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Poor Tom

Living "King Lear"

King Lear is perhaps the most fierce and moving play ever written. And yet there is a curious puzzle at its center. The figure to whom Shakespeare gives more lines than anyone except the king—Edgar—has often seemed little more than a blank, ignored and unloved, a belated moralizer who, try as he may, can never truly speak to the play’s savaged heart. He saves his blinded father from suicide, but even this act of care is shadowed by suspicions of evasiveness and bad faith.

In Poor Tom, Simon Palfrey asks us to go beyond any such received understandings—and thus to experience King Lear as never before. He argues that the part of Edgar is Shakespeare’s most radical experiment in characterization, and his most exhaustive model of both human and theatrical possibility. The key to the Edgar character is that he spends most of the play disguised, much of it as “Poor Tom of Bedlam,” and his disguises come to uncanny life. The Edgar role is always more than one person; it animates multitudes, past and present and future, and gives life to states of being beyond the normal reach of the senses—undead, or not-yet, or ghostly, or possible rather than actual. And because the Edgar role both connects and retunes all of the figures and scenes in King Lear, close attention to this particular part can shine stunning new light on how the whole play works.

The ultimate message of Palfrey’s bravura analysis is the same for readers or actors or audiences as it is for the characters in the play: see and listen feelingly; pay attention, especially when it seems as though there is nothing there.

280 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2014

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature, Dramatic Works


“Palfrey's deep dive into the character and meaning of Poor Tom, the disguise Edgar adopts for most of the play, leads to some astonishing revelations ranging from staging choices to linguistic connections across characters and scenes. . . . Anyone who teaches, directs, acts, or writes about King Lear will find reading [Poor Tom] well worth their time. . . . Recommended.”


“A brilliant example of characterological study. . . . There is no better, more insightful book on Shakespeare this year.”

Studies in English Literature 1500–1900

“Palfrey is as dazzling a close reader as he is a prose stylist, and these two gifts often complement each other to produce elegant, economical, revelatory interpretations. . . . Poor Tom . . . has given me a provocative way of thinking about Lear, and an exciting, challenging model for reading it.”

Renaissance and Reformation

“At the heart of this book’s intense and at times intensely personal consideration of the Edgar/Tom part in King Lear is a series of top-notch close readings of the lines Shakespeare assigns to this character. These readings do more than any effort recent or long past to come to terms with this extraordinary figure.”

Renaissance Quarterly

“A nuanced close reading, an exploration of Lear’s sometimes ambiguous relationship to its sources and biblical parallels, and a provocative discussion of theatrical possibility. [Poor Tom] should be of interest to scholars and to all actors and directors who have grappled with that deceptively simple question—‘Why this disguise?’”

Sixteenth Century Journal

“Nearly every page of Poor Tom contains some arresting insight; even readers who think they know Lear inside out are likely to be surprised by how much they have missed. . . . This is a generous and forgiving book, too: witty, lucid, and unstuffy, its sharp scrutiny touched with compassion. It will bear reading and rereading.”

Shakespeare Quarterly

“As well as championing the one-play Shakespeare monograph, the book offers an understanding and feeling reading of King Lear that, at heart, challenges the status quo of much Shakespeare criticism.”

Year’s Work in English Studies

"For all the play’s transformations under the hands of critics over the years, it remains one of the most enigmatic, moving, and radical works ever written in English, by Shakespeare or by any other playwright. Those who wish to travel into the terrifying world that it discloses will need a guide, and Palfrey’s book is the one to lead them there."

Common Knowledge

"Reading Poor Tom has the effect of watching a familiar landscape expand and morph in myriad, telling ways, opening up ever deeper reserves of strangeness in the much-discussed and much-estranged play of King Lear. This is a very rare sort of work."

Kenneth Gross, author of Shylock Is Shakespeare and Puppet

“Palfrey is one of the most innovative and interesting Shakespeare scholars of his generation. Poor Tom is powerfully written, with a strong voice and poetic style that is ceaselessly illuminating.”

Julia Reinhard Lupton, author of Thinking with Shakespeare: Essays on Politics and Life

“By putting us in touch with Poor Tom, a near nullity, this book draws us irresistibly into the surcharged plenum of King Lear. Palfrey’s critical gifts and skills are exquisite, but perhaps more singular still is his openness to the playworld’s life-making possibilities. His is a practice of vitalization, animating even the most inert recesses of the tragedy, and so compellingly that we might well wonder why we missed so much before.”

Margreta de Grazia, University of Pennsylvania

Table of Contents

On Texts

1.   Prelude: The Hanging Man
2.   Introduction
3.   Interlude: The Stranger
4.   Scene 1: Into the Hollow
5.   Interlude: Job Redux
6.   Scene 2: Enter Tom
7.   Interlude: Tom Is…?
8.   Scene 3: Tom’s Voices
9.   Interlude: To Be Allegory
10. Scene 4: Tom’s Places           
11. Interlude: History Man
12. Scene 5: Lurk, Lurk
13. Interlude: Living King Lear
14. Scene 6: Shuttered Genealogy
15. Interlude: Decreated
16. Scene 7: Fool to Sorrow
17. Interlude: Humanist and Posthumanist: A Dialogue
18. Scene 8: To the Edge of the Cliff
19. Interlude: The Binding
20. Scene 9: Fallen, or Not?
21. Interlude: Everyman
22. Scene 10: Alive, or Dead?
23. Interlude: The Pending World
24. Scene 11: Dark Places
25. Interlude: Jacob and Esau
26. Scene 12: Departures
27. Conclusion: Shakespeare’s Radical
28. Afterword


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