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  • Poor Tom: Living “King Lear.” by Simon Palfrey
  • Catherine Nicholson (bio)
Poor Tom: Living “King Lear.” By Simon Palfrey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Pp. x + 272. $35.00 cloth.

Simon Palfrey invites readers of Poor Tom: Living “King Lear” to “think of the play as an electrical circuit, with the Edgar-part connecting the network, a kind of multiwired semihuman synapse” (6), and the results are indeed electrifying, not to say shocking. Palfrey offers an often revelatory reading of a much-interpreted play, finding rich and surprising possibilities in words, lines, speeches, and scenes but also—as the synaptic metaphor suggests—in the spaces between. Indeed, the real revelation of Poor Tom is its method, which is at once simple and audacious: “above all I try to pay attention,” Palfrey writes, “and attend to the fluctuations of attendance, my own as much as anyone’s in the playworld” (6). Paying attention is the sine qua non of literary criticism—it is what we all believe we are doing when we read, however we read. Yet Palfrey exposes it as something far more demanding: superhuman in its engagement and subhuman in its demonic fixity. Poor Tom is both the object of this attention and its avatar, the figure for a kind of reading that persists in excess of reason, comfort, or apparent necessity.

Reason not the need: the play responds profligately to such treatment. Nearly every page of Poor Tom contains some arresting insight; even readers who think they know Lear inside out are likely to be surprised by how much they have missed. For instance, the title page of the 1608 quarto edition pairs the “True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King LEAR and his three Daughters” with “the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of TOM of Bedlam.” The humor may be Edgar’s, but it is of Tom, Palfrey points out, and the modifiers “sullen and assumed” suggest the difficulties Edgar may have in getting rid of it (8). “Sullen” suggests stubbornness and singularity; “assumed” denotes not active appropriation but the state of being so appropriated, taken into service or adopted into partnership. The Edgar-Tom relationship is, from the beginning, fraught with mutual obligation and mutual resentment; there is not room for both, but neither can dispense with the other. The traditional remedy, among performers and critics alike, has been to subordinate the dull, unlikeable Edgar to the charismatic Tom. Indeed, Edgar himself seems to do so in Act 2: “Poor Tom, / That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am.” Palfrey hears in this self-abnegation a wish only partly fulfilled: escaped into “the happy hollow of a Tree,” his Edgar is condemned to persist, and Palfrey sets himself the task of charting that persistence (28). [End Page 147]

Such reading becomes something awfully like divination, probing the spectral gaps behind and before speech and action. In order to give this speculative labor full range, while showing some respect for the sensibility of his academic readers, Palfrey has divided the book into alternating “Scenes” and “Interludes.” The former adhere more or less closely to the practices of conventional literary criticism, tracing the Edgar/Tom dyad through the play by way of scrupulously close readings, grounded in theatrical, literary, and book history. The latter seize upon the possibilities engendered by such analysis and release them into the wild. The results are dizzyingly various: a list of seventy-four answers to the question “Tom Is …?” (“Tom is the agitation of being-Edgar. It never felt right”; “Tom is Edgar’s theatre of cruelty”; “Tom knows the original sin” [62, 63]); an eleven-frame meditation on Tom and the problems of post-Holocaust historiography; a dialogue between a pompous humanist and an increasingly unhinged posthumanist; a moving mini-essay on Simone Weil’s fascination with King Lear; three potent paragraphs on Shakespeare’s investment in the biblical story of Jacob and Esau. Such “Interludes” give scope to Palfrey’s own sullen and assumed humors, lending “Poor Tom” an antic freedom befitting its eponym.

The pleasures of the “Scenes” are...


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pp. 147-149
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