Friday, August 10, 2012

What Kind of Fool

When King Lear’s trusted colleague, the Earl of Kent, tries to come between the King and his self-destruction, Lear comes unhinged:

Royal Lear,
Whom I have ever honour'd as my king,
Loved as my father, as my master follow'd,
As my great patron thought on in my prayers,--

The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft.

Let it fall rather, though the fork invade
The region of my heart: be Kent unmannerly,
When Lear is mad. What wilt thou do, old man?
Think'st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour's bound,
When majesty stoops to folly. Reverse thy doom;
And, in thy best consideration, cheque
This hideous rashness . . . .

Kent, on thy life, no more. . . . Out of my sight!

Because Kent has the audacity to speak up, Lear banishes the man who has faithfully served him for years—without any semblance of due process. By contrast, when Lear’s Fool gets even more sassy—telling the King exactly how stupid the Fool thinks the King has been—Lear lets it slide:

. . . . Give me an egg,
nuncle, and I'll give thee two crowns.

What two crowns shall they be?

Why, after I have cut the egg i' the middle, and eat
up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou
clovest thy crown i' the middle, and gavest away
both parts, thou borest thy ass on thy back o'er
the dirt: thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown,
when thou gavest thy golden one away. If I speak
like myself in this, let him be whipped that first
finds it so.

(then singing:)

Fools had ne'er less wit in a year;
For wise men are grown foppish,
They know not how their wits to wear,
Their manners are so apish.

When were you wont to be so full of songs, sirrah?

I have used it, nuncle, ever since thou madest thy
daughters thy mothers: for when thou gavest them
the rod, and put'st down thine own breeches,
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.

The Fool is the only person in Lear’s circle with the power to get through to Lear. The Fool’s power, however, arises not from their personal, but rather from their professional relationship. Fools have a professional license to speak the truth. Only if they lie will they be whipped. (“And you lie, sirrah, we’ll have you whipped.” I.4.185).

So, in some way, being a court jester is akin to being a tenured university professor. Both roles permit a person to speak one’s mind about sensitive topics with reasonable confidence that he or she won’t be banished or placed in the stocks.

One frighteningly accomplished person at UT Law who embraces that power and uses it with particular flare is Constitutional Law professor, Sandy Levinson. Levinson’s most recent books, for instance, take direct aim at one of our nation’s most sacrosanct texts: our federal Constitution. In Our Undemocratic Constitution, Levinson inventories flaws in the document and shows how many of its underlying assumptions have not withstood the test of time or are just plain creepy. In his latest endeavor, Framed, Levinson takes his thesis one step further. He identifies specific governing mechanisms that the Constitution dictates, such as the much-maligned electoral college and the onerous amendment process. He then explains how these procedural mechanisms have contributed to the current, seemingly dysfunctional federal government. He walks through numerous alternatives (suggested by provisions in various U.S. state constitutions) and explains how they would permit a more responsive, flexible national government.

Levinson will be discussing and signing copies of his new book here in Austin on August 15 at 7:00 pm: Even if he doesn’t show up for the gig wearing motley or a coxcomb, I bet that, being the polymath and provocateur that he is, he fully understands and relishes the Fool’s power—and he knows that wielding that power is no fool’s errand.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps a litmus test for snootitude is whether it bothers you if omissions at the end of an blog post are plural or singular. How many unfinished thoughts one needs before trailing off into silence is, I imagine, a snootful concern par excellence.