King Lear
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By Race Capet


The Montréal Review, February 2012


King Lear's Edmund surely ranks among the most despised figures of Shakespearean drama and is often held up as a villain par excellence. A close reading of I.ii and V.iii, however, reveals Edmund in a very different light. Far from being a villain, the self-proclaimed devotee of Nature functions, amid the collapse of social order that forms the backdrop of the play, as the emissary of Nature, whose very existence indicts the order that rejects him. By means of his introductory speech, Shakespeare very consciously places Edmund outside the domain of human morality in which heroes and villains exist and instead challenges us to accept him and the Nature he represents as a part of the order of the world, even as Edmund's own society could not.

The second scene of the first act of King Lear opens with Edmund's famous soliloquy, which his detractors generally take as their starting point. Waldo McNeir suggests that "Edmund reveals in soliloquy his thoroughgoing malevolence..." (188). It is an ill-chosen word, ill-fitting Edmund's situation. As a bastard, he exists outside the normal framework of society and its 'legitimate' statuses, a fact handily represented by Edmund's usual absence from the court (I.i.32-33). Edmund does not have a place in the world of the play, nor maintain residency in it. He appears here only temporarily, an intrusion into this world, as he is an intrusion to the family that acknowledges him without legitimizing him and thus leaves him unable to inherit. In a play focused so intently on issues of nature, civilization, and order, the consequences of Edmund's liminality are profound. Irving Ribner writes, "It is fitting that Edmund should be a bastard, for, conceived outside of God's harmonious order with its moral standards, he can deny all benevolent human feelings which are a part of it, proceeding directly from the love of God." This is one way to interpret his exclusion and certainly the more traditional. We might as easily say, however, that Edmund's status as a bastard is crucial because he was conceived outside of human society's inharmonious order, with its moral standards, and is thus free to deny them. When Edgar places himself, in the soliloquy's first two lines, under the jurisdiction of Nature, crying "Thou, Nature, art my goddess, to thy law / My services are bound," (I.ii.1-2) he sets himself outside the reach of customary law and of human morality. He is, by virtue of his birth and of his sworn allegiance, a force of Nature.

What follows is an ingenious wordplay that highlights the necessity of his choice. While Gilbert has brilliantly revealed Edmund's workings upon the structure of language, he has perhaps missed their larger import in his adherence to the conventional 'villain' stereotyping of Edmund. "Manipulative speakers," Gilbert writes, "who impose their own interests on language are a central feature of King Lear," (7) noting the rhetorical contortions of Goneril and Regan in the first scene. Edmund, however, is being more than merely manipulative when he begins to address the timing of his birth:

He refers at first to the law of primogeniture, and being deprived of any inheritance by being "some twelve or fourteen moonshines / Lag of a brother" (5-6, my emphasis). In the immediately following remark, "Why 'bastard'?," Edmund may also be half thinking for a moment of the Latin tardus, meaning "slow," or "lagging," and so making an indirect punning reference to what he has just said, as well as his illegitimacy. The word "base- tard " (cf. modern English 'blackbird') can have secondary stress in one style of pronunciation in Elizabethan English, and so can also be heard as a consequence of his previous thought. (8)

Gilbert's revised scansion of the line based on a secondary stress in 'bastard' is compelling for the metric and brings the focus down very directly upon that word. This interpretation is reinforced by Edmund's subsequent shift to the noun "bastardy" in line ten, making explicit the connection with the English "tardy" (8).

This word-play fulfills two crucial functions. First, it highlights the arbitrariness of Edmund's illegitimate condition by comparison with the arbitrariness of birth order, a comparison which gains force from the traditional exception to the non-inheritance of bastards that was made when the eldest son was born a bastard and the second was born after the parents were married. In thus conflating legitimacy and primogeniture, Edmund also relates himself thematically to the well-known Biblical stories that privileged in the divine order the second son, who was disadvantaged by the customs of men. The most famous of these cases, of course, is the tale of Jacob and Esau, in which Jacob steals his brother's birthright by an act of deception. The allusion to Jacob, whose seemingly unscrupulous actions held sanction beyond normal human authority to censure, thus reinforces Edmund's claim (often, strangely enough, taken as atheistic) to be under Nature's law rather than man's. (1)

Second, the play on tardiness and bastardy prepares us for the more subtle play on the word 'legitimate'.

