Shakespeare’s tragedy of King Lear depicts characters who are troubled by the ailment of madness. For some of these characters, the madness might be self-imposed and for others the madness might be real. It is not made clear whether the Fool within this play is truly mad. However, his words appear to contain a measure of truth, though he plays the role of a social outcast. During Elizabethan times when Shakespeare wrote his plays, many ideas about the meaning of madness were prevalent. One idea saw madness as occurring as a result of imbalances with the four humors (or fluids that make up the body).
These humors were termed melancholy, blood, cholera, and phlegm (Hunter, 1-4). Madness was said to occur from an overabundance of any one of these. Another more significant theory of madness at the time was the idea that it resulted from the interference of God in humans’ lives, and this interference could take the form of a jester or “fool. ” Such a person’s social status as a mentally challenged person would allow them to say things and speak the truth in situations where other persons would have to keep their mouths shut.
Along these lines madness was also considered a manifestation of a divine ability to know the mind of God as it regarded the situation at hand (Skultans, 20). In Shakespeare’s King Lear the Fool plays this classic role; yet this character trait can also be seen in August Wilson’s Gabriel character of the play Fences. Both Shakespeare’s Fool and Wilson’s Gabriel display foolhardy traits, but might be considered as characters that hold claim to a higher level of knowledge that makes them act like oracles within the plays.
The character of Gabriel in August Wilson’s play Fences plays the role of the “fool” whose crazy words contain a kernel of truth. The characteristic that allows Gabriel to be compared to the Shakespearian fool is the fact that he is mentally unbalanced. Having received damage to his brain during his time in the war, Gabriel’s thoughts are not usually considered sober. He does not adhere to social conventions and he is often excused for saying things that seem foolish. Yet Gabriel compares himself to the angel Gabriel, and this highlights his role in the play as the “fool” whose ideas are to be taken seriously.
Wilson compares Gabriel to a supernatural figure in order to highlight his insightfulness as well as to demonstrate that he is allowed to tell the truth about situations that other persons are not able to even mention. He, like an angel, transcends social conventions because of his status as “fool”. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the words that are spoken by the Fool during the time in which King Lear become estranged from his daughters Goneril and Regan show him to be acting in a prophetic manner.
He speaks about madness and classifies the two daughters as wicked while implying an endorsement of the actions of Cordelia. The Fool says, “He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath” (III. vi). His mention of the wolf’s “tameness” corresponds to the actions of Goneril and Regan, who pretended to love their father only to turn him out after they were secure in inheriting his kingdom.
The Fool’s role as a prophet is highlighted in what might be considered a prediction of King Lear’s madness, as Lear had not yet shown any evidence of being mad. The fact that the Fool is able to speak of a characteristic that has not yet been demonstrated, and then to find that same characteristic appearing at a later time connects him to the divinely inspired madness described as a being an important idea during Shakespeare’s time. Likewise, as the fool of Fences, many of Gabriel’s thoughts also appear to be prophetic.
He speaks of things concerning his brother Troy and seems to have knowledge about the hurtful things Troy does to his family. Gabriel tells Troy that he has seen his name in St. Peter’s book and that he would be judged for his actions. This indicates to the audience that Troy’s untouchable attitude and dominance are temporary. Even though the idea comes from the mind of a brain-damaged man, the audience tends to respect him as a kind of prophet, whose words will most likely come true.
His warnings mean death or destruction for Troy, as he claims he sees hells hounds snapping at his feet. The character Death of which Troy often speaks is made authentic by Gabriel’s mention of the hellhounds, and this highlights his role as the herald of Troy’s judgment. He often chants the song, “Better get ready for the judgment. Better get ready for the judgment” (Wilson 27, 47). Both on stage and off stage he can be heard singing this song, highlighting his role as one who is not just a character but who represents a presence with supernatural knowledge.