In Classical Greek Tragedy, the chorus is a harmonised, objective mass of performers who comment with a united voice on the unfolding dramatic action within the play. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the role of the Fool effectively fulfills this function through his mannerism and conduct, bemusing idioms and puzzling proverbs. However, there are certain aspects of his role that elevate him above the traditional Greek choric position within The Burial at Thebes.
Within his essay, Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool, George Orwell commented on the role of the Fool and his function within King Lear :
“The Fool is integral to the play. He acts not only as a sort of chorus, making the central situation clear by commenting on it more intelligently than the other characters, but as a foil to Lear's frenzies. His jokes, riddles, and scraps of rhyme, and his endless digs at Lear's high-minded folly, are like a trickle of sanity running through the play”Orwell argues that the role of the Fool is similar to but ultimately more than that of the chorus in Classical Greek theatre. Although the Fool does not contribute to the structure of the play, as the chorus does, he nevertheless suitably fulfills the choric function. However, the play shows him to be much more of a though-provoking and challenging character than the chorus. This causes his role to be more significant and intriguing as a result.
One of the main functions of the chorus was to offer plot exposition and to dwell upon the themes of the play; emphasising them for the audience’s sake. Through a series of choral odes, the chorus in The Burial at Thebes underlines the central, thematic context of the play. For instance, the chorus consider the nature of fate and its reparations – resonating through generation after generation. They state, “That [Antigone’s] family is going to feel the blow / Generation after generation. / It starts like an undulation underwater… / Then turns itself into a tidal current”. The Fool, in King Lear, serves a similar purpose in so far as he constantly comments on the fundamental issues arising within the subtext. For example, the Fool makes reference to the unnatural behaviour of Lear’s malevolent daughters and remarks on the theme of ungrateful children. He tells Lear, “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, / That it’s had it head bit off by it young” (I, iv, 205-206). Despite, however, the Fool fulfilling this aspect of the choric function, he does so with a rather biting, satirical edge. The Fool was given liberty to comment on society and the actions of his social superiors, giving the Fool a subversive and somewhat sardonic potential, contrary to that of the Greek chorus in The Burial at Thebes. This makes his character, and his role, more interesting than the chorus as a result.
The Greek chorus often acted as audience surrogates, questioning the other characters' motives or warning them about the consequences of their actions. However, they did so in a compliant, acquiescent manner that would appease both sides. In The Burial at Thebes, the chorus acts as a public arbitrator; although being careful not to transgress their position and anger their superiors. In the scene in which Haemon questions his father’s ruling, the chorus prefers to strike a balance between opposing arguments, stating, “You should take good note, Creon, of Haemon’s words / And he of yours. Both of you say sound things.” In King Lear, the Fool also represents the common man among socially elevated characters. However, through verbal scrutiny and continual gibes at Lear’s principled irrationality, the Fool is more rebellious and hence differing from the obedient chorus. The Fool openly states “ they’ll / have me whipp’d for speaking true, thou’lt have me / whipp’d for lying; and sometimes I am whipp’d for / holding my peace” (I, iv 172-175). He stresses that his efforts are in vain as punishment is unavoidable in his profession. By the Fool showing an awareness of this, Shakespeare once again elevates the Fool’s role above that of the traditional choric one as he displays a level of insight that the chorus would otherwise not possess.Another way in which the Fool fulfills the role of the chorus is by helping the audience experience catharsis. By focusing on Lear’s peripeteia and hamartia – “thou art an O without a / figure. I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou / art nothing” (I, iv, 182-184) – the Fool provokes greater empathy, pity and fear by the audience towards Lear’s predicament. In relation to this, the chorus reminds Creon of his quandary and the futility of his efforts in condemning Antigone as she will never submit to his supremacy – “This wildness in her comes from Oedipus. / She gets it from her father. She won’t relent”. Once again, both the roles of the Fool and the chorus displays similar attributes as both remind the protagonists of their errors and rashness which ultimately lead towards their tragic suffering. However, the Fool’s comments are much more critical and are more personally involved as he expresses a degree of compassion towards other characters and is genuinely concerned for their welfare. Shakespeare presents the Fool as a character of greater profundity than the chorus and possessing a much more complex persona. This strengthens his role and once again, causes it to be more than that of the chorus.
The chorus in The Burial at Thebes provides a great deal of spectacle within the play. Greek theaters were very sparse and special effects were nonexistent. The chorus lent a sense of epic to the setting, granting the play a grandeur it might not otherwise possess. Through a series of interludes, chanted and sung, they provide a summary of the events helping the audience follow the performance. However, this procedural is more of a ritualistic routine in honor of deity and spirituality. In contrast to this, the Fool’s role does not concern itself with religion – unless commenting on Lear’s opposition towards it by relinquishing his title. His role is more involved with providing comic relief and supplying
histrionics with which to entertain rather than provide spectacle.
The chorus is a mask of faceless individuals whom are never named during the course of the play and, like the Fool, are defined by their title. They show no signs of obtaining a disposition or personality; as though devoid of sentiment and feeling. Although the Fool is simply regarded as “Fool”, he is much more psychologically developed than the chorus and possesses a degree of wisdom within his apparent ignorance. He possesses verbal wit and a talent for intellectual repartee. More interestingly, however, he is given depth, emotion and insight by Shakespeare. He “hath much pined away” (I, iv, 70) for Cordelia’s banishment presenting him as a much more empathetic and, ultimately, human character compared to the seemingly unfeeling chorus. Expressed through fables and song, he also displays insight and knowledge of divine and natural order – causing some scholars to suggest he is a foil to Lear. This proves he is a character that surpasses the basic choric
function of the chorus and serves other multiple, imperative purposes in the play.
The Fool does fulfill the choric position, however, as Orwell stated, he also provides a “trickle of sanity running through the play”. The Fool is more concerned with Lear’s blindness; demonstrating a severe lack of discernment, cerebral though and astuteness. The role of the fool is therefore essential towards Lear apprehending his misconduct through constant reminders of his despondent condition and therefore quickening his anagnorisis. This proves his role to be much more than that of the chorus in The Burial at Thebes.