Welfare and Work for All: King Lear and Poor Relief in China and Early Modern England

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Book Chapter

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England's Asian Renaissance


In this chapter, I read King Lear's well-known concern with indigence and homelessness in the light of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century accounts that portrayed China as a welfare utopia, arguing that these accounts allowed dramatists such as Shakespeare to engage critically with the social realities around them. ... The obvious interest with which English writers and compilers looked at the social policies of China suggests not just that there was a desire for reform but also that contact with East Asia gave shape and substance to that desire. It is against this background that I turn to King Lear and underscore the play's scathing critique of the Poor Laws in England, which were mostly punitive in focus and repressive in inspiration. I see the play as championing relief for all, without the use of an arbitrary measure of a person's worth, and in the process validating the potential contribution of all people to society.

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