Essay, Research Paper: King Lear And Edmund

Shakespeare: King Lear

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In King Lear, the villainous but intelligent Edmund, with more than a brief
examination into his character, has understandable motivations outside of the
base purposes with which he might at first be credited. Edmund is a character
worthy of study, as he seems to be the most socially complex character of the
play. In a sense, he is both victim and villain. Edmund is introduced into the
play in the opening scene with his father, Gloucester, stating that he
acknowledges him as his son, but publicly mocking him for his bastardy. He is
referred to by Gloucester as a reason for Gloucester to blush and as a
“knave” in front of Kent (1.1.9-25). According to Claude J. Summers,
“Illegitimacy is the characteristic which most pervasively defines Edmund’s
life” (225). In essence, this means that personal embarrassment and public
humiliation are a continual torment for him his entire life. Concerning the
illegitimate sons of royalty in England at that time, according to Chris
Given-Wilson in The Royal Bastards of Medieval England, “The bend . . . or
baton sinister . . . were used as the standard mark of illegitimacy” in their
heraldry (52). Edmund and those like him, expected to serve in battle, were
immediately known to other knights as being bastards because it was clearly
emblazoned on their shields. Given his father’s mocking of him, it can be
expected that this was common treatment for illegitimate sons of nobility and
the carrying of a sign to broadcast his perceived lower class would be cause for
further humiliation. Edmund is a highly intelligent person. He is able to
beguile his father, so it may be argued that he is more intelligent than
Gloucester. With the concept of forging a letter supposedly penned by Edgar in
order to cause his loyalty to be in question, he shows that he is deeply aware
of the necessary “buttons” to push to cause a rift in the fabric of his
family and A Look at Shakespeare’s Edmund his society. It shows that he is
capable of original and creative thought processes (1.2.28-36). When Edmund
makes a show of hiding the letter from his father, then hesitating to show it to
him further, he shows a deep understanding of human nature (1.2.38-47). Who
would not be intrigued and desire to see it? Who would be capable of crediting
him with the writing of the letter? Edmund has a keen understanding of human
nature and an intelligence that excels that of his father. Edmund could
certainly not be described as naive. Early in the play, we realize that his
brother Edgar is just the opposite, though later he grows wiser due to
necessity. In believing Edmund’s lies that their father is angry with him to
the point of accepting the advice to carry a sword around with him, he displays
his poor judgment, eventually causing grave difficulties for himself and his
father (1.2.164-83). In contrasting Edgar and Edmund, we can see that Edmund is
clearly more world-wise and able to create situations to his own advantage. This
lack of naiveté and clear thinking can be seen as a form of intelligence. He is
able to easily trick his brother and is intelligent than Edgar. In comparing
Goneril and Regan to Edmund, we find that Edmund is once again the more crafty
and intelligent. By the end of the play we see that their plots are going to
hinge on his course of action and that they are both doting on him. He has one
willing to kill her husband and the other willing to give him all of her land
and a title. Given their natures, it is almost a surprise that the author has
not portrayed them as creatures similar to the witches in Mac Beth. Edmund knows
who they are and it is doubtful they could be physically attractive to him, yet
they choose to believe the sincerity of his overtures. His ability to dupe them
shows him to be their superior. When Edmund covets Edgar’s inheritance, it is
not simply the coveting of land and title; it is a coveting of respect in the
social order of his world. Edgar reveals not only his intentions, but also some
of the reasoning behind them when he says Legitimate Edgar, I must have your
land. Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmond As to th’legitimate. Fine
word, ‘legitimate’ Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed And my
invention thrive, Edmond the base Shall to the’legitimate: I grow, I prosper.
Now gods, stand up for bastards! (1.2.15-22) Were materialistic reasons the only
concern, he would not be mentioning legitimacy and would not be concerned about
the love of his father. Jonathan Dollimore argues that Edmund “ . . . is made
to serve an existing system of values; although he falls prey to . . . his
obsession with power, property and inheritance” (79). This is a shallow view,
given the level of intelligence displayed by Edmund throughout the play and his
concern with legitimacy. There is more motivation behind his actions than that.
In an attempt to put the situation in a more contemporary context, let us
compare him to a middle-management supervisor in today’s corporate hierarchy.
Let us say that Edmund is a mid-level manager, not having gone to the right
schools, or having the right breeding. He is expected to attend meetings with
the upper echelon managers, where he contributes advice and expertise. These
same upper-level managers will determine his future advancement within the
company. It is apparent to Edgar that it is unlikely that he will move up any
further within the company, at least not under any ordinary foreseeable
