Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are

Poor naked wretches, whereso'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 mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

-- King Lear in King Lear, Act 3 Scene 4

In the very middle of Shakespeare's tragedy "King Lear," the king is taken into the stormy night to visit a hovel and there he recognizes that he has done too little -- nothing really -- to assuage the misery of the homeless.

The website enote explains the context of the king's soliloquy and its meaning:

King Lear's "Take physic, pomp" means "pompous men, take a taste of your own medicine." The medicine ("physic") he has in mind is a bitter concoction: exposure to such storms as Lear himself now endures, having been thrown out by his ungrateful daughters. For the first time in his royal life, Lear experiences what it's like to be a poor, naked wretch, and the feeling is unpleasant. The king realizes that his former comforts (his "pomp") prevented his administering compassionately to the wretches of his realm—he has taken "Too little care of this." Only a dose of human suffering can establish the difference between what is necessary in life and what is mere indulgence. Thus enlightened, the rich and pompous "mayst shake the superflux to them"—shake off what is superfluous and distribute it to the needy.

Two scenes earlier...

Two scenes prior to the one above, the king was still a fully unrepentant pompous ass, justifying himself against the villainy of his daughters. He offers the feeble, childish excuse that he is “more sinned against than culpable for sins, himself.”

He spoke these words:

Close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man
More sinn'd against than sinning.
King Lear in King Lear  Act 3, scene 2

Enotes explains:

Thrown out of doors by his own daughters, the anguished Lear cries upon the storming heavens to execute justice, since he is now powerless to do so. Having ceded his authority, and been betrayed for it, the king comes to realize that he is but a "poor, infirm, weak, and despis'd old man". As the storm beats down on his naked head, he invokes the "dreadful summoners"—the gods who tend to judgment and retribution—but hastily adds that he is himself "More sinn'd against than sinning." In this pathetic moment, Lear exemplifies in the extreme a possessive parent with ungrateful children, as he chalks up their transgressions on a cosmic balance sheet. The storm seems a manifestation of his fury, and—still clinging to the royal imperative—Lear commands it to strike where he, being weak, cannot.


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