The character of the Fool in Shakespeare demonstrates another aspect of his role, this time as the person who is best able to tell the truth at a time when other “sane” persons feel themselves confined only to lies or half-truths. While others evade the real issue, the Fool stares it squarely in the face and speaks freely about it. He is candid about the foolishness of Lear’s act in disowning Cordelia in favor of her lying and deceitful sisters Goneril and Regan. He says to Lear, “That sir which serves and seeks for gain, and follows but for form, will pack when it begins to rain, and leave thee in the storm” (II. iv).
He speaks of the future that Lear will face with his two chosen daughters—one of rejection and abuse. He reveals that the love and honor that Goneril and Regan have declared to Lear are only done in pretense and that they reject him now that his wealth is assured to them. This interpretation of the situation shows how wise the Fool really is, though he appears to be nonsensical and is little respected by the characters of higher social status within the play. It also shows his ability to mention the unhappy situation in which Lear finds himself at a time when it might have been uncomfortable for others to speak of it.
The Fool goes on to observe that “Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out” (I. iv). This further highlights his role as the hidden sage that whips the truth out of its kennel and into the light so that it can be viewed by the other characters of the play. Another aspect of Gabriel’s character that highlights his similar role as truth-teller and prophet in the play Fences is the relationship he claims to have with St. Peter. However, this relationship relies even more heavily on the idea of the fool as having divine inspiration.
Gabriel claims to have the ability to speak to heavenly beings that have people’s fate in their hands. He says that St. Peter went “off to sleep and tell me to wake him up when it’s time to open the gates for the judgment” (26). This concurs with the idea of madness as a supernatural connection to heaven that allows the mad person perception beyond the physical. This gives the idea that Gabriel speaks in the behalf of Troy and not merely to condemn him. He is on Troy’s side, as he tries to warn him and gives him hints about how to prevent his destruction.
He says, “I been chasing hellhounds and waiting on the time to tell St. Peter to open the gates” (47). This indicates that Gabriel has influence with the one who holds Troy’s fate, and it is an influence that he attempts to use in Troy’s behalf. Gabriel even seems to be holding back the time of Troy’s judgment, chasing away the hellhounds and delaying the time for St. Peter’s opening of the gates. The end of the play finds Gabriel released from his mental institution, in a way mirroring the release of the angel Gabriel from heaven on Judgment Day.
He carries a trumpet as a means of emphasizing his position. He is a fool, recently released (or escaped) from an asylum, yet his warnings from earlier times have come true. This demonstrates that although he is seen as insane, his status a fool has merely given him insight into the true situations of the play’s characters and the consequences that have come about because of them. He fulfils his job of telling St. Peter to open the gates of heaven. This gesture is now fully seen to be for the purpose of ushering in Troy, who has recently died.
Gabriel’s words coming at this moment show how true his former words had been. Furthermore, the fact that Gabriel is unsuccessful at blowing his trumpet and causing the gates to open shows that the hellhounds might really have snapped up Troy: he is not allowed through the gates of heaven, which do not open until Gabriel dances. Describing this dance Wilson writes, “He begins to dance. A slow, strange dance eerie and life-giving” (101). The dance is prophetic and effective, and this also underlines Gabriel’s role as the fool who acts as a connection between the world and supernatural knowledge and influence.
The two “fools” found in the plays Fences and King Lear perform a similar role of speaking the truth and placing it in the disguise of words spoken by a madman. Both the characters are able to plainly say things that other characters may not be able to say because of their status as persons who are considered less than sane. While they both do appear to have divine revelations, Gabriel’s character seems to be more in tune with the supernatural. Still, both characters appear to have superior intelligence in that they succeed in predicting the outcomes of the actions of principal characters’ Lear and Troy.
The method behind their madness proves itself to be in the ability to warn these characters against their foolish actions in an attempt to help them get their lives back on track.
Hunter, Richard, and Ida MacAlpine, eds. Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry 1535- 1860: a History Presented in Selected English Texts. London: Oxford UP, 1963. Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Washington Square, 1993. Skultans, Vieda. English Madness: Ideas on Insanity, 1580-1890. London: Routledge, 1979. Wilson, August. Fences. New York: Penguin, 1986.