"King Lear" By Shakespeare Examination Of Edmund
In order to understand the characteristic of any character, especially Edmund, one must be aware of his background. In the beginning of the play, "King Lear," the reader views Edmund as a character who should be pitied upon; not as how critics assert him to be one of the most evil characters in all of literature. This viewpoint of Edmund is evident in the proceeding pages of this play. When the reader is first introduced to him, through Kent and Gloucester's conversation, he learns of the Edmund's "bastard" status. Through Gloucester's bad deed and action, society frowns upon the illegitimacy of Edmund's birth. Although he has committed no wrong, he has no right to inherit his father's property, wealth and title because of his "bastard status." His father in the opening pages of King Lear asserts:
But I have a son, sir, by order of law some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account. Though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent, yet his mother fair, there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged. (I.i.19)
This statement by Gloucester describing Edmund's 'whoreson' status, clearly displays Gloucester's love for his son. He claims he does not love one son more than the other. His love is equally divided between both his sons. More importantly, Shakespeare successfully used ethos to invoke some sort of initial sympathy from the reader towards Edmund. By continually disgracing him and discussing his "bastard" status, Shakespeare was able to make the reader feel kindness and understanding towards Edmund.
As the play continues, and King Lear has divided up his land between his two daughters, Goneril and Regan; Edmund's true characteristics begin to be apparent. One can safely compare him to Machiavelli and Darwin's theory, survival of the fittest. Edmund states in act one, scene two:
Why brand they us
With "base," with "baseness," 'bastardy," base," "base,"...Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my intervention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall [top] th' legitimate. I...
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The big thing to know about Edmund is that, as Shakespeare repeatedly says, he’s “a bastard.” Not only was he born out of wedlock, but he also acts like a jerk from the beginning of the play to the end. He has his own point of view (distinctive from everyone else in the play), and a similar attitude to everybody and everything around him. He is also the most evil of all Shakespeare’s characters. He’s one of the first characters we meet, and his father Gloucester goes out of his way to let us know that Edmund is his illegitimate son. Here’s how he introduces his Edmund to a friend: “though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was called for, yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.”
Pretty mean. Imagine yourself at a party and your dad says: “Oh, here’s my son, his mom was a whore, but we had fun together, so here he is.” Would that make you mad? Would it make you want to get even? How about if it happened again and again? The play makes it pretty clear that this is a standard conversation for Edmund and his dad. So the first image in this play is a father smiling and abusing his son, and the son smiles right back, just soaking it up.
But this is Shakespeare, and let’s face it, Edmund’s a villain, and he’s proud of that fact. So of course he has a plan to even the score, to punish both his father and his legitimate brother Edgar. (If you get these two brothers mixed up, just remember the “G” in Edgar for “good” and the “M” in Edmund for “mean” or “malice” or maybe…“misunderstood.”)
His first choice of attack is his wit – Edmund has been called ‘the wittiest and most attractive of villains’ – his wit is exercised at the expense of his father and his brother. The former is a man of limited intellect and the latter is incredibly naive – easy targets for Edmund. Edmunds ‘attractiveness’ lies in his difference from these pitiful idiots, whose behaviour early in the play is quite embarrassing. He also possesses some positive qualities – strength of will, excellent presence and enough charm to impress people like Goneril and Regan.
There’s no doubt that Edmund has guts and drive, and that’s hard not to admire. As we see in the first scene, Shakespeare makes it clear that he’s had it rough from the start, and it’s hard to blame him for wanting to change his life.
His drive helps him to be incredibly successful – rising in a matter of days from an outcast child to his father’s favourite son, then taking over his father’s position as Earl of Gloucester, and at last coming within reach of ruling the entire kingdom. Edmund is so charming and so good at what he does, it’s sometimes hard not to support him – even though he betrays his family members, seduces two sisters at the same time, and condemns innocent people to death.
Edmund’s actions are cruel, but it’s not hard to see where the impulse comes from. There’s a lot of evil in Edmund, but Shakespeare has gone out of his way to make that evil plausible, to give us a reason to sympathise with the villain. That sympathy makes it possible to imagine ourselves in his place, and it makes his choices and his eventual downfall all the more moving and disturbing.
When we first meet Edmund we see a rational, cynical observer of the follies and superstitions of other men, particularly Gloucester. He is an atheist – denying any relationship between the ‘orbs from whom we do exist’ and his own destiny. He feels that there is no obligation on his part to form any kind of a good relationship with anyone. Albany states that a strong bond of natural sympathy binds human beings together (Quarto version) and that those who reject this bond will wither and come to deadly use. He is thinking of Goneril’s treatment of Lear but the same can also be applied to Edmund’s treatment of Gloucester.
Edmund has no principles of any kind and he doesn’t even pretend to have any either. He only looks out for number one and the claims of blood-relationship, friendship and loyalty mean nothing to him. The only relationship he does value is one that gives him a helping hand in getting ahead in life. His attitude to the two women who get near to him (Goneril and Regan) shows his heartlessness and his cynicism:
To both these sisters have I sworn my love
Each jealous of the other, as the stung
Are of the adder.
Which of them shall I take? Both? One? Or neither?
He never allows himself to be distracted from his aims, mainly the crown. He is a master of plausible lying – this is clearly seen in his undoing of Edgar – his hypocrisy is seen as he talks of loyalty while betraying his father.
And for all of Edmund’s cruelty and manipulation, we can’t forget that he attempts to save Lear and Cordelia. For the whole play, Edmund boasts about the evil that he does. It would make sense for him to go to the grave triumphant that he managed to have Lear and Cordelia killed even after he’d been defeated by his brother, Edgar. But this isn’t what happens. Instead, he makes an eleventh hour attempt to save them before they’re murdered by one of his soldiers. Edmund admits that this decision is totally out of character. “Some good I mean to do, despite of my own nature,” he declares (5.3.241-242).
Edmund’s rescue attempt is only half successful; his confession comes too late to save Cordelia. But his motivation for this sudden change of heart is very unclear. Edmund might be unexpectedly moved by Edgar’s story of his father’s death (5.3.198-199). Alternatively, Edmund’s sudden generosity could be linked to his delight that, perhaps for the first time, someone loves him. Morbidly, this delight is over the deaths of Goneril and Regan, one of whom killed the other for his sake. Looking at their dead bodies, he boasts, “Yet Edmund was beloved” (5.3.247). It is only after Goneril admits to poisoning Regan and then commits suicide that Edmund thinks of saving the others. In the presence of the dead bodies of those he supposes loves him, he says nothing about them but only dwells on how he was loved in such an extreme manner. It is almost as if he is congratulating his own efforts – he’s so vain that the song is actually about him.
But what are his motives for trying to save Lear and Cordelia? He could be moved by Edgar’s account of his father’s death or that he is surrounded by so many ‘good’ characters that he takes on some of their qualities. There is also the possibility that this dramatic gesture is Shakespeare’s way of saying that even the most morally depraved can sometimes display virtue in special circumstances.
It is also interesting to note that Shakespeare makes him a less guilty figure than his counterpart in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia from which the author derived him. In Arcadia is the Edmund-character who tears out his father’s eyes but in King Lear, Shakespeare ensures that Edmund is nowhere near the act when it is performed.
If you want to argue morality, you could say that Edmund attempts to save Lear and Cordelia because it is the kingly thing to do. Only a king has the ability to pardon those about to be executed. By attempting to pardon Lear and Cordelia, Edmund symbolically takes on the power of kingship. Edmund, originally just an illegitimate child and a social outcast, dies in command of the kind of power only held by those in the highest position.