Luxury and Literature in Shakespeare and Mandeville: Too Much of a Good Thing


by Sarah Skwire

Whenever economic times get tough, the debate over luxury--what defines it and how much of it is too much--reappears as part of public discourse. Photos from this year’s Met Gala, and the recent return of “maximalism” and its “too much of a good thing is a very good start” philosophy to fashion and home decor is certain to spur a whole new round of the debate. 
Particularly after years of Marie Kondo, tiny homes, and capsule wardrobes, a push towards ornate furniture, charming clutter, and wild prints and colors feels transgressive, exciting, and dangerous. Expect lively arguments about what, exactly, constitutes “too much.”

The debate over what is necessity and what is luxury, and when fulfilling a need tips over into indulgence is surely as old as wealth itself. 

Shakespeare’s King Lear, first performed on December 26, 1606, contains one of my favorite entries in the centuries-long argument about luxury. As his daughters strip him of his retainers, saying he does not need them any longer, the beset King Lear lashes out:

O! Reason not the need; our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life's as cheap as beast's: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. (King Lear, Act 2, scene 2. 453-459)

If all we are permitted to do, he argues, is to fulfill our barest needs for survival, we may as well be animals. To own anything--even the blanket a beggar wraps himself in, or the staff with which he supports himself--is to possess something superfluous to mere survival. The fine clothes his daughters wear, after all, do far more than keep them warm. Indeed, poorer clothing would probably keep them far warmer than the gorgeous gowns they wear. If our possessions are to be based only upon a strict definition of need, it’s not clear, argues Lear, that we need to own anything.

Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees makes an argument so close to the one made by Lear that I would be willing to bet a little superfluous coin that he had King Lear in mind while writing the passage.

If every thing is to be Luxury (as in strictness it ought) that is not immediately necessary to make Man subsist as he is a living Creature, there is nothing else to be found in the World, no not even among the naked Savages; of which it is not probable that there are any but what by this time have made some Improvements upon their former manner of Living; and either in the Preparation of their Eatables, the ordering of their Huts, or otherwise, added something to what once sufficed them. This Definition every body will say is too rigorous; I am of the same Opinion; but if we are to abate one Inch of this Severity, I am afraid we shan’t know where to stop. When People tell us they only desire to keep themselves sweet and clean, there is no understanding what they would be at; if they made use of these Words in their genuine proper literal Sense, they might soon be satisfy’d without much cost or trouble, if they did not want Water: But these two little Adjectives are so comprehensive, especially in the Dialect of some Ladies, that no body can guess how far they may be stretcht. (Remark L, Fable of the Bees)

Just like Lear, Mandeville argues that, if we really press it, we can argue that anything beyond bare subsistence is luxury. Should we do that, we find that every human lives in luxury. But if we don’t do that, how do we know where to draw the line that says “enough is enough.” Those who love luxury claim (as Lear’s daughters claim they wear fine gowns only to keep warm) that all they want is to be “sweet and clean.” But it’s a short step from “those two Adjectives” to buying out the whole Diptyque range. 

The debate lasts, of course, because luxury is an intractable problem. Knowing that the finger-wagging that is soon to be directed at maximalism stretching back to Mandeville, Shakespeare, and even earlier, may be of some consolation, however. 

(Our edition of Fable of the Bees may also provide comfort and ammunition. It’s very pretty, but books are necessities, not luxuries. Right?)


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