is hanged right in front of Lear–the point at which the fool is hanged in the McKellen version is immediately after Lear's escape, if I remember correctly. That doesn't sound to me like Lear would really be in a position to witness the hanging.

  3. Keep in mind, though, that McKellen's version is simply them saying "Where can we fit in the Fool's hanging?" I find it very awkward, it just comes out of nowhere. "You're surrounded! We'll take these people prisoner. You, we'll just hang right now for no apparent reason. And we'll smile while doing it."

    Here's a link to the scene in question:

  4. In having only read the play, I think that King Lear uses the word "fool" as a sign of affection towards his devoted daughter, kind of like the term "a fool for your love" with the price of her love being her death. The footnotes in my edition say that this is a term of endearment from Lear for Cordelia, although it also recalls the fool who had accompanied Lear, and suggests that Cordelia and the Fool may have been played by the same actor.

  5. That's funny, I had always read that line as being an affectionate reference to Cordelia and her foolishness, either for being stubborn in the beginning or caring for Lear in the end. It made sense to me since I didn't view it as a previously established pet name, but rather a reference to the behavior that got her hanged.

  6. Well, I guess we can scrutinize, analyze or criticize, but I don't think any of us will really know for sure.

  7. When I studied the play in college my professor said there was a more pragmatic explanation. Cordelia and the fool are never on stage at the same time and was probably played by the same boy. This line explains the absence of the fool in the last act.

  8. Interestingly, there’s a lot of evidence within the play that the Fool we see in the play is actually NOT Lear’s Fool, but perhaps Cordelia in disguise. With Cordelia hanged, Lear realizes his own madness and blindness immediately before his death, hence the line, “And my fool is hanged.” I wrote a paper on it a while back, pointing out the evidence and ruminating on what this means for the play’s deeper meaning. (Some evidence I point to includes Cordelia being able to get a letter to Richmond despite HIS exile occurring AFTER she’s supposedly in France; that wonderful line in 1.4, “This is not altogether fool, my lord,” (1.4.677); and the fact that the Fool disappears from Lear’s side right before Cordelia makes a reappearance in the play, back in England.

    Even looking at King Lear in relation to other plays of Shakespeare’s, there’s a duality that is lacking in the relation between Cordelia (and her sisters, and their father) and Edgar (and his half-brother, and their father), which SHOULD be there given how Shakespeare’s other plays typically go. Lear and Richmond both end up in a bad way as a result of their children’s actions, but both SHOULD also have one child stand by them, in disguise. For Richmond, this is Edgar as “Poor Tom”. But who is Lear’s? I propose that it is Cordelia, who recognizes the danger her father is in at the hands of her sisters (as Edgar attempts to protect Richmond from Edmund).

    Just something to think about when examining this scene. Happy April Fools! 😀

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