In line 19, Edmund refers to his natural brother Edgar in sarcastic colloquial terms, as "my legitimate," which must surely be a pun on the legal sense of the word as a noun, with some secondary stress derived by its adoption from medieval Latin legitimatus, "my legiti- mate," that is, "my 'legal' fellow, partner, equal," silently breaking yet another word up into its syllables... He is saying that since he and Edgar are equals in an informal sense, as natural sons of their father, he is, by consequence, an equal partner and so Edgar is "my legiti mate," "a legally equal partner" in terms of natural law. (Gilbert, 9)

And yet, having thus dissected the rhetoric of the soliloquy to unveil how it contains at even its most fundamental levels Edmund's natural exclusion from, and conscious renunciation of, the domain of culturally constructed morality and law-a renunciation difficult to frame in stronger terms than "Wherefore should I / Stand in the plague of custom, and permit / The curiosity of nations to deprive me,"-Gilbert, although recognizing Edmund as a victim of the category to which he was born, is still unable to escape the temptation to return him to conventional moral categories:

Renaissance bastards are agents of distortion and evil, and these linguistic tricks are stylistic sign of such a character... Further, the whole role of "unaccommodated man," variously exchanged between Edmund and Edgar in the play, highlights implicitly, at a narrative level, the artificial distinction the play constructs and displays between "base" and "legitimate" (a distinction Edmund manipulates thoughtfully here by his punning), for orthodox society, and particularly its language, is the very source and construction of the evil bastard. (10)

This perhaps owes to the sense of outrage most commentators feel toward the deception practiced upon Gloucester and Edgar throughout the rest of the scene. Indeed, in reviewing studies of Edmund's character, comparisons with Othello's Iago at times seem mandatory, as in McNeir's assertion that "As an opportunist like Iago, at the outset Edmund has only a limited objective, aspiring to his brother Edgar's land" (189). Such reductive analysis, however, does both characters an injustice.

In the midst of the sweeping tragedy of Othello, Iago's one moment of generosity is often overlooked. Othello, After hearing Cassio speaking of his relationship with Bianca and believing him to be speaking of a relationship with Desdemona, and after seeing Desdemona's handkerchief in Cassio's possession, resolves that he must kill her and cries out with the horror of the thought, "But yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!" (Othello, IV.i. 195-6 ) Iago's response is noteworthy, as it is the only time in the entire scene that he does not spur Othello to greater suspicion and greater wrath: "If you are so fond over her iniquity, give her patent to offend, for if it touch not you, it comes near nobody" (IV.i.197-200). In these three strange lines, Iago offers Othello the solution to the entire play. He tells him point-blank that the power lies with him to put an end to all his torment, to all his suspicion, to all the tragic arc of the tale by simply giving nature the freedom to run its course. If Othello, he suggests, once stands outside the structures of law and custom, to offer indulgence, or at the very least understanding, to the natural promptings of men and women in the natural order of the universe as God created it, there need be no killing nor even an end to his love or to his happiness. Othello, however, cannot in this moment see the path of liberation offered to him and with the words "I will chop her into messes. Cuckold me!" (IV.i.201) commits himself to the code of civilization, to the honor killing it demands, and thus to the destruction of everyone.

In like fashion, Edmund gives Gloucester the very means to escape the trap he has set for him. The first comes in the very moment the trap is sprung. Gloucester enters and observes Edmund putting away a letter; he asks for news and is told there is none (I.ii.23-9). Ironically, if Gloucester were not suspicious of his bastard son there would be no means for Edmund's plan, which depends on his reading of the letter, to take effect. But suspicious he is, and demands to see it, in terms which seem to invite Edmund's scheme. Having been told the paper is "nothing" (I.ii.31), he insists that "The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself." (I.ii.34) Gilbert notes that "There may be an ironic contextual reference here [in Edmund's use of a letter to begin his plot] to the letter of legitimation given by aristocrats to their illegitimate offspring" (10). If so, Edmund's 'nothing' becomes an embittered reference to the letter his father might have provided him, but never did, in addition to a confession that the contents of the letter, being a lie, are literally no news-nothing. On a still deeper level, the disinherited Edmund, having received no letter of legitimation from his father, is a nothing in society, and Gloucester is thus fooled into giving Edmund tacit permission to unfold the scheme by which he aims to become inherited, since he unwittingly assures Edmund that he has no need to hide himself. When Edmund provides the letter, he provides with it a rational explanation of the letter's contents that would not require Gloucester to be suspicious of Edgar. After all, is it not likelier that Edgar, who has presumably been at court these many years with his father, would be suspicious of the bastard half-brother around whom he has spent virtually no time and so test him, than that Edgar, whose temperament ought to be well known to his father, would be plotting against his father's life with this newly arrived near-stranger? So one might think, and so Edmund himself suggests, in lines 44-5 and again in lines 85-8. Yet Gloucester is as suspicious of Edgar as he was mere moments ago of Edmund. In the face of Edmund's direct statement of belief that the letter is not Edgar's, Gloucester insists, "It is his" (I.ii.66).

