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1 Introduction Shakespeare’s As You Like It (c.1599) and King Lear (c.1605–6) each stage an aristocratic young man forced out into the open world by a cruel and jealous brother. Although Shakespeare’s aristocratic characters often use the word “beggar” metaphorically, whether in self-deprecation or as taunt, in these two instances Shakespeare“unmetaphors” the conceit. In each play, the dispossessed brother ends up participating to some extent in the actual life of a beggar. Prevented only by Adam from being burned alive (2.2.19–24)1 Orlando quickly sees that he has been forced into the pinched alternatives of the dispossessed: either to beg or to steal.As he protests to his servant, “What, wouldst thou have me go and beg my food? / Or with a base and boist’rous sword enforce / A thievish living on the common road” (2.3.31–33). Adam’s generous offer to share his life savings with his master only temporarily stays this stark choice, and when we meet them next they are homeless, starving, and desperate. Orlando bursts into Duke Senior’s pastoral banquet not as a meek, suppliant beggar, but with, in fact, a “base and boisterous sword,” and violently demands food. Duke Senior’s surprisingly civil and gentle response, incongruously comic in its affable sociability, prompts a speech by Orlando that conjures up a communal world of reciprocal charity: If ever you have look’d on better days, If ever been where bells have knoll’d to church, If ever sate at any good man’s feast, If ever from your eyelids wip’d a tear, And know what ’tis to pity, and be pitied— Let gentleness my strong enforcement be, In the which hope, I blush, and hide my sword. (2.7.113–19) 2 introduct ion Orlando invokes Duke Senior’s capacity for imaginative empathy: the disposition to dispense charity because at some point in one’s life one has been the object of pity oneself. In a society where up to 60 percent of the population might suffer from poverty and require assistance at least once in their lives, such capacity to put oneself in the position of others—a capacity frequently attributed to theater itself—was often well grounded in previous experience. Knowing well the “drops that sacred pity has engend’red” (2.7.123), Duke Senior “liturgically”2 returns Orlando’s lines back to him and invites the starving young man to what is, in effect, a “good man’s feast.” It is a perfect match between entreaty and response, with the “beggar” Orlando serving up charitable text for the “almsgiver” Duke Senior. In inviting Orlando and Adam to table, albeit in a rough pastoral mode, Duke Senior practices the injunction, heard from both the pulpit and the pamphlet in Elizabethan England and particularly directed to great lords, to feed the hungry in times of duress. Orlando’s hunger, of course, is quickly relieved in the largess of Duke Senior’s pastoral feast, which soon frees him to be a suppliant for love, not bread. But serious issues of poverty and hunger—and I would add charity—pervade this moment and course through the entire play, not as simple reflections of social reality but through the imaginative and transformative lens of theatrical fiction and theatricality.Within the fiction of the play, Orlando must imagine what it might be like to be a beggar or a thief, and the internal and external audiences of the play must imagine how one might respond to poverty. As“Poor Tom,” King Lear’s Edgar takes on many attributes and conditions of an actual beggar. Unlike Adam, he plays a theatrical role, but one that prompts responses of charity and empathy in others as surely as Orlando did to Duke Senior, extending the traditionally charitable, neomedieval gesture of As You Like It into a radical call for economic redistribution . From the blinded Gloucester, not recognizing his son, comes neither disgust nor condemnation at the sight of poverty but the powerful reflection that“distribution should undo excess / And each man have enough” (4.1.70–71). King Lear’s famous “Poor naked wretches” speech, similarly arguing for both compassion for the poor and economic redistribution , occurs just before the discovery of Poor Tom and anticipates his emergence from the hovel. If “Poor Tom” is a fraud, the responses he elicits are surprisingly generous and favorable, and generally not felt by introduction 3 audiences merely to reflect...


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