How This World Goes: David Scott Kastan on Shakespeare and Charity

April 23, 2020

Lear. …yet you see how this world goes.
Glost. I see it feelingly.
William Shakespeare, The Historie of King Lear (1608), I4r.  Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 1975 1441

How This World Goes:  Shakespeare and Charity

David Scott Kastan is George M. Bodman Professor of English at Yale

I don’t want to think any more about “the” virus, and I don’t want to think about education in the age of zoom (or, to be honest, even to be a part of it, but I don’t have a choice right now). “A plague o’ both your houses,” I am tempted to say, since I always do like thinking about Shakespeare, so… . 

Shakespeare said smart things about almost everything—certainly about infections, though maybe not about online education. But he’s good, for example, on charity.
He didn’t, however, say “charity begins at home.” Thomas Browne first used that phrase in print in 1642, though the idea can be traced back at least as far as the late 14th-century, when John Wyclif said that “Charite schuld bigyne at hemself.”
Shakespeare didn’t say it, because, I think, he was less interested in where charity should begin than in where it should end. And he also probably realized that the charity that begins at home isn’t actually charity all. 
He did know what charity was. In King Lear, Edgar, disguised as a homeless beggar, seems to the once proud and arrogant King the dismal evidence of “how this world goes.” Slowly Lear comes to recognize his own responsibility for the “houseless heads and unfed sides” that he has ignored while he had been in power. Lear learns that he has taken “too little care of this” in his time as King. Charity begins in the awareness of others’ needs.
The suffering King, who has lost everything that once seemed the inevitable and deserved rewards of his sovereignty, is forced to expose himself “to what wretches feel. ” And in that new knowledge of a common humanity, Lear realizes that he could have given away some of his wealth that was in excess of his needs. He could “shake the superflux [i.e. excess] to them,” in Shakespeare’s odd phrase, and that might have been enough to “show the heavens more just.” 
But civilized society can’t depend on its leaders undergoing terrible personal tragedies to understand the plight of those who have too little, whether it is too little food, housing, healthcare, or education.  Shakespeare knew that too.
It isn’t the “heavens” that need to be shown to be “more just,” it is our society. And whatever possibility there is for that depends on sympathetic human action.  Shakespeare remarkably could imagine the possibility of a world in which those with more than they need would give to those with less. He could envision a world in which “distribution,” as the blinded Gloucester says in the play, “should undo excess / And each man have enough.” 
It hasn’t, of course, happened yet. “Houseless poverty and unfed sides” are visible all around us both as a social fact and a political issue. Shakespeare’s play, however, reminds us of the reality of human misery that exists outside of the theater, and reminds also that it need not be so.  Charity begins with looking around us, and then caring about what we see.  And the plays also remind us that there but for the grace of God …