Yet still, even as his father prepares to depart the scene, Edmund tries to allay his suspicions, "If it shall please you to suspend your indignation against my brother till you can derive from him better testimony of his intent, you should run a certain course; where, if you violently proceed against him, mistaking his purpose, it would make a great hap in your own honor and shake in pieces the heart of his obedience" (I.ii.79-85). Gloucester departs nominally withholding judgement until further evidence is gathered, but nonetheless blaming Edgar's supposed treachery, as well as Lear's misfortunes, on the eclipses. Edmund uses this as his starting point when his brother arrives, listing the many unhappy effects of the eclipses that are indeed coming to pass. Slipped nonchalantly into the list is the true cause of all the coming misfortunes of Gloucester's household: "needless diffidences" and the resultant "banishment of friends" (I.ii.147-8). These misfortunes, however, spring not from any inexorable source, but from Gloucester's own lack of faith in his children and unequal treatment of them, an indictment Edmund makes clear (with an indignant allusion back to his father's reference to him as "the whoreson" in I.i.24) while ridiculing his father's astrological rantings: "An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star!" (I.ii.126-9).

The wicked irony of the trap Edmund has set is that it relies on Gloucester springing it by his own wickedly unnatural suspicion. Edgar, despite the opinion of critics like McNeir, is not the target of Edmund's scheme. Edmund must be read as a very shallow villain indeed for us to take his proclamation, "Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land," (I.ii.16) as a wholly literal and complete statement of his motivation. The land Edgar is destined to receive is the greatest and most obvious distinction between the brothers in their status and relationship to their father. It is the testimony of Gloucester's hypocrisy, for he has previously stated "But I have a son, sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account" (I.i.19-21). The use of financial terminology was surely not lost on Edmund, whose account from his father is quite literally less dear, having less of his father's wealth accounted to it. Only the taking of some portion of Edgar's land could render his father's statement ingenuous and that is why his claim on Edgar's property is followed immediately by the piteously desperate assertion "Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund / As to th' legitimate: fine word-legitimate!" (I.ii.17-8). With its closing outburst the line, as Summers has observed, "pointedly emphasizes the distinction of his [Edmund's] self-definition and is more an evaluation of Gloucester's gullibility than a felt conviction of his father's love" (228).

While Edgar is the hapless holder of the means to set an injustice right, Gloucester is the committer of the injustice, and hence the real target of Edmund's scheme. Claude Summers' analysis is worth quoting at length:

Gloucester's acknowledgement of his illegitimate son is admirable... But his speech [in act one, scene one], spoken in the presence of Edmund to a comparative stranger, masks in the rhetoric of self-congratulating liberalism a dehumanizing condescension. In this genial and sophisticated banter between men of the world, the distinction between Edmund and Edgar is nowhere blurred, the categories of illegitimate and legitimate nowhere bridged. Although Gloucester has accepted, at least technically, his responsibilities toward Edmund... and in his way even loved him, he does not really recognize him as Edgar's equal... Indeed, Gloucester presses home the stigma of bastardy, calling Edmund "knave" and "whoreson"-words that are repeated throughout the play as labels of contempt-and obscenely emphasizing the "good sport at his making." That the comments are goodnatured-unthinking and tasteless rather than vicious and intentionally insulting-in no way mitigates the indignity which Edmund must endure here, and which he has undoubtedly felt for a very long time. (227-8)

It is Gloucester who has through Edmund's whole life "so often blush'd to acknowledge him" (I.i.10) and it is accordingly Gloucester who, in his blinding, ultimately receives the cruel punishment that Edgar could not, with justice, receive from Edmund's plans. Edgar is no more the intended victim of Edmund than Kent is of the storm that scourges Lear for, like the storm, Edmund is a force of Nature-a violent assertion of natural law and natural order against the degeneracy of human institutions.

Indeed, we must make no mistake that Gloucester's injustice is merely a slight against the man Edmund; it is a perversion of the natural order, accomplished in two stages. The first comes in the discrepancy of inheritance. If Edmund's declaration of the illegitimacy of illegitimacy is accepted, Gloucester's failure to legitimize him by letter, as he might have done, has no greater warrant than the choleric disinheritance of Cordelia by Lear in the first scene, and the fact that Edmund has been kept at arm's length, away from the court, for the past nine years while Edgar has presumably been at his father's side bears more than a passing resemblance to Cordelia's exile. If Kent and the Fool's rebukes of Lear thus find themselves a ready target in Gloucester also, so do Cordelia's. As we have seen, the whole architecture of Edmund's plan rests on the exploitation of Gloucester's mistrust of his children, which is every bit as unnatural as his preference for the one over the other. Cordelia has plead her love on the basis of what her father ought to be able to expect from her by natural right: "Good my lord, / You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me: I / Return those duties back as are right fit, / Obey you, love you, and most honor you" (I.i.95-8). Had she opportunity to do so, doubtless Cordelia would assure Gloucester of his right to expect the same from his sons under natural law, but Gloucester has chosen, by his disinheritance and stigmatization of Edmund, to live under the law of men (one rather thinks of Paul's warnings that those who submit to circumcision have placed themselves beyond the grace of Christian liberty and assumed the whole mantle of the Mosaic law [Gal 5:2]), and it is this betrayal of Nature that forms the basis of his suspicion that Edgar may betray nature also, and gives us yet another reason to read Gloucester, and not Edgar, as the target of Edmund's wrath. Edmund himself admits that Edgar is "a brother noble, / Whose nature is so far from doing harms / That he suspects none;" (I.ii.179-81) and Edmund's trap is designed for those who spring it by the harms they do.

