2. Lear’s Poor Naked Wretches Who Must Borrow Clothing From Beasts

In one chapter in The Dial that deals with poverty, North writes that “the author … compareth the misery of men with the liberty of beasts.” The point was that, in contrast to human beings, animals possess a number of natural gifts that help them survive: “to birds she [Nature] hath given wings … to the lions teeth … to the foxes subtilty” (471). This is unlike poor, miserable man, who is born naked and defenseless.  The chapter especially stresses people have nothing that can help defend them from extremities of the seasons. So they have to borrow their clothes from the beasts:

“… to brute beasts nature hath given clothing, wherewith they may keep themselves from the heat of summer and defend themselves from the cold of winter: which is manifest, for that to lambs and sheep she hath given wool, to birds feathers, to hogs bristles…

“Finally, I say, there is no beast, which hath need with his hands to make any garment, nor yet to borrow it of another. Of all this the miserable man is deprived, who is born all naked, and dieth all naked, not carrying with him one only garment: and if in the time of his life he will use any garment, he must demand of the beasts, both leather and wool. …”

“We must also think and consider, that for so much as nature hath provided the beasts of garments, she hath also taken from them the care of what they ought to eat”

–North’s Dial (470)

North repeats these ideas again, stressing once more that while these beasts are endowed with various abilities to do us harm, we still must beg help from them, especially for our clothing: 

For the lions do fear [frighten] us, the wolves devour our sheep, the dogs do bite us, the cats scratch us … Oh, poor and miserable man, who for to sustain this wretched life, is enforced to beg all things that he needeth of the beasts. For the beasts do give him wool, the beasts do draw him water, the beasts do carry him from place to place

–North’s Dial (472)

This is the origin of the exchange in King Lear, describing the poverty of natural man, whose nakedness leaves them defenseless to the elements and requires him to beg the animals for clothes.

First, Lear laments the idea of impoverished and naked people who have nothing to defend themselves from the elements: “Oh Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads/    … defend you/ From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en Too little care of this!” (3.4.28-33)

In the hovel, Lear then encounters one of those “poor naked wretches”—Poor Tom, who compares his past life to those of beasts: “hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey” (3.4.92-93). This litany of beast qualities anticipates Lear’s response in which he notes that Poor Tom is the perfect example of the natural state of the human race, stressing that the seemingly unfortunate drifter has not begged the beasts for his clothing.

Lear: Thou wert better in a grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three on’s are sophisticated; thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings!

King Lear, 3.4.100-108)[1]

This table isolates the correspondences:

North’s DialShakespeare’s King Lear
Oh, poor and miserable man, who for to sustain this wretched life … who is born all naked, and dieth all naked defend themselves from the cold of winter
–472, 470  
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads … defend you
From seasons such as these?
–3.4.28-32
she hath also taken care of [animals’ need to eat] –470Oh, I have ta’en / Too little care of [people’s poverty]! –3.4.32-33
the lions do fear us, the wolves devour our sheep, the dogs do bite us, the cats scratch us … to lambs and sheep …to hogs bristles … the beasts –472, 470hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey. … the beast the sheep the cat –3.4.92-93, 103-104
sheep she hath given wool Oh, poor and miserable mannaked … must demand of the beasts, both leather [i.e., their hide] and wool –470Is man no more than this? …Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool … Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal –3.4.101-106

[i] Most editors and scholars credit John Florio’s translation of Essays Written in French by Michael Lord of Montaigne (1603) as the source for this passage in King Lear. As quoted in Fred Parker, “Shakespeare’s Argument with Montaigne,” The Cambridge Quarterly 28.1 (1999): 1-18, the passage reads: “when I consider man all naked … we may be excused for borrowing those which nature had therein favored more than us, with their beauties to adorn us, and under their spoils of wool, of hair, of feathers, and of silk to shroud us” (9). North’s Dial also contains all these shared content words (excepting only silk), and it also contains a dozen more (and far more peculiar elements). Still, scholars are obviously correct that this passage of Montaigne shares some kind of literary kinship with the corresonding passage in King Lear. But that is because Montaigne, as he was wont to do, was also borrowing from the source text for North’s Dial of Princes—Guevara’s Reloj de Principes. Moreover, Montaigne has so severely abbreviated and reworded Guevara’s passage that it leaves no doubt as to the true origin of Lear’s observations. Montaigne even put his own spin on it, arguing that the naked man borrows from other creatures because he is so naturally ugly and uses it to make himself beautiful. In contrast, both The Dial and King Lear argue that the naked man is defenseless and must borrow from the animals to survive the elements: North’s Dial: “defend themselves from the cold of winter”; King Lear: “defend you / From seasons such as these” (3.4.31-32).

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