circumstances. He is not genetically a part of the clique that exists, nor can
he ever truly be a part of it. Focusing on these social elite seated across the
boardroom table, as they make open fun of his situation, it is understandable
that he develops resentment, ambition, and a desire to move up in the company.
Just as the corporate Edgar had no set goal from the outset to be Chief
Executive Officer, the King Lear Edgar had not originally intended to be King of
England. The desire to attain the highest position did not come until he had
through machinations started moving up the social ladder. Edmund can be seen as
being balanced in society between being nobility and being a commoner. The
average nobility did not have a clear understanding of the lot of the common
man. Lear says “O, I have taken/Too little care of this. Take psychic,
pomp/Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel” (3.4.33-35). He is beginning
to realize that he has been a noble blind to the plight of the common man. He
sees what kind of king he has been. This statement of Lear’s represents what
all of the nobility had in common with every-day reality, which is very little.
According to Given-Wilson “English common law declared that a bastard could
not inherit as of right” (48). He further states that a noble could bequeath
land to illegitimate children, but that the monarch in any given circumstance
might invalidate the request and dole out the properties to friends and
relatives in an act of nepotism, leaving the intended heir with nothing (49).
Given-Wilson goes on to cite examples of this and makes it clear that the
bastard child would be entirely at the mercy of the legitimate, as well as
decisions made by the monarchy. With the set of characters that are doing the
decision-making in the play, it is no wonder that Edmund did not wish to trust
his fate to Lear, Goneril, Regan, their husbands, or even his naive brother
Edgar once his father had passed away. William Blake, in the poem “A Poison
Tree” from Songs of Experience , wrote, “I was angry with my friend/I told
my wrath/My wrath did end/I was angry with my foe/I told it not/My wrath did
grow . . . ” Just as Blake describes a person internalizing his feelings of
anger and planning to use them in revenge served up cold, so must have Edgar
internalized. Given his intelligence and abilities, it was a sore thing for him
when his father cast aspersions on him due to conditions beyond his control.
With life-long humiliation at his circumstance of birth, his lack of trust in
the system is understandable. Edmund had no reason to trust things would work
out right if left to themselves and he had anger as an additional motivating
factor. Ironically, two instances of trust may be directly shown as the causes
of failure in Edmund’s ambitions. It was very poor judgment for him to allow
the challenge of the unknown knight (5.3.145-155). It is uncertain whether this
is a display of nobility in character, or a lapse in judgment. G.T. Buckley has
many points to make in showing Edmund as a traitor, yet in reference to this
scene says that he is someone that has never been accused of cowardice (93). The
other instance of misplaced trust contributing to his downfall is the message
carried by Oswald from Goneril, detailing the intention to slay Albany, being
intercepted by Edgar. As seen from one angle, this is not the fault of Edmund.
The letter is written by Goneril. However, his choice to make an alliance with
her can be viewed as a mistake. Someone not wise enough to realize that nothing
incriminating should ever be put in writing is not someone to be trusted with
your life. The motivations behind Edmund’s actions are not readily apparent
without looking beneath the surface. Though occupying a small niche in the play,
Edmund is the most complex character of all. He displays creativity,
intelligence and sensitivity to the political and social climate surrounding
him. He shows the ability to take advantage of those more powerful than he and
to identify and target their weaknesses. This is no mean feat given the power
they possess and his lack of power. Edmund proves to be a versatile actor of
many faces, careful to show the right one to the right people. This takes
intellect, cunning and a good sense of timing. John E. Curran portrays all of
the characters as being lacking in dimension when he says, “Shakespeare
proceeds as if his characters can be driven to extremes without addressing their
motivations” (83). Had he given more thought to the motivations of Edmund, it
is unlikely Curran, or any reasonable person, could draw this conclusion. In a
play filled with intrigue and unsympathetic characters, it is unfortunate that
the most ambitious did not succeed. He was a far more interesting character than
the insipid Edgar and probably would have made a better king.

Bibliography
Works Cited Buckley, G.T. “Was Edmund Guilty of Capital Treason?”
Shakespeare Quarterly 23 (1972) : 93. Curran, John E. “King Lear as
Non-History Theater.” The Shakespeare Newsletter 49 (1999) : 83. Dillmore,
Jonathan. “King Lear and Essentialist Humanism.” Ed. Harold Bloom. New York:
Chelsea House, 1987. 79. Given-Wilson, Chris. The Royal Bastards of Medieval
England. London: Broadway House, 1984. 52, 48-49. Shakespeare, William. King
Lear. Ed. Russell Fraser. 35th ed. New York: Signet, 1987. Summers, Claude J.
“’Stand Up for Bastards!’: Shakespeare’s Edmund and Love’s Failure.”
College Literature 4 (1977) : 225.
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