Bernard Spivack has written that "Nature is Iago's goddess as well as Edmund's," (424) and this is evident in the way that both men create snares for those who have not advanced them as they deserved and the way that both design their snares to be effective only upon the operation of a defect of the victim's character-a defect that they themselves provide the counsel to remedy. For Iago, Othello's jealousy and possessiveness is an unnatural relation between man and woman-a fall from a kind of rousseauian state of nature. For Edmund, the "unnaturalness between the child and the parent" (I.ii.144-5) lies in the inequity with which he and Gloucester's "legitimate" son are treated-an inequity the absurdity of which is demonstrated by the very ease with which Gloucester can be made to turn against not only his legitimate son, but the son with whom he has spent more time and whom he ought, presumably, to know much more intimately.

If it seems incredible to suggest that, by the end of the play's second scene, we have Edmund acting as the emissary of wronged Nature bringing about a Nemesis-like justice upon the traditionally pitied Gloucester, we can find confirmation of an admittedly unconventional reading in the accusations leveled against Edmund in the fifth act. In issuing his challenge of single combat, Edgar charges: "Thy valor, and thy heart, thou art a traitor; / False to thy gods, thy brother, and thy father, / Conspirant 'gainst this high illustrious prince," (V.iii.134-6). If we have read attentively in the second scene of act one, however, we recall that the first charge is prima facie false. The only deity in which Edmund has indicated belief is Nature and, if we accept the justice of Edmund's complaint regarding the unnatural differentiation in law and custom between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" children, we have no reason to believe that Edmund has been false to his one goddess. We may also remember that, under the terms of the society that Edmund critiques, he is not "legitimately" the son of Gloucester and hence, being born of a different mother, not "legitimately" the brother of Edgar either, such that Edgar's claim that he has been false to his brother and his father, if not outright false in a technical sense, certainly rings false from Edmund's perspective.

The falseness of this charge, of which Shakespeare has so early acquitted Edmund, prepares us to hear skeptically the grounds of Albany's arrest of him "On capital treason" (V.iii.83) and, indeed, Edmund is wholly innocent of the charge. G.T. Buckley notes that high treason was very strictly defined by 25 Edw. III as "compassing or imagining the king's death, or that of his wife or eldest son, violating the wife of the king or of the heir apparent, or of the king's eldest daughter, being unmarried, levying war in the king's dominions, adhering to the king's enemies, or aiding them in or out of the realm, or killing the chancellor or the judges in the execution of their offices" (Buckley 87). All of these provisions would have been very familiar to a London audience of the day, as they had only recently witnessed the spectacular trials of the Earl of Essex in 1601 and of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603. Shakespeare, Buckley reminds us, must have been particularly attentive to the proceedings as the Earl of Southampton, to whom he had dedicated works, was on trial alongside Essex on the same charge (89), and so would certainly have recognized that Edmund utterly failed to meet the requirements of the crime. Buckley notes that the language of I.i.129-134 and 137-141 clearly indicates Lear's intention to transfer the royal prerogatives to Cornwall and to Albany as the dower attendant on Regan and Goneril. Goneril does seem, at times, to implicitly challenge her husband's authority by acting as if she were the sole recipient of her father's transferred powers (most notably at V.iii.158-9; a point to which we shall return), but Albany and Cornwall are the clearly intended legal recipients of the powers of the kingship (to include, if Lear's reservation of the "name" makes us doubt who holds the sovereignty envisaged by the statue on high treason, the "Pre-eminence" of the position [I.i.131-6]). There are then two difficulties with Edgar's charge against Edmund of conspiracy " 'gainst this high illustrious prince." The first is that, Gloucester having been a vassal of Cornwall, with his castle located in Cornwall's territory, Edmund's fealty would have been directly due to Cornwall and not to Albany, with that fealty transferring to Regan upon Cornwall's untimely death. The second is that Edmund has taken no action against Cornwall and has in fact been of tremendous service to him in the late battle. The only shadow cast upon his sparkling record is Goneril's letter which, however, he had never seen. What is more, in a piece of evidence available to the audience if not to the characters of the play, Edmund specifically disclaims any intention of killing Albany in the dismissive comment, "Let her that would be rid of him devise / His speedy taking off" (V.iii.64-65). Buckley sums up the situation nicely: "He had not conspired with the enemy... he had won the battle by skill and valor, as Albany himself admitted, and he had made no plans on Albany's life. It is not easy to see how a charge of high treason could have been developed and sustained out of these circumstances" (93). It were much easier to imagine a violation of the statute by adultery but the play gives us no evidence that Goneril's desire for Edmund had ever been satisfied and her letter seems to imply that her husband's death would be a necessary prerequisite to such satisfaction. Edmund's own testimony to Regan (V.i.xiv) denies an affair between himself and Goneril and, as Buckley observes, "we may well believe that the unconcealed eagerness of the two women was in itself an indication that Edmund had not as yet entered into an immoral relationship with either of them" (93).

