"Allows itself to anything:" Poor Tom Familiarizing and Enacting Chaos in King Lear

By Leslie S. Lee
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/3 |

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Poor Tom—a figure of madness, poverty, and linguistic play—acts as the personification of the semi-apocalyptic state into which the social world of the play descends. Edgar first appears fully as Poor Tom in Act 3, in the midst of the storm, when Lear’s madness becomes fully displayed. That we encounter Poor Tom in the setting of the storm-addled heath associates him with the tempest, but in fact this association is suggested by the text from the very first introduction of the Poor Tom persona.

In Act 1, scene 2, Edmund responds to Edgar’s entrance with the following: “Pat he comes, like the catastrophe of the old comedy. My cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom o’Bedlam. –O, these eclipses do portend these divisions. Fa, sol, la, mi.” (134-137) Edmund’s introduction of the Tom o’Bedlam character is preceded by his disparagement of astrological superstitions, which he then performs for Edmund as if in the voice of Tom o’Bedlam. Thus these lines create an association between the Tom o’Bedlam figure and a belief in astrological significance.

The language of “planetary influence” (125) in Edmund’s speech immediately before Edgar appears establishes a theme of imagery relating to the natural world, the heavens, and weather. According to R.A. Foakes, the term “catastrophe” refers here to an “arbitrary or contrived denouement as in old fashioned comedy,” but the word also suggests a natural disaster, such as a storm (n. 134). Following this possible image of a catastrophe in nature, “villainous melancholy” and “sigh” further suggest a connection between the Tom o’Bedlam figure and the natural world.

In the speech in which Edgar engenders the idea to disguise himself as Poor Tom, he seems to pluck the character of the bedlam out of the very landscape:

My face I’ll grime with filth,

Blanket my loins, elf all my hair in knots

And with presented nakedness outface

The winds and persecutions of the sky.

The country gives me proof and precedent

Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,

Strike in their numbed and mortified bare arms

Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary.”


Following Edgar’s mention of “the winds” and “the sky,” the term “the country” serves as the third item in this series of natural elements. Thus “the country” appears to refer not just to the rural countryside as distinct from the court, or to the country as a political entity, but to the very earth and landscape itself. It is “the country” which provides Edgar with the “proof and precedent” of the Bedlam beggar—the beggar character seems to appear to Edgar from within the physical surroundings. This positions the Poor Tom character that Edgar creates as a natural element of the heath. Furthermore, the “roaring voices” of the beggars suggests the howling winds of the storm to come.

Edgar’s language also evokes an image of him taking the natural world onto and into himself: he plans to “grime” his face “with filth,” taking up the dirt and refuse of the earth and covering himself with it. Edgar imagines Bedlam beggars who in a literal sense internalize the outside world by striking “pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary” into their own bodies. In Edgar’s conception of the bedlam beggar, then, there is little division between a beggar’s own body and the world around that body—the distinction between self and other fades (“Edgar I nothing am” [2.2.192]). These linguistic associations between the Poor Tom figure and the forces of nature and the landscape become increasingly symbolically significant as the natural world takes on a more explicit role in the play.

When Lear, the Fool, and Kent encounter the disguised Edgar in 3.4, they find him already within the hovel on the heath. While the audience witnesses the arrival of Lear, Fool, and Kent at this place, no such explanatory moment of arrival is provided for Edgar. Thus the audience, like the characters within the play, encounters “Poor Tom” as a feature of the storm landscape.

Just after a speech by Lear in which he apostrophizes to “poor naked wretches […] That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm” (28-29), Poor Tom appears, as if with his words Lear has just conjured up an actual “poor naked wretch,” and Lear’s phrasing recalls Edgar’s vow to “outface the winds and persecutions of the sky.” Edgar’s language as Poor Tom continues the association between the Poor Tom figure and the storm and heath landscape. His first line spoken as Poor Tom is “Fathom and half, fathom and half: Poor Tom!” (27-28) Foakes’ explanation of this line is that “Edgar calls as if he were taking soundings from a boat, or measuring the depth of water in the ‘hovel’” (n. 37).

Edgar first speaks as Poor Tom as though surrounded by water. The phrasing of this line suggests danger, as the word “poor” seems to be an adjective applied to Tom in reaction to the “Fathom and half”; it is not until the Fool answers Kent’s query of “Who’s there?” by saying, “A spirit, a spirit. He says his name’s Poor Tom” that the audience is told that “poor” is in fact part of his proper name for himself. In this first line by Edgar-as-Poor-Tom, he associates himself with water and distress, very much mirroring the raging storm which so distresses King Lear.

The storm on the heath reflects, among other things, the chaos in the social world of the play and the increasing instability of Lear’s reason; as the play frames Poor Tom in terms recalling the storm, he too becomes a symbol of madness, both social and mental. With his seemingly nonsensical language—“Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind, says sum, mun, nonny, Dauphin my boy, my boy, cessez! Let him trot by” (3.4.96)—Tom represents the disruption of the natural order caused by the actions of Goneril, Regan, Lear, and Edmund; he is a personification of chaos and fear.

But the connection between the natural world and the Poor Tom figure in some ways stabilizes the chaos he represents by localizing it within the landscape; furthermore, as the personification of catastrophe, Poor Tom familiarizes the apocalyptic storm world of the heath by locating chaos within a contained, identifiable persona. In creating his Poor Tom identity, Edgar follows the “proof and precedent” of the Bedlam beggars; he appeals to a pre-existing character type, “the bedlam” which he implies has certain recognizable, traditional elements. While the actions of these beggars are disturbing and desperate—“[striking] in their numbed and mortified bare arms / Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary”—these actions are also apparently familiar to Edgar, who is able to recall and then reenact them himself. Edgar’s speech suggests that the “Bedlam beggar” is a familiar persona type in the world of the play.

At the end of Act 3, in the aftermath of the blinding of Gloucester, one servant suggests to another, “Let’s follow the old Earl and get the bedlam / To lead him where he would. His roguish madness / Allows itself to anything” (7.102-104). The pairing of the phrases “follow the old Earl” and “get the bedlam” suggests that “the bedlam” refers to a specific individual, just as “the old Earl” does. The familiarity with the general persona type of a Bedlam beggar which Edgar displayed in Act 2 has now shifted to a familiarity with an actual person. These lines suggest that Edgar has already managed to make himself a presence which is known to the servants. “The bedlam” has become an identifiable and familiar element of the storm-addled heath world. As such, “the bedlam” performs a stabilizing function, as the servants assume they will be able to locate him, and that he will follow their plans and support Gloucester. In the chaos of the storm, “the bedlam” here provides the stability of the familiar.

Poor Tom acts as a stabilizing agent in two ways: by localizing the chaos of the storm-world in a contained personification, and by providing the stability of the familiar. Counteracting this stabilizing function, however, is the confusion and potential loss of identity which the Poor Tom figure represents.  The complexity and ambiguity of identity associated with Poor Tom manifests itself within the text linguistically: the use of pronouns and titles are especially confusing in the lines dealing with Poor Tom, as if the chaos which “the bedlam” represents has bled outward, disrupting the clear connection between the linguistic representation of a person in the form of a pronoun, name, or title, and the physical reality of a person.

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