The following guest post was written by senior politics major Casey Daggett.
King Lear, undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s greatest masterpieces, if not his crowning achievement, reveals the profound complexities of human nature. While it presents a troubling picture of the human condition, the text wrought with violence, selfishness and suffering, its difficult lessons cannot be ignored and remain just as relevant to our society as they did in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare’s tale of an aging, maddened king has the capacity to reflect our modern political environment.
King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most complex figures. From first introduction, we learn that he is proud and that this hubris will be the undoing of both him and the innocent Cordelia. Lear is obsessed with his status as King and furious with Regan and Goneril for denying his requests to house both him and his men in an attempt to diminish his power. He then flees into a great tempest alongside the disguised Kent, his fool, and Edgar, walking through the countryside naked and raving.
However, it is in this moment, when King Lear has been robbed of everything that has designated him as a king—his power, prestige, and even the garb which would signify him as royalty—that he sees beyond the pride that has doomed him. For the first time in the play, King Lear sees beyond himself, crying out, “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are / that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm / how shall your houseless heads and unfed sides / your loopt and window’d raggedness defend / you from such seasons as this?” (III.IV) When Lear has lost everything, only then does he think of those beneath him: the homeless and the hungry. He wonders how the marginalized people of his kingdom will survive such a wild storm as the one raging around him, those whom he has never before felt any commonality with.
Lear continues, shouting above the tempest that “O, I have ta’en / too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; / explore thyself to feel what wretches feel, / that thou mayest shake the superflux to them / and show the heavens more just” (III.IV). He realizes, naked and exposed to the fury of nature, that he has shown too little care towards the poorest and the neediest of his kingdom, that in his great pride he has overlooked those that needed him most. Lear goes on to advise the powerful to go out and truly understand what sorrow and poverty the poor experience in order to serve them better, to make the world a better place through empathy, generosity, and kindness. Only when Lear is stripped of all that has made him powerful, all that has designated him as king and given him wealth, can he understand the needs and fears of the poor.
Lear’s warning and regret serve as a powerful message to our own society, where the gap between the poor and the wealthy grows increasingly larger. Amidst the despair and darkness of King Lear, one brief moment of hope flickers, and that hope calls for the wealthy and privileged to aid the marginalized and the needy. Are we not also called to help those around us and to hold our political leaders to the same standard?
In a culture where fame and fortune is glamorized, what does it take for us to remember poverty and inequality? Must we first hit our absolute lows, be stripped of our status and our prestige to empathize with the marginalized and the downtrodden? Does it take an economic recession, low unemployment rates, business closings, and a downgrade in credit for not only our political leaders, but ourselves to help the poor? Will we then be able to empathize with those we previously overlooked?
Lear’s desperate cries into the storm serve not only as a warning, but as a message of hope. We are called to consider “the least of these,” to aid and serve them as our equals and peers, and to help them before political and economic tempests. As the ever-increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor grows, the message of social justice within King Lear is as relevant to our own society as it was to Shakespeare’s. The privileged and powerful have a duty to serve and aid those beneath them, to embrace them without disdain before a political or economic crisis strikes.
However, does our political culture reflect this calling?