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King Lear And Edmund Essay Research Paper

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 naivet? 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.

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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