Numerous scholars have discussed King Lear’s unswerving focus on the virtues of poverty and charity –especially in contrast to the corruption of wealth. Throughout the tragedy, many of the characters are forced into destitution and misery–especially Edgar (Poor Tom) and King Lear – only to end up embracing the impoverished and natural state of the human race. This theme of poverty and charity –and their encompassing discussions in the play–derive from two different works of North. We will discuss the first, the fable of the river in The Moral Philosophy of Doni, in a future post. The other is The Life of Epaminondas in North’s Nepos’ Lives (1602). In fact, the Theban general Epaminondas, a philosopher-warrior who lustily embraced all the miseries of poverty and who is the heroic moral compass of Nepos’ Lives, served as the model for Edgar (Poor Tom), who also lustily embraced all the miseries of poverty and is the heroic moral compass of King Lear.
King Lear even explicitly compares Edgar to Epaminondas, which is a common canonical device in which North modifies characters and events in order to draw parallels to the historical figures from one of his translations. North then, in the play, overtly relates the play-character to the historical one – as in the explicit comparisons of Henry V to Alexander, Hamlet to Brutus, and both Polonius and Henry VI to Julius Caesar.
We first meet with Epaminondas in “The Life of Pelopidas” in North’s Plutarch’s Lives, where “Epaminondas, the Theban,” as he is called in the margin, is referred to as “a notable learned man, and a famous philosopher” (670). Likewise, in “The Life of Epaminondas” in Nepos’ Lives, North once again refers to the rugged Theban general as “one of the best learned and most excellent philosophers of the world” (2). Later North writes that he rejected offices of power in order to continue his studies, withdrawing “himself from government only to give himself quietly to the study of philosophy” (4).
Much of the chapter explores Epaminondas’s commitment to a life of poverty: “Now though he was very poor, yet he would never take any thing of his city or friends, he was so well acquainted with poverty, which he bear more patiently through his study of philosophy.” He was “an enemy unto all superfluity and excess” and often went “ill appareled” and without “perfume,” and he eschewed all dietary delicacies, even to the point of drinking vinegar. Epaminondas also refused all riches offered to him so he would never acclimate to its temptations or opportunities for corruption.
But while he willingly accepted his meager conditions, he also had a keen sense of charity, and “to relieve others, he would make bold to use his friends’ goods.” When a rich citizen asked Epaminondas why he had asked him to give six hundred crowns to another, the learned Theban replied: “because this man, being an honest man, is poor: and thou that hast robbed the commonwealth of much art rich.”
This is why Lear immediately recognizes the obviously destitute Poor Tom as a kindred spirit and explicitly connects him to Epaminondas:
Lear: First let me talk with this philosopher. What is the cause of thunder?... I’ll talk a word with this same learnèd Theban. What is your study? (3.4.152-56)
Just Lear’s reference to a “learned Theban” identifies the “philosopher” to which he is referring. Not only does North refer to Epaminondas twice in that manner, both in Plutarch and Nepos, but Ben Jonson, who frequently spoofed Shakespeare’s plays, also makes light of this connection in Pan’s Anniversary: “Then comes my learned Theban, the Tinker … He beats to the tune of ‘Tickle-Foot’ Pam, Pam, Pam, brave Epam with a Nondas.” (643).
Edgar, like Epaminondas, has voluntarily rid himself of all wealth as he has adopted the guise of the impoverished Poor Tom. Thus, as Epaminondas “drank vinegar”; Poor Tom “drinks the green mantle of the standing pool” (3.4.132-33). As Epaminondas would go about “ill appareled” and without any perfume, so too does Poor Tom. Lear notes that the seemingly mad beggar owes “the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume” (3.4.102-4). As shown earlier, this full speech on borrowing clothes from beasts comes from yet another Northern passage –in North’s Dial, but the specific reference to perfume is not found in the earlier Dial passage and so connects it to the other Poor-Tom elements related to Epaminondas.
Lear’s question to this poor philosopher—“What is the cause of thunder?”—is a direct hit, for this was an important question that was asked of Epaminondas in North’s brief biography. Remarkably, the Greek philosopher, like Poor Tom, was also caught in a storm, one that terrified his troops and that they considered a bad omen. Older men came to Epaminondas, warning him “he ought not to go any further with his army, since the gods were so manifestly against it.” The extreme thunder particularly alarmed his soldiers, but Epaminondas bravely faced the storm. When they asked him “what that thunder meant?”, he replied that it actually was a threatening sign for their enemies, that it showed “that the enemies’ brains are troubled and astoni[sh]ed.”
