Nothing’s new: King Lear on social issues

One issue that is looked at in King Lear is homelessness; something which is just as important issue today, as when Shakespeare was writing the play in the early 17th Century. We may use a quote from the play aptly.

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
Oh, I have taken
Too little care of this!’ (Shakespeare 1148)

These people had been Lear’s subjects, for the decades which he had reigned as king. However, he had not considered the fate of the homeless before, until, like many people, he found himself in the same position himself. There must have been a few starving peasants who found themselves without shelter, even in a well-run kingdom.
At least the king always had people to care for him on the heath, in that violent storm, the Fool and the ever-faithful Kent. They find a hovel for him to sleep in, dragging him in there to protect him from the storm. That puts Lear in a better position than many homeless people.

These are powerful words that he uses here, powerful in the same way as the lyrics of Phil Collins’ song, Another Day in Paradise, which was a major hit, and is about a homeless woman.
She calls out to the man on the street
‘Sir, can you help me?
It’s cold and I’ve nowhere to sleep,
Is there somewhere you can tell me?’
He walks on, doesn’t look back
He pretends he can’t hear her
Starts to whistle as he crosses the street
Seems embarrassed to be there
{Universal Music}

So now we can see that this issue has been dealt with in both a 17th Century play and a relatively modern pop song. Let us look at homelessness more closely. There are approximately 105,000 people who are homeless in Australia (Homelessness). ‘People experiencing homelessness include those who sleep rough on the streets or under makeshift dwellings. Although people who sleep rough are most visible to the public, they only represent 7% of the homeless population’ (Mission Australia).  ‘Two out of three people who look for crisis accommodation are turned away; there are ‘no vacancies’. Many end up on the street or living in sub standard boarding houses, caravans, squats, cars, refuges, or sleeping on friends’ couches. Vast numbers of our fellow Australians live in these miserable and often dangerous conditions’ (StreetSmart).

‘Homelessness can be the result of many social, economic and health-related factors. From our experience, people can become homeless after many years of experiencing poverty, poor relationships and drug, alcohol or mental health issues’ (Mission Australia). However, the biggest single cause is domestic violence (Mission Australia).

Another issue which is certainly covered in King Lear is mental illness. This has been a problem among homeless people since a few decades ago, under the Richmond Report, when many patients were released from psychiatric institutions, to live in the community. Others end up struggling to survive on the street. Some people may become homeless because of mental illness, which may be diagnosed or not. Others may find themselves in the dubious hospitality of these mental institutions, as an alternative to living on the streets.

Madness is certainly an issue in King Lear, with his outbursts throughout the play. Some actors have been reluctant to play the elderly king, because of the scene on the heath where he rages at the storm, losing his mind.

Today, Lear would probably be diagnosed with situational depression. Maybe an expert would make notes on all his rantings, or, more likely, just prescribe him something.

Edgar, on the other hand, does a very good imitation of a madman named “poor Tom”, as a disguise while on the run. He has horrified generations of theatregoers with his diet. Tom is a very good mimic of what would probably be called schizophrenia, today. The “foul fiend” is not the devil, but a good example of what we would call hearing voices. They also incite him to commit suicide with knives, halters and ratsbane (Shakespeare 1149).

We all know that Edgar is not genuinely mad, he just has a few family problems. This seems to be a common tactic among Shakespeare’s male characters: Edgar as “poor Tom”, Hamlet’s “antic disposition”, and indeed Lear’s raging is caused by the problems with his daughters.

Today, we can question whether a competent psychiatrist would discover their underlying issues? Or would they be too busy, and too important, to do anything except order that they all be well and truly medicated.

Edgar, and possibly the king, would have a very different outcome if they lived today. Something to calm him down, seems to be the only solution they consider, there’s no way we can have someone from a dysfunctional family saying: “He is bold in his defense!” (Shakespeare 1165)

Perhaps this world makes things easier for “manifold traitors” (Shakespeare 1165).

One last thought from the play. What would you do when you hear a homeless person say the equivalent of “Tom’s a-cold”. This becomes a more relevant question as the cold weather progresses, winter storms can lead plenty of us to say, like the Fool: “Here’s a night that pities neither wise men nor fools” (Shakespeare 1147).

Tonight, approximately 1 in 200 people will be homeless. ‘Homelessness can affect men, women and children from a wide range of backgrounds living in our cities, suburbs and country towns’ (Mission Australia).  Some of them may even be living down the street from your place.

We may not be as callous as Cornwall and his wife, if it is not our family member we are leaving out in the cold, in the storm. However, it is the same uncaring attitude that could lead us to say: “Shut up your doors, my lord; ‘tis a wild night. My Regan counsels well. Come out of the storm” (Shakespeare 1146).


“Homelessness in Australia”.  StreetSmart.  2017.

“There is no one definition of homelessness”.  Homelessness Australia.  2017.

“What is homelessness?”  Mission Australia.  2017.

Thomas, Nelly.  Nelly Thomas On How Her Mate Became Homeless.  New Matilda.  27 February 2017.

Shakespeare, William.  The Complete Works. HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.

Collins, Phil (1989) Another Day In Paradise. Universal Music.  Retrieved from:

Another Day In Paradise lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, IMAGEM U.S. LLC


I chose this as my Best Creative Post, because of the mental process used to write. After the rigid format of our essay, I decided to let my mind flow where it wanted, after reading this quote of Lear’s and let my pen follow suit.  This is not the first writing piece built around a Shakespeare quote – nor will it be anything like the last.

Why did I write about such serious social issues?  The answer is city living, and what you see there.


2 thoughts on “Nothing’s new: King Lear on social issues

  1. Linda, this is an incredibly insightful post. You have got right to the heart of the matter in King Lear. Homelessness and mental illness are very big issues now, as well as back then. Jesus said take care of the poor…they will always be with you” (Dave’s paraphrase).
    I was surprised to hear that the number 1 cause of Homelessness is domestic violence. There is something inherently wrong with our society when violence causes people to leave their homes to escape it. Homes should be a haven in a cruel world. It’s wrong where people feel safer with the unknown dangers than the dangers in the home.
    People think that alcohol and drug abuse are greater causes of Homelessness. I have met too many homeless people to know that is false. A lot of homeless people turn to drugs and alcohol when they are already homeless as a way of escaping the situation.
    There are not enough appropriate support systems in place to cover the diversity of the problems people living rough cope with. You are right when you say psychiatry is not the only answer. They do not offer solutions. The medication doesn’t heal, just makes it easier to deal with. That is why we have social workers. Social workers should not sit in their offices but go onto the streets where the situation is non-threatening to the vulnerable. Meet the people where they are at and offer some hope, if a way out is not immediately apparent, give support which will ease the suffering of the homeless.
    Thanks for your post and shining the light on the shadows.

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