But Buckley, not intending to "subvert in any way the generous emotions of sympathy and detestation of vileness which Shakespeare so obviously meant to arouse in our breasts when he wrote King Lear" (94), passes with only the barest observation over a most salient fact, which is that Gloucester is guilty of high treason (91). Though the first letter by which Edmund's trap was set was a "nothing" of Edmund's own devising, the second, by which he deposes Gloucester and actually comes into possession of the lands originally destined for Edgar (the value of which as a symbol for his triumph over legal disability he had affirmed in his first soliloquy), is a something. It is a genuine letter that incriminates Gloucester as "adhering to the king's enemies" and "aiding them in or out of the realm" with the intent of "levying war in the king's dominions". Recognizing the necessary familiarity of Shakespeare and the London audience with the technical ins and outs of these legal matters, we must conclude that there is a deliberate significance to the fact that Edmund, whose status outside the realm of law and custom as an agent of Nature was so baldly declared in the second scene, is indicted under the law of men for a crime he did not commit, while his father is, in fact, guilty. If the play had, by the fifth act, left us in doubt over the relative moral merits of Gloucester and his bastard son, their legal status at the end of the play seems intended to resolve them.

Highly significant also is the means by which Edmund is convicted. He answers a challenge to trial by combat levied by Edgar, whose identity is concealed. As Goneril points out, "By th' law of war thou wast not bound to answer / An unknown opposite" (V.iii.153-4). Edmund knows this as well, which is why he begins his acceptance of the challenge by the words "In wisdom I should ask thy name" (V.iii.142). But he does not, preferring that "What safe and nicely I might well delay / By rule of knighthood, I disdain and spurn" (V.iii.145-6). He cannot do otherwise because, as Nature's avatar, he is bound to treat all men equally, and most particularly Edgar, his "legitimate". Though all the advantage favors a prudent reliance upon prejudicial laws, Edmund, so often slandered by critics as "opportunistic", cannot, and will not, pursue that advantage in violation of his own principles.

It is well worth returning to the question of inheritance and the interaction of the two plots for a moment in relation to distinctions of title. Lear and Gloucester share a further unnatural desire, beyond the disinheritance of one of their children-namely, the desire to separate titles from power and style from substance. Lear does both at the same time; it is only after he has resolved to cut off Cordelia and has brushed Kent's protests aside that Lear formally states the terms of his divestment. As he invites Cornwall and Kent to divide Cordelia's share of the kingdom, he proclaims:

I do invest you jointly with my power, / Pre-eminence, and all the large effects / That troop with majesty. Ourself, by monthly course, / With reservation of an hundred knights / By you to be sustain'd, shall our abode / Make with you by due turn. Only we shall retain / The name, and all th' addition to a king; / The sway, revenue, execution of the rest, / Beloved sons, be yours, which to confirm, / This coronet part between you. (I.i.130-9)

Thus Lear's transgression of the natural order is double; not only has he disinherited a faithful daughter but he has also sought to retain the name of king without its powers and the retinue of a lord without the responsibilities that demand such a retinue. The terms of Lear's abdication offend Nature as they do reason, not unlike one who sought to retain the flavor of a soup without its ingredients, or the north pole of a magnet without the south.

