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  • "So Distribution Should Undo Excess":Recovering the Political Pressure of Distributive and Egalitarian Discourses in Shakespeare's King Lear and Early Modern England
  • Chris Fitter

The call in William Shakespeare's King Lear, from both the stricken king and the wandering Earl of Gloucester, for redistribution to the poor of the so-called "superflux" of the prosperous, has promoted sharp literary critical controversy.1 Ironically, this is entirely proper. Clashing expositions derive from contending original positions, which vied urgently for the mantle of Christian distributionist doctrine in early modern England: a period of sensed revolutionary possibility. It has been hitherto unappreciated, however, how widely, and how traditionally, the principle of transferring wealth from the surfeiting elite to the swelling ranks of the impoverished had been urged by the time that Shakespeare wrote this play. Accordingly, this paper seeks to recover for literary critics the context of accumulating reformist outcry by 1606, which shaped both the responsiveness of original audiences and the radicalism of that drama.

For poverty was conspicuously expanding. "If the national income of England and Wales doubled between the 1560s and the 1640s" writes Keith Wrightson, "the distribution of that income was markedly and increasingly uneven. This was an expanding economy, but one with a problem of structural poverty. … There was widespread misery among the labouring poor."2 Wrightson continues: "In many parts of England, a doubling or trebling of rental income was unexceptional, while some landlords did better still", a process which constituted "a massive redistribution of income in favour of the landed class."3 "As for the labouring poor, the period saw both an absolute and relative expansion of their numbers, and the deepening of their poverty."4 Christopher Hill calculates that "[t]he real earnings of a worker born in 1580 would never exceed half of what his great-grandfather had enjoyed."5 "In many English towns," judges Roger Manning, "between one-quarter and one-third of the population were destitute because they did not [End Page 835] receive regular wages."6 Since wages were pegged below subsistence level, the women and children of many families in regular work were obliged to beg or petition for parish relief. Wrightson concludes that

"In town and country alike, the final decade of the sixteenth century and the first decade of the seventeenth century witnessed the emergence of a larger and more wholly wage-dependent population, which probably constituted at least half the English population by the mid-century."7

As inflation rose and wages fell, as overwhelmed husbandmen lost all in the struggle and became pauperized field laborers, the ranks of the impoverished further confronted "diminishing access to common land, [and] repeated dislocations of formerly prosperous industries."8 Enclosures, often depopulating, seemed unstoppable; and even where they proceeded by alleged agreement, "this meant in effect the agreement of the principal land-holders."9 Effectively, in the words of Andy Wood, "The poor were invariably the losers."10 As a mid-century poem had it, "A little hynderaunce the poore dothe undo / And can no remedye againste distresse."11

To turn to King Lear and interpretation of its prominent concern with poverty, we may begin by recording that work by Judy Kronenfeld has taken scholarly issue with a number of critics who had claimed, on a rather general historical basis, radical and egalitarian meaning for the ideal of "distribution."12 John Danby had construed Gloucester's hope that "distribution should undo excess" (4.1.70) as echo of the "vital and continuous ferment" of the tradition of "Christian levelling," found in Beghards, Fraticelli and Lollards, resurgent in Anabaptism and the Family of Love, and later eruptive with the Levellers and Diggers.13 Walter Cohen aligned Lear's "poor naked wretches" (3.4.29) speech with the "idealized communism that the lower classes of Tudor and Stuart England opposed to feudalism and capitalism alike," a model "rejecting all class hierarchy."14 Yet, "[i]n fact", retorts Kronenfeld,

contra all our critics, 'distribution,' 'excess,' and 'enough,' as well as 'the superflux' are all terms that belong to the traditional and authoritative, not to say authoritarian, discourse of charity… The sentiments these words express are not radically egalitarian, but entirely compatible...


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