‘Houseless heads and unfed sides’

A few weeks ago I saw King Lear at the Stratford Festival. The opening scene was unexpected! As theatergoers were still finding their seats, a number of raggedy individuals in haphazard clothes milled about on stage. They engaged in mimed conversation. Some interactions were friendly and some were menacing. The audience settled down quickly, intrigued and puzzled. This is not how King Lear, the official version, begins. The lights dimmed. The anonymous band lit a fire under a shadowy bridge. Dogs yapped in the distance. Other muted sounds intruded on the quiet. The wind in the trees? The hum of distant cars? The homeless had gathered for the night… but where and when was unclear.

The next scene, set in Shakespeare’s own Elizabethan era, launched the play proper. If you don’t know the story, it’s a tragedy both intimate and immense. The aging King Lear has decided to abdicate and divide his kingdom among his daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Staging a grand farewell, he invites them to profess how much they love him – with the size of their inheritance hanging in the balance. The two older daughters oblige their father with obsequious flattery. Cordelia, however, refuses to participate. She won’t be manipulated into a showy protestation of love for material gain. Enraged, Lear disinherits her, leaving himself vulnerable to the evil spite of Goneril and Regan with devastating consequence.

Eventually Lear loses his kingship, his family and his sanity. Flailing about madly on the moor in a fiendish storm, he rips off his royal robes and wails against a disordered universe. He is stripped of all but his humanity, an “unaccommodated man,” no different from the beggar, Tom o’ Bedlam, or the nameless tramps in the opening scene. Thus reduced, he is convulsed with pity and guilt about the “poor naked wretches” who are similarly trapped in the maelstrom:

How shall your houseless heads and
unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness,
defend you
From seasons such as these?

Lear reproaches himself: “O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this!” He rebukes the nobility for neglecting the poor, beseeching them to “shake the superflux to them” and “show the heavens more just” by sharing their wealth.

So what’s this? Nostalgia? English teacher misses Shakespeare class? Actually, the director’s shrewd introduction plunked this ancient tragedy smack dab, uncomfortably, in my own time and place. I’m not confronted by homelessness in Wyoming, but I’ve seen the makeshift camps under overpasses driving through Cincinnati on the way to Florida. In Bradenton, near our mobile home park, panhandlers daily plant themselves, ironically, in front of Home Depot. These “houseless heads and unfed sides” make me, yes, uncomfortable.

Being ‘more just’

Recently I read a blog post by Angie Hocking on the sculpture called “Jesus the Homeless” by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz (groundmotive.net). The figure concealed under a blanket on a park bench is identified as Jesus only by the wounds on his bare feet. Hocking describes a weekend that she herself spent as a “homeless person” in a poverty simulation exercise. Utterly spent, she is elated to find an unoccupied bench on which to sleep for a few hours. She then discovers to her dismay that the decorative armrests in the centre of the bench have been strategically placed there to prevent anyone from reclining. A purposeful design with an unequivocal message: “No trespassing.”

Like Lear, I confess “I have ta’en / Too little care of this.” I’m chastened by Shakespeare and by Homeless Jesus. So what can I do? I can show the heavens “more just” by sharing from my “superflux.” For me, that won’t mean handing out change, but it will mean digging a little deeper for diaconal ministries.

It will also mean confronting my prejudice. I need to remind myself that all my blessings come from God. If I’ve grown up in a stable home with loving parents, if I’ve been blessed with passable intellect and good health, if I’ve been placed in a strong community with excellent role models for a positive work ethic and responsible citizenship, if I’ve received a first-rate education, I may not pridefully attribute my successes to myself. Like Lear, I must know myself as “unaccommodated man,” no more or less loved by God than any other human being created by his hand. And, if I’ve been so richly blessed, it’s only to be a blessing, to faithfully and gratefully do something with my “talents.”

A park bench in Vancouver says “Find shelter here.” It has a lift-up cover for protection on rainy nights, a “mini-roof” on which is inscribed the address of a local shelter. It’s an unexpectedly apt metaphor for the Christian life: to be an available, welcoming, everyday pew for Homeless Jesus or any other of the “least of these.”


  • Cathy Smith

    Cathy Smith, former features editor and columnist for Christian Courier, is a retired Christian schoolteacher who lives in Wyoming, Ont.

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