One of the incurable symptoms of my former life as an English Lit. professor is that fragments of works I used to teach pop into my head. Mostly lines from Shakespeare — and none more frequently than passages from King Lear.
As I sat cozily inside, listening to the rain and wind Sandy had brought, I thought again about the half-mad old king out on the heath in the storm.
Brief synopsis for those whose Shakespeare is a little rusty.
Lear has given his lands — and the power that went with them — to his wicked daughters, trusting they’ll provide a home for him and the knights he’s kept as some symbolic vestige of his authority.
They’ve told him he doesn’t need the knights and has to get rid of them. So he rushes in a fury out of the gates (promptly locked behind him) and onto the open wasteland. It’s nighttime and storming.
Lear then willfully prolongs his exposure. He rants in self-pity and anger. Then comes a pivot to the passage I silently recite:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
Lear has told his daughters that they shouldn’t be judging whether he needs his knights. “Our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous,” he said.
Now he understands that he hadn’t thought about these poor people while he had more than enough wealth to feed, clothe and shelter them — and that their basic human needs are different from his wants.
I’m not suggesting that our policymakers and the vested interests they listen to should have stood outside and let Sandy pelt them.
Even a deep imaginative excursion into what the houseless experience could be cleansing psychic medicine, i.e., the “physic” Lear enjoins.
The end result would surely be an altered calculus of what we can afford — and a world that seems more just to all of us.
End of lecture. Test next Tuesday, unless you’ve already voted.