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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  Multi-Color Graphics on Shakespearean Themes

Description of Wood-cut 18 colors 10" x 14"
by Hannah Tompkins


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Lear's Fool was a pure fool, a 'Natural'. He was the king's ward. It was believed in olden times that the "Natural", usually a congenital simple, was "touched by God" who, by way of compensation provided the fool with perpetual immunity to the "evil eye" and such like forces.

Those in physical proximity to the Fool were likewise protected, which accounts for the special care and preference bestowed on them by their guardians.

In this play, the closeness between King and Fool facilitates a psychic transposition of their roles, where the king, both perpetrator and victim of folly, becomes the fool, while the fool becomes a monarch in wisdom.

Visually this is effected by the similarities of the semi-circular cowl designs shared by both, yet neither is aware of the transition, for the Fool, though deploring his own status, declares a greater contempt for the king's:
"I had rather be any kind o'thing than a fool,
yet I would not be thee, nuncle;
I am a fool, thou art nothing."
      (I. iv.)
With outstretched arm and chiding frown, he hovers over the stricken king. As though crushed by the weight of his own defeat, the king cowers on a bed of barren rock. His eyes are shut tight in an ashen, bloodless face, heedless of the raging storm or lifeless tree behind him: images of his own inner desolation.

In contrast to the Fool's golden garb, he wears a tarnished crown and' faded gown, careless of the royal, ragged robes trailing in the dirt, from which a serpent emerges on the lower right

It was not so long before in a cataclysmic awakening, he equated the serpent with the piercing incision of filial ingratitude. Yet in another sense, in myth, folklore and from the episode in Genesis, the serpent was also a symbol of knowledge.

The king has much to learn and he learns it from his fool, whose feelings about a 'nothing monarch' are evident as he tramples the royal purple under foot.

Among other things, the Fool's bauble has come to represent his 'other' self, affirming the existence of an upper and lower division of the psyche. This is delineated in the sharp diagonal partition in the center of the print, accented with a jagged, blood-red line.

It emphasizes the feeling of uncontrolled descent and is re-enforced by other diagonal elements in the design.

Behind the Fool is a storming, black abyss. From it emanates a flaming horizon. With the broad sweep of his arm, the Fool tries to rouse the king to its significance of hope and aspiration, but the king has turned his back on it, opting for madness as his escape.

Copyright © 1990 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved.


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