The Fool helps Lear to come to terms with the ‘wheel of fire’ that he has set in motion. Commonplace in royal households, fools were conventionally seen as vulgar ninnies, simply foolish rather than playing the fool. Shakespeare thus seems to have detached himself from popular British tradition in favour of an older view of the royal fool, whose purpose was to correct minor faults and imperfections in his master. This was probably a function of the play’s ‘pre-historical’ pagan setting. By disconnecting the Fool from contemporary convention, Shakespeare could give him a role in shaping Lear’s moral progression without yoking him to morally prescriptive values. The invocation of an earlier model of the ‘wise’ Fool would thus have served his purposes very well.
If Lear expects a contemporary fool, he does not get one: he is accompanied not by a ninny, but by the character whom we know as ‘the Fool’, purveyor of riddles which provide dramatic irony. This dramatic irony highlights the distance between Lear’s understandings and our own, while gradually leading Lear himself toward new insights. When the Fool chants Then they for sudden joy did weep, And I for sorrow sung, That such a king should play bo-peep, And go the fools among. (1.4) he suggests that Lear is taking on the role of fool. So too when he says to Kent, ‘here’s grace and a codpiece – that’s a wise man and a fool’ (3.2), the Fool suggests that he and the King have exchanged roles. Lear and the Fool are also very much alike in that both characters in some respects stand outside the action.
In his role as court jester and choric voice, the Fool is extrinsic to the events which take place. Similarly, when Lear divests himself of his material goods, he effectively hands over control of the action to Regan and Goneril and their husbands (although Albany, of course, himself chooses to be alienated from this camp). When Lear calls himself ‘the natural fool of fortune’ (4.6), he acknowledges the fact that he has himself become a fool who watches and comments on the action without having any control over it. English Essays.