It is by comparison with Lear's mad retirement, then, that we find a further madness implicit in Edmund's status. Although illegitimate, he is not unacknowledged (I.i.24). He is known by all to be Gloucester's son and yet is not legally treated as one. (We might also observe that Cornwall and Albany, though not naturally Lear's sons, are treated as such, in further mockery of Edmund.) As Lear seeks to have the name of king without the powers, so Gloucester, by acknowledging but not legitimizing Edgar, seeks to grant him the name of son without the rights that would attach to it. This is no more sufferable in the order of Nature than is Lear's arrangement; both are attempts to divorce style from substance that lead, inevitably, to a calamitous readjustment in which the two seek to come back together. Edmund attempts to seize the substance that would match the style of son, while Goneril and Regan seek to assume the style that would match the substance conferred upon their husbands through them. This conflict plays out in the arguments over Lear's retinue but it is foreshadowed as early as the second scene, when Edmund places his own sentiment in Edgar's mouth: "But I have heard him oft maintain it to be fit that, sons at a perfect age and fathers declin'd, the father should be as ward to the son, and the son manage his revenue" (I.ii.71-4). Gloucester abhors the idea and labels it "unnatural" (I.ii.76), and yet it is only an implementation in the social realm of the eternal cycle of Nature by which age gives way to youth and each generation is supplanted by its descendents. In reading Edmund here, we must recall Kent in scene one, who upbraids Lear for failing to cede a portion to Cordelia and who, when Lear rebukes him, replies "What wouldest thou do, old man?" (I.i.146). This line transforms a chastisement of Lear for an inequitable distribution by adding a chastisement for failing to give way before the succeeding generation, a fault of which Lear himself must be somewhat cognizant as the whole partition sprang from his desire "To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths, while we / Unburthen'd crawl toward death" (I.i.39-41). If the noble Kent reminds Lear of his age here to chide him for backpedaling on his prior intent to age gracefully, are we to infer that Gloucester, likewise, is not making way when he ought? Much depends here on the casting of the play when staged but the text strongly suggests it as a possibility in so closely matching the sentiment Edmund imputes to Edgar with the sentiment implied in Kent's chastisement, which assumes in that line a tone jarringly rude amidst otherwise dignified, though impassioned, speech. Thus Lear's later failure to cede his retinue corresponds to Gloucester's failure to inherit Edmund in unnaturally separating appearances from realities even as it defies the natural succession of the generations as Edmund has outlined it. Edmund has thereby foreseen all the calamities to follow between Lear and his elder daughters and (as in the case of the calamities to follow from Gloucester's unfamilial suspicions) offered their remedy, which goes unheeded.

If King Lear is read in this fashion, a new tragic arc appears. Edmund is not a villain whose fall brings satisfaction, but a kind of divine sign sent to chastise the wicked and to point the way to atonement by highlighting those areas in which the "plague of custom" and the "curiosity of nations" have parted ways with the natural order. His destruction by false accusation under the laws of men by a lord to whom he owes no fealty, and his conviction by a combat to which he is condemned only by his principled and characteristic failure to exercise an inequitable social custom, is as great a tragedy as those which befall any of the supposed heroes of the piece. There is a far greater pathos than is commonly recognized in Goneril's consolation that "Thou art not vanquish'd, / But cozen'd and beguil'd" (V.iii.153-4).


Of course, a possible reading is not necessarily a plausible one, but it is intriguing that Nahum Tate's 1681 adaptation goes to great trouble to establish Edmund as a mere villain even as it thrusts him to the fore of the play. "Thou Nature art my Goddess, to thy Law / My services are bound;" ( The History of King Lear, I.1-2) are the first words spoken on Tate's stage, yet they are curiously robbed of their power when Edmund twice subsequently ranges himself against law: "Well then, legitimate Edgar, to thy Right / Of Law I will oppose a Bastard's Cunning... And Base-born Edmund spight of Law inherits" (I.11-12;21). Shakespeare's Edmund does not, and could not, speak these lines precisely because he is an adherent of an higher law-the law of Nature. Tate's Edmund, however, is still implicitly recognizing the authority of human law, which he never once refers to as a "plague" or "curiosity", rendering his professions to Nature a mere platitude to cover an act of rebellion. This separation of Edmund from higher purpose is further emphasized by Tate's omission of the closing line of Shakespeare's soliloquy, "Now, gods, stand up for bastards!" (King Lear, I.i.22). Shakespeare's Edmund feels the justness of his cause and thus is willing to invoke divine support for it-a support of which Tate's Edmund could not dare to dream.

It is also of the utmost importance that Tate transfers the gulling of Gloucester off the stage. Edmund, in this version, has already deceived his father at the time that he is first met by the audience, such that we cannot watch Gloucester deceiving himself even as Edmund attempts to dissuade him. The guilt which accrues to Shakespeare's Gloucester for his suspicion, which transgresses the natural order as Cordelia frames it, does not fall upon the head of Tate's Gloucester, who is presented as solely a victim of Edmund's machinations. At the same time, the injustice of Edmund's disinheritance is downplayed by Tate in making Cordelia's disinheritance a deliberate and voluntary act on her part to escape the marriage arrangements being made by her father, as well as in removing entirely Edmund's case regarding the succession of generations. Just as the first two lines of Edmund's soliloquy are intellectually orphaned by the later emendations, so here Kent's outburst at Lear, "What wilt thou doe, old Man?", is stranded as an uncharacteristically petty and cruel barb to come from so old and dear a friend of the king since Lear's age, absent the ideas Edmund imputes to Edgar, has become entirely irrelevant to their argument.

