Society and Class Quotes
How we cite our quotes:
Hear me, my lord;
What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
What need one? (2.4.5)
King Lear begins his retirement with retinue of 100 knights. Eventually, Goneril and Regan demand he get rid of his men and decrease Lear's knights to a number of 75, then 50, then 25, then 1, and then, finally, 0. What happens to all those men who were once employed in Lear's service? They simply disperse, becoming part of a growing population of what historian A.L. Beier referred to as "masterless men," homeless wanderers that roamed the countryside. As Beier notes, vagrants were called "masterless" because they were unemployed and landless in a period when the able-bodied poor were supposed to have masters" (Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640, p. xix). The dispersal of King Lear's knights not only speaks to Lear's dramatic loss of power but also offers a bit of social commentary in the play.
O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life's as cheap as beast's: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need, (2.4.35)
When Goneril and Regan strip Lear of all his knights and say he has no "need" for so many men, Lear proclaims that "need" is not the point. Lear acknowledges he doesn't "need" a retinue of knights but, he says, even the lowliest "beggars / are in the poorest thing superfluous." Translation: even beggars have something more than the bare minimum, so Lear should be able to keep his retinue of knights. If all men were allowed only to have the bare essentials, he would be no better than an animal or, "beast." As an example, Lear points out that Goneril and Regan wear gorgeous clothes that can hardly be said to keep them warm – Goneril and Regan wear such outfits not because they need them for warmth but because they're fashionable. So, is Lear right? When man only has the bare essentials, is he no better than an animal?
This courtesy, forbid thee, shall the duke
Instantly know; and of that letter too:
This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me
That which my father loses; no less than all:
The younger rises when the old doth fall. (3.3.2)
When Edmund learns that his father, Gloucester, is helping King Lear against Cornwall's wishes, he decides to betray his father for political gain. What's interesting about this passage is that Edmund sees his conflict with his father as a conflict between the younger generation and "the old." Why is that? Some argue that, when the play pits the younger generation against the old, it dramatizes a social problem in Shakespeare's England. The argument basically goes like this: In Shakespeare's England, there was a pretty small number of old men who held all the land, wealth, and power (when something like this happens, it's called a "gerontocracy"). There was also a large and growing population of young men without any power. The result? A whole lot of bitter young men (like Edmund) looking to get ahead and willing to do just about anything to accomplish their goals.
This whole old generation vs. young generation thing isn't limited to just men in King Lear. Goneril and Regan are always going around saying that foolish, old, men like Lear don't deserve to have any power. If you want to think about this some more, check out "Symbols," where we discussion the relationship between "Old Men and Babies."
We also think it would be pretty interesting to write a paper about whether or not King Lear's portrayal of the generation gap has any contemporary resonance.