Book Marks: King Lear would be a Freegan

By Talia Kuhel

This column will discuss how various books have influenced other mediums of entertainment.

via the Guardian
via the Guardian

Freegan: “Somebody who abstains from contributing to the economy and salvages society’s wasted food and resources rather than purchase more themselves.” (Urban Dictionary)

If Freegans couldn’t care less about anything, it’d probably be the mantra that “you are what you eat.” So they scrap up the leftovers in this hyper-consumptive American universe and we, the flagrant spenders on food, are left to feel crazy – crazy for dropping cash on food that Freegans are getting for free.

But then again, Freegans could totally be the crazy ones. They eat out of dumpsters by choice!

At this point, we are left to overthink everything. Am I being taken advantage of whenever I buy anything? Or, am I being taken advantage of by thinking that I am being taken advantage of by ever buying anything?

Don’t blame me for bringing up the hard hitting questions. Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare essentially dropped the same load on his audiences in his iconic tragedy, “King Lear.”

Enter the King in a palace and all of the glitz and glamour that comes with king life. Lear wants to preserve his power, so he maps out a plan for dividing his territory amongst his daughters and begins this weird ritual of trading huge chunks of his kingdom for his daughter’s declarations of love:

“Tell me my daughters –
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cause of state –
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend” (1.1. 46-50)

The first daughter, Goneril, blurts out this overdone statement of love and devotion to her father:“Sir, I love you more then words can wield,” to which Lear slices a huge chunk of land and gives it to her (1.1. 53).

The next daughter, Regan, attempts to top that, saying, “Only she [Goneril] comes too short, that I profess / myself an enemy to all other joys /…And I find I am alone felicitate in your dear highness’ love” (1.1. 71-74). And Lear slices another huge chunk of his kingdom.

The last daughter, who has been talking aside to herself throughout about how to measure up to this phony lovey dovey exercise, just destroys the whole ritual with one word: “Nothing, my lord.”(1.1. 86)

The king is outraged! He says, “How, how, Cordelia! mend your speech a little , / Lest it may mar your fortunes!”(1.1. 93-94) In other words, Lear tells his daughter to drop the angsty teenager bit and play the aristocratic game he made up.

By saying the word, “nothing,” Cordelia uses the shell of speech to fill a void that could be silence. She does respond to the King’s request for phony affirmation, but she won’t act in this show. Essentially, she chooses not to trade fake love for fake love, or words of affirmation for an endowment of wealth from his bank. She argues that a true father daughter bond has a natural balance of love and respect, saying, “I love your majesty according to my bond” and that talking about love is as superficial as thinking that a legacy is all about the wealth and land (1.1. 91). Cordelia chooses authentic relationships over the theater of aristocratic relationships that come with a lot of money.

(This is where Lear’s life trickles into a “Gossip Girl” sort of plot. Big money, family business, down to earth child runs away from home and superficiality of it all. Pretty familiar story.)

But, as the play goes on, Lear spirals into a kind of madness and self-reflectiveness that could turn you onto freeganism. By the second act, Lear realizes his two eldest daughters, the ones who were so quick to dish out fake love, are trying to take over his kingdom because his age is a liability. So, Lear bursts out of the castle and into the stormy natural world. No kingdom to protect him. Just man vs. wild.

In nature, Lear embraces the wild. He even embraces nudity, which is an excellent metaphor for stripping away the superficial garb of authority that he held. What does it even mean to be King? It is just a social contract, and without that contract a King is merely a guy with fancy robes? In doing so, Lear increasingly appears mad. He gargles his words and frolics around with a crown of flowers. But perhaps, the whole idea of being a king, inside the palace or inside the bounds of aristocratic society and all of the rituals that come with it – like the love show in act 1.

So we are left with the ultimate question: Are we just buying food because it feels good to be a consumptive member of civilized society? Is being civilized really mad? Or is freeganism really mad?

Thanks Shakespeare for calling capitalism out 400 years before froyo was a thing!

Talia Kuhel is a staff writer. Email her at books@nyunews.com.

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