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Poor Tom and the Continental Beggar Catalogues From Augsburg to Edgar 2 36 King Lear, Harman, and the Continental Texts Framed by his brother Edmund as an aspiring patricide, Edgar in Shakespeare ’s King Lear suddenly finds himself a fugitive, a wanted man with only a moment to reinvent himself, following Gloucester’s orders to bar all seaports and town gates (2.1.80). Before our eyes, he takes on a disguise that he believes will save his life: I heard myself proclaim’d, And by the happy hollow of a tree Escaped the hunt. No port is free, no place That guard and most unusual vigilance Does not attend my taking. While I may scape I will preserve myself, and am bethought To take the basest and most poorest shape That ever penury, in contempt of man Brought near to beast. My face I’ll grime with filth, Blanket my loins, elf all my hair in knots And with presented nakedness outface The winds and persecutions of the sky. The country gives me proof and precedent Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices Strike in their numb’d and mortified arms Pins, wooden pricks nails, sprigs of rosemary; And with this horrible object from low farms, Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes and mills, Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers, Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod! poor Tom! That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am. (2.3.1–21) from augsburg to ed gar 37 Edgar resolves to perform for his life, and the performance becomes all the more telling because his “fictional” role of mad, vagabond beggar draws significantly from the actual position in which he suddenly finds himself: homeless, exiled, persecuted, under surveillance, and living at the mercy of charity. The role of Poor Tom is short on the kind of ruse and guile common to the English rogue books and long on sheer, naked (almost literally so) performance: one vulnerable person beseeching another with the simple but total art of the body and its theatrical projections and prostheses, which include make-up (griming his face with mud), costume (the semi-nakedness of a loin cloth), voice (“roaring voices,” “lunatic bans,” “prayers”), and gesture (“strike in their numbed and mortified bare arms”). Creating a radically“poor theater”out of practically nothing, Edgar shifts with nothing more and nothing less than what lies at hand. The self-mutilation that Edgar either announces he will perform or enacts directly before us during the speech,when coupled with his later chaotic but coherent narrative of sin, devil possession, and penance, can be productively understood in the contexts of various fourteenth - to sixteenth-century continental texts presenting the beggar as a performer—and one especially gifted at employing religious guises and discourses. Three salient aspects of Poor Tom’s acting should be emphasized : (1) the elementally corporeal, bare nature of his performance—a minimalist virtuosity and asceticism worthy of Jerzy Grotowski’s “holy” actor; (2) the rhetorical nature of a performance designed to “enforce charity”—one that operates by marshalling the full range of vocal and bodily rhetorical resources toward the end of persuading for charity; (3) the pervasively religious aura of the figure and the performance—an unsettling mixture of devil haunting, penitence, curse (“lunatic bans”), and blessing (“prayers”). Critics have long pointed to two English rogue books, John Awdeley’s 1561 A Fraternity of Vagabonds and Thomas Harman’s 1566 A Caveat for Common Cursetors, as possible sources for Edgar’s particular type, the “Abraham Man,” who has left or escaped from “Bedlam” hospital, London ’s hospital for the mentally ill. Calling himself “Poor Tom,” according to Awdeley’s extremely brief account, the Abraham Man “feigneth himself mad” and “walketh bare-armed, and bare-legged,”1 or as Edgar puts it, with“presented nakedness”and a mere blanket cast over his loins. For Harman, the swindler’s repertoire consists of an oral-formulaic 38 chap ter 2 collection of terrible tales about how he has been beaten in Bedlam or some prison, just as Poor Tom obscurely alludes to having been “whipt from tithing to tithing, and stock-punish’d and imprison’d” (King Lear 3.4.134–35).2 Harman’s Abraham Man, like Poor Tom, who haunts“low farms, poor pelting villages, sheepcotes and mills,” is a specifically rural character, whose own dispossession reflects the very poverty of the“pelting ” countryside in this period of agricultural calamity. (And in contrast to almost all other early modern English...


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