But mere shading of meaning through changes to the rhetoric is not enough for Tate to secure the villainy he desires from Edmund and he proceeds to make Edmund actually guilty of the treason of which he stands accused. "I will use / Her [Goneril's] Husband's Countenance for the Battail, then / Usurp at once his bed and throne" (V.23-25). This, by itself, would radically alter the import of the combat with Edgar, even if Tate did not allow Edmund to know his challenger's identity before the fight and then cause him to lament the knowledge with the lines "Ha! My Brother! / This is the onely Combatant that I cou'd fear? / For in my Breast Guilt Duels on his side, / But, Conscience, what have I to do with thee?" (V.177-80). Shakespeare's Edmund has no such trouble with conscience in this combat, not least because he stands innocent of the accusation. Tate's Edmund, on the other hand, proceeds to be struck down and then declare "Legitimacy / At last has got it" (V.333-4).

"Legitimacy" here is a capitulation to Edgar's superior status, rather than the deadly assertion of equality that Shakespeare's Edmund transforms it into in his first soliloquy. Indeed, we may note that Tate's version of that speech eliminates all the punning on lateness with the word "bastard", thus conveniently doing away with the allusion to Jacob and the reference to the shaky grounds of primogeniture (itself a "curiosity" that is anachronistic in the setting of the play), as well as the punning on the word "legitimate". We may well ask: what need has Tate for so many obvious confessions of guilt on Edmund's part, plus the addition of an actual treason uncommitted in Shakespeare's play and an attempted rape that Shakespeare's text does not even allege? If, as John Danby says, "No medieval devil ever bounced on to the stage with a more scandalous self-announcement," (32) than Shakespeare's Edmund, why did Tate so severely alter the Shakespearean text that he was prone, in many other places, to keep intact nearly word for word? One suspects that Tate devoutly wished to use Edmund as a typical dramatic villain and recognized that Shakespeare's script did not demand such an interpretation, and in some cases even undermined it.

Two further points in Tate's editing seem to confirm this. The first is his reassignment in the fifth act of the ownership of Goneril's incriminating letter. Shakespeare's Albany addresses Edmund with the words "Hold, sir.- / Thou worse than any name, read thine own evil" (King Lear, V.iii.156-7). Albany's mistake in attributing the letter, which Edmund had not received, to Edmund as evidence in the accusation of treason here reinforces the falseness of the charge and thereby highlights Edmund's innocence in comparison with his father, who has in fact committed the crime. Tate's Albany, however, is more observant, uttering the same line with "Madam" substituting "sir", and thus addressing himself to Goneril (V.318). The effect is to put all of the accusations in good order, cutting off the appearance of injustice inherent to Shakespeare's treatment of the scene.

Both plays follow this by Goneril's assertion that "The laws are mine, not thine" (King Lear, V.iii.158; The History of King Lear, V.322). Once again, the removal of Edmund's commentary on generational succession from Shakespeare's second scene (Tate's first), profoundly alters the interpretation of the fifth act. In Shakespeare's King Lear, Goneril's statement here, no less than the charge of treason brought against Edmund, invites us to ask where royal power actually resides following Lear's abdication and to consider whether or not it is, in fact, Goneril who ought to possess the ceded power under natural law which custom has transferred instead to her husband by dowry-a question of no small interest immediately following Elizabeth's reign. Edmund's suggestion that fathers should give way to their sons being absent, the question whether Lear ought properly to have inherited Goneril in her own right is absent here as well. Nonetheless, both plays follow roughly the same verbiage here and in Albany's response, declaring her statement monstrous and asking someone else if the paper is known to them. The various texts of King Lear disagree on the question whom Albany addresses, with the quartos giving the reply "Ask me not what I know," (V.iii.161) to Goneril, and the folio assigning it to Edmund. Being as Albany immediately afterward commands an unnamed addressee to "Go after her; she's desperate, govern her," (V.iii.162) and Edmund then launches into a confession, the assignment of the quartos seems most sensible and has been editorially preferred. Tate, however, assigns the line unambiguously to Edmund, who follows it with the caustic comment, "I have not breath to answer idle questions," (The History of King Lear, V.324-5) which also serves as an admission of guilt, since Edmund seems to regard it as obvious that he was in communication with Goneril in plotting the murder of her husband, even though he had never received the particular letter in question.

