Emory Report
October 3, 2005
Volume 58, Number 6


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October 3 , 2005
Katrina and King Lear

Tim McDonough is associate professor of theater studies.

One of the folk tales underlying Shakespeare’s King Lear tells of an elderly king whose clothes are stolen while he is bathing in a river. When he seeks help, no one will believe that this naked old codger is the king. Forced to live among the less fortunate of his realm, the king learns firsthand about needs and deprivations to which he had been blind. When he is restored to the throne, his reign is transformed by his mindfulness of those formerly neglected.

Eighty-year-old King Lear is forced by his own folly and by the ingratitude of his daughters (who probably have little to be grateful for in such a tyrannical father) to wander with his Fool on the barren moors of Britain in a ferocious storm. A faithful servant finds him and leads him to the shelter of an open shed. At first Lear resists going in; the storm that has soaked and battered him gives him some relief from the tempest in his mind—he is slipping into a madness that will, ironically, produce many a sane insight.

Lear agrees to go into the shed only when he sees that his frightened and bedraggled Fool is shivering. “In, boy,” he says to the Fool, “go first, you houseless poverty.” Lear stops in his tracks; it has just occurred to him that the poor have no protection from cataclysms such as this storm. Lear’s moment of empathy, so uncharacteristic of a man whose horizons had been limited by growing up in a palace, is the turning point in his life. It is never too late. Lear commands the others to go in and kneels.

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er thou art,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads, your unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as this?

When Lear goes into the shed, he encounters Poor Tom, a mad beggar clothed in little more than a blanket. As in the folk tale, the king’s eyes are opened, and he now sees clearly that to which he had been blind: the existence and the dire straits of the wretched of the earth, from whom so many of us avert our eyes. Lear proceeds to learn what he should have known—or what he knew but refused to admit.

As it happens, I am preparing to direct rehearsals of King Lear, which Theater Emory is producing as part of its “March Through History” (King Lear runs Nov. 10–20). Part of my planning involved casting an ensemble of actors who, in addition to playing all the smaller roles, will play the wretches whom Lear imagines in his famous speech. Poor Tom—really a young nobleman who has been forced to hide among the destitute—needed, it seemed to me, a populated world into which he could disappear.

So when Lear enters the shed in the November production, he will find not one but eight bodies taking shelter, and he will speak the “poor naked wretches” speech as he sees them in the flesh. I have asked a student assistant to gather images of wretches throughout the world—victims of war, famine, natural disasters, genocide—so that the actors who will create these characters of Lear’s imagination can bear witness to the existence of real wretchedness, a wretchedness that can reduce men to beasts. (King Lear is full of bestial imagery; it suggests that, underneath the furs and fancy gowns of many a lord and lady, there is a beast capable of acts we can barely stand to see.)

Anyone who has worked intensely on a piece of research or a creative project has experienced the serendipity of relevant material popping up out of the blue. En route to buy a cup of coffee, you spot a book that provides a new perspective. A headline states the issue you’re working on in large, bold print, accompanied by a photo that gives your work a face. Songs on the radio and incidents on the street seem to talk to you about the work. I have always, sensibly, ascribed this phenomenon to selective attention.

But I was unprepared for the relevance of the recent pitiless storm and its consequences: poor wretches on the front page, on radio and television, on our own doorstep; shelters full of houseless heads and unfed sides and raggedness; stories of brutal events and bestial behavior. The reports of a student’s intestines hanging out in a Toco Hills parking lot and of a group urinating on the porch of a frat house seemed part of the whole dismaying picture. We might well ask ourselves, along with Lear, as he stares at Poor Tom’s naked, shivering body: Is man no more than this?

Thou wert better in a grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies.... Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no whole, the cat no perfume.... [T]hou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.

What follows these words is one of the most surprising and apt actions in all of Shakespeare: Lear starts tearing off his clothes. Like the king of the old folk tale, he needs to go “naked” for a while and join the ranks of the wretches. That is in fact what “mad” Lear does, and I am the more committed that Lear’s new comrades should be visible in the upcoming production.

Meanwhile my wife, Janice Akers, who grew up riding with her physician uncle on house calls to Alabama’s rural poor, has been making daily trips with every sort of necessity (not surprisingly, “necessity” and “need” are recurring words in King Lear) to Hosea Feed the Hungry in southwest Atlanta. I write this after a short shift helping the Salvation Army sort and ship food and toiletries to the Gulf Coast.

For me, this sort of active involvement is not usual behavior. I am always too busy with teaching, with rehearsals, with the usual overextension of theater folk. It has taken the pelting of a pitiless storm to make me feel what a recent poll indicates a great many Americans feel: shame—the very shame Lear feels at the suffering of poor naked wretches. It is the shame that so many of us feel right now that brings Lear to his knees:

O, I have taken
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayest shake the superflux to them.
And show the heavens more just.

A few footnotes can help us appreciate the timeliness of this passage. Lear collectively addresses all who live in wealth and splendor—or Emory affluence and security—as “pomp” and, with the dark edge that will characterize his madness, suggests that we all take a laxative (“take physic”) so as to purge ourselves of what we don’t need—the “superflux” that could be so useful to those who have nothing.

We certainly don’t need much of the food I boxed in the “snack” section of the Salvation Army warehouse: cookies, candies, potato chips, pretzels, crackers, jerkies, all the superfluous stuff we buy from vending machines. But maybe these snacks will give some solace to spirits and provide some filler for unfed sides.

I could sense my fellow volunteers had been grabbing packages out of their cupboards in a sincere effort to contribute to the thousands in need. Maybe sending them our superflux can show the heavens a little more just than Katrina. And maybe Katrina has opened our eyes.