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164 Conclusion From John F. Kennedy’s declaration in his Inaugural Address that humankind had by 1961 acquired the capacity to eradicate poverty (if also the means to destroy itself), to Jeffrey D. Sachs’ call in his 2005 The End of Poverty to “end poverty in our time,” the present age recalls the sixteenth-century humanist confidence, expressed by Erasmus and Juan Luis Vives, that the poor need not always be with us. But to claim that poverty is not inevitable, not part of the divine order of things, is also to engage it as a question and a problem, which is just what happened in the sixteenth century—and in our own time. What (presumably alterable ) conditions and factors cause poverty? How might they be changed? What is the role and responsibility of the poor themselves in this? To what extent is poverty caused by the rich themselves, either by virtue of personal characteristics (greed, selfishness) or by dint of the systems (early capitalism, globalization) by which they have gained their wealth? Proposals for poor relief, such as the 1529 Venetian statutes, certainly responded to a particular emergency, but they also aspired to correct poverty systemically. Shocked and galvanized by the fact of inequality in the “affluent society,” as revealed by Michael Harrington’s landmark The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), Presidents Kennedy and especially Lyndon Johnson struggled not only to meet the present crisis but to end poverty in their time. Several recent fiftieth-anniversary reflections on Johnson’s War on Poverty have concluded that many of his programs (some benefiting from consultation with Harrington himself ) were much more effective than the haze of neo-conservatism has allowed for, raising significant segments of American society up out of the despair, suffering, and tedium of poverty. The rollback of Great Society programs, first by Richard Nixon and then on a massive scale by Ronald Reagan, if occasionally eliminating genuine waste, has generally been catastrophic for the poor, with 15 percent of the American popula- conclusi on 165 tion today living below the poverty line and with the levels of inequality growing each year. Reagan’s folksy, mean-spirited anecdote about welfare queens driving Cadillacs strikingly evokes sixteenth-century diatribes against the poor by Thomas Harman and others. Both Reagan’s welfare queen and Harman ’s Abraham Man are fixed and immoveable ideological types: they arrest the imagination and direct the emotions in monolithic, calculable ways.What we have attempted to explore in these pages is the capacity of early modern theater and performance,in the hands of gifted playwrights such as Ruzante and Shakespeare or rich performance practices such as the piazza singers and commedia dell’arte of early modern Italy, to evoke the poor through nuanced and variegated forms of imagination, thought, and feeling.It is a considerable achievement,alone worth sending us back to Ruzante’s Parlamento, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Biancolelli’s fantastic inventions, Croce’s pamphlets, and the animated mask of the zanni. If, as Harrington points out in his opening chapter, a hallmark of poverty in the “affluent society” is its invisibility—poverty being effectively hidden by the flight to the suburbs and economic and educational segregation— early modern poverty was more conspicuous, less avoidable for the middle and upper classes. It was staged on the road, in the street, and in the piazza. And with the mass engines of medieval charity dismantled, such as the systematic almsgiving at the Abbey of Cluny,poverty became more public than ever, up for grabs in the theater of the city. It thus seeped into professional theater—the major artistic form of the day and arguably the first example of Western mass culture—in a way in which it has never permeated a culturally dominant form since. Early modern theater and performance takes the fixed, two-dimensional type of the Abraham Man and puts it in play, variously interpreted by successive actors playing the role of Shakespeare’s Edgar / Poor Tom in King Lear and by readers and theatergoers experiencing Poor Tom imaginatively, visually, and orally. Shakespeare seems to have understood this principle of perpetual interpretability in the way in which he drafted the play itself, which is full of divergent internal audience responses (e.g., Lear’s and Gloucester’s) to the theater of Poor Tom. The false beggar Simpcox from Henry VI, Part 2, were he to have been described in a beggar book as the type of the dissembling blind man...


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