This is why Lear sees Edgar (Poor Tom), who also bravely faced the elements and is wearing poor clothes and no perfume and drinks what is tough to swallow, as a confidant—and why he calls him a philosopher and learned Theban and asks him the cause of thunder.
Language and descriptions from the Epaminondas chapter also seeps into other speeches in scenes with Edgar (Poor Tom). For example, Lear’s speech on the plight of the poor and the importance of charity (3.4.23-36) paraphrases Epaminondas’s (2-3), echoing the latter’s poverty, house(less), poor, defend, physic, superflu(x/ity), just.
Gloucester is another character who starts out wealthy and ends up losing everything—including, notoriously, his sight after Cornwall gouges out his eyes. Yet after the rains and his ruin, he responds in an Epaminondian manner to an old friend who has come to help him. He refuses all aid and has a new-found sense of charity. He expresses both in the language of the learned Theban, who also had refused aid in a similar fashion:
|Epaminondas, Refusing Aid||Gloucester, Refusing Aid|
|Even so thou art come to relieve our poverty, as if it were a grief unto us …we need no arms nor money against that that doth us no hurt at all… he hath not gold nor silver enough for me: … I pardon thee: but get thee away … Pelopidas being a man of great wealth, and his exceeding good friend, could not possibly ever make him take any part of his goods, but rather Pelopidas learned of him to love poverty … to make him disburse (dispurse) these six hundred crowns unto him. “It is,” says he, “because this man, being an honest man, is poor: and thou that hast robbed the commonwealth of much art rich.” He lived so soberly, and was such an enemy unto all superfluity and excess … —Nepos’ Lives 3-4||Away, get thee away! Good friend, be gone: |
Thy comforts can do me no good at all;
Thee they may hurt. …
Here, take this purse….
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man, …feel your pow’r quickly! So distribution should undo excess
And each man have enough….
I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear
With something rich about me.
—King Lear 4.1.17-63-70
|Doth us no hurt at all |
Good friend—not …goods,
Get thee away,
Hath … enough
|do me no good at all … hurt |
Get thee away,
take this purse, distribution-man-superfluous-excess,
Just as Epaminondas refuses aid from one good friend and tells another who tries to help him to get thee away and he needs no money as poverty “doth us no hurt at all;” so too does Gloucester tell a good friend who has offered aid to get thee away and that “Thy comforts can do me no good/ Thee they may hurt.” Both also believe the rich man should disburse (which derives from dis-purse) to relieve the poor. As Epaminondas is an “enemy unto all superfluity and excess,” Gloucester gives the poorer man his purse and believes the superfluous man should undo excess.
More significantly, Edgar is also on stage with Gloucester here, and Edgar begins this scene expressing his commitment to poverty and does so in a way that includes an extremely peculiar link to North’s translation of Epaminondas. Specifically, North writes that as a young man that Epaminondas was “of good capacity and very great hope;” and that in order to avoid the temptations of riches and “great pleasures,” Epaminondas “contemned them.” The Theban philosopher also stressed that if a man avoids all riches and comforts and embraces his destitution, he is then free. He now has no fears or cares. Quoting Epaminondas:
But importantly, where North refers to Epaminondas as being “of very great hope,” in the original translation Simon Goulart uses de tres grande esperance.
And esperance is the very word that Edgar uses as he echoes Epaminondas’s embrace of poverty:
Edgar (Poor Tom): Yet better thus, and known to be contemned, Than still contemned and flattered. To be worst, The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune, Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear….
|North’s Nepos Lives||Shakespeare|
|Contemned, hope (esperance); |
rejected the benefits of fortune…
his mind shall never be troubled…
|Contemned, esperance; |
dejected thing of fortune…
lives not in fear….
In other words, with the use of esperance, the playwright has conflated North’s language with the original French passage that North was translating – something that only North could do. And one cannot here suppose that Shakespeare was actually making use of Goulart’s text, rather than North’s, because, again, the play also shares North’s idiosyncratic word choices. For example, North’s translates Goulart’s desloge not as dislodge but get thee away–which is also the phrase used in King Lear.
As we shall see, this is not the only time that the playwright has conflated North’s text with the original foreign work North was translating. He also does it with the French of Jacques Amyot in a passage borrowed from North’s Plutarch’s Lives and the Italian of Doni in a passage inspired by North’s Moral Philosophy of Doni. We consider these examples as more smoking gun confirmations that Shakespeare was not obsessively borrowing from North’s translations but adapting his plays.
 Simon Goulart, Les vies des hommes illustres grecs et romains, comparees l’une auec l’autre … Traduites de grec en françois par Iacques Amyot … Enrichies de sommaires et annotations par S. G. S. [i.e. Simon Goulart], etc., (Lyon: Paul Frelon, 1611) 4: 1151