Joseph Pearce’s current comments (…) on distributism, a subject on which he is an internationally respected scholar (I first heard his name in an address in Sydney on the theme), has brought to my mind a fact about Shakespeare which seems to have escaped scholarly notice. In King Lear the dramatist shows us how people afflicted with unjust suffering can learn not only to endure their adversity with dignity, but to profit from it. (Of course, the purifying potential of suffering has always been a central theme of Christianity; and this potential was also recognised among the classical philosophers). It is especially noteworthy that Lear and Gloucester learn from their ordeals how blind they had been in their days of prosperity to, among other things, the sufferings of those with nothing. Lear reflects (IV.iv.28ff.) that “pomp” should experience the “houseless poverty” of “Poor naked wretches”,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
“Superflux” means, of course, superfluity. Similarly, Gloucester declares (IV.i.69-73) that “the superfluous and lust dieted man” should give of his abundance
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.
“Lust” here means simply “wishes”; and the lust-dieted man is one who can indulge his every wish.
Through Lear’s and Gloucester’s reflections, Shakespeare is enunciating traditional Catholic social philosophy. Aquinas taught that the fruits of the earth are for all men, and that although it is natural and proper not only that there should be private property but that some men should own more goods than others, natural justice requires that those who have a superabundance of goods should give of their superfluity to help the poor. [Summa Theologica II.II.66.7.] Indeed, Aquinas maintained that if a person could survive only by taking the minimum he needed from the superfluity of another, such an appropriation was legitimate and did not constitute theft. It is unsurprising that Shakespeare should have been acquainted with Thomistic thought, since at the time he was writing Aquinas was much revered, read and invoked in intellectual “establishment” circles in England, not only by crypto-Catholic scholars such as Oxford’s Dr John Case, but even by militant anti-Catholics such as Oxford’s Dr John Rainolds and the poet-divine John Donne (both renegade Catholics). One could openly buy Aquinas’ complete works (in Latin) from leading London book shops in St Paul’s Churchyard.