Tate requires this bitter confession from Edmund because he has removed the much more affecting confession Shakespeare had given him: "What you have charg'd me with, that have I done, / And more, much more, the time will bring it out. / 'Tis past, and so am I. But what art thou / That hast this fortune on me? If thou'rt noble, / I do forgive thee" ( King Lear , V.iii.164-7). This is, to say the least, an exceedingly curious confession for a supposedly opportunistic villain who is not actually guilty of the crime of which he stands accused. It must be read not as a response to Albany's accusation of treason, nor to Edgar's bombastic rhetoric, but to the most recent charge leveled, which is also the technically least substantial one-the charge of Goneril's letter. It did not, of course, come from Edmund's hand, but Edmund is not merely a man possessed of two hands; he is a cosmic principle made manifest in the guise of a man. He is guilty of the movement of Goneril's heart-the natural desire-that he prompted within her that set her to the writing. The interest in the confession comes from this: that the crime Goneril envisioned was not a response to her natural desires, but a response to civilization and its discontents. Just as Othello might have avoided a murder had he been willing to extend his wife a liberty, so too might such an understanding have availed to save the life of Albany from his wife's contempt. It is his insistence on owning her that stirred up her rebellion and Edmund is generously accepting the fault as part of a graceful exit from the world of men now that he, as the emissary of Nature, has been vanquished by their custom. " 'Tis past, and so am I." It is this which gives to his dispensation toward Edgar-"If thou'rt noble, / I do forgive thee."-its grace and its sting. In one sense, it references I.ii.179, where he refers to Edgar as "a brother noble", as an acknowledgement that Edgar has won a trial of arms by fitness and an assurance to Edgar that Edmund's malice was never toward him. Notably, the 179 th line of act five, scene three is "Let sorrow split my heart, if ever I / Did hate thee or thy father. " Still not the "legitimate" son of Gloucester, however, Edmund even in his final moments refers to him as "thy father," reinforcing both his innocence of Edgar's accusations and his separation from the human community and thus bringing forward the other sense of the line. Although McNeir tries to suggest that this moment shows Edmund discovering a new respect for "reputation and status... [a]s he gropes his way toward membership in the human community" (207), Edmund is actually using his dying breath to criticize that community. Edmund's extension of forgiveness, which he knows is based on Edgar's colloquial nobility, he knows will be received by others in the context of a custom that would deny forgiveness to his vanquisher were he not possessed of technical "nobility". Even here, Edmund highlights and indicts the arbitrary distinctions made by custom against Nature.

In this moment, Edgar entirely misses the point. With a nod to the financial language of Gloucester (I.i.21) in describing his relationship to his sons, Edgar now attempts to become an economist of charity. "Let's exchange charity," (V.iii.167) he says, before becoming very uncharitable. "I am no less in blood than thou art, Edmund; / If more, the more th' hast wrong'd me. / My name is Edgar, and thy father's son. / The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us: / The dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes" (V.iii.168-74). Of course, the message of Edmund's existence has been that Gloucester's eyes were not forfeit to that "dark and vicious place", but to the insistence of customary men on calling it "dark and vicious". There would be no "instruments to plague us", Edmund's prone form here seems to cry, did we not call what we found pleasant vice, and the fact that we damn ourselves is precisely the respect by which "the gods are just".

In the same vein, Shakespeare's Edmund returns once more to the theme of marriage before leaving the stage. Albany has already had some fun with the intricate property-based technicalities of medieval marriage in his chiding of Regan, when she attempts by sudden espousal to invest Edmund with her dignities: "For your claim, fair [sister], / I bar it in the interest of my wife; / 'Tis she is sub-contracted to this lord, / And I, her husband, contradict your banes. / If you will marry, make your loves to me, / My lady is bespoke" (V.iii.84-9). Ironically enough, Albany's witticism notes the double-standard of his society-that it would be socially acceptable for him to accept Regan's "loves", although his lady cannot accept hers or Edmund's because she is "bespoke" by contract, another return to the financial terms of Gloucester and Edgar. Edmund, however, has no interest in crass and lawyerly games and certainly no patience for double-standards. Upon hearing of their deaths (the result of their own inability to transcend the unnatural property-based view of relationships that Albany shares with them), Edmund's comment is a generous one: "I was contracted to them both; all three / Now marry in an instant" (V.iii.238-9). It is a tender sentiment, sealed by his exclamation when their bodies are brought to the stage, "Yet Edmund was belov'd!" (V.iii.240)-an exclamation all the more touching when we recall that it may be the first time Edmund has ever felt loved.

But what does Tate make of all this? In response to Edgar's musing on the justice of his father losing his eyes to the fruit of a "dark and vicious place", Tate's Edmund unleashes a tremendously self-damning speech entirely of Tate's own invention, "despis[ing]" (The History of King Lear, V.303) Edgar's mother's piety and speculating that Edmund might, in truth, have another father than Gloucester. Such a speculation, of course, undermines the whole basis of his motivation as the wronged "natural" son of Gloucester but Tate is quite willing to do so to have his villain pure and unquestionable. The startling confession by which Shakespeare's Edmund plays on his universal nature to indict custom is replaced with the wounded self-indictment (filched from Goneril), "Ask me not what I know, / I have not breath to answer idle questions" (V.324-5). Most strangely, Shakespeare's Edmund's heart-warming realization that he has been loved in some fashion is cut in favor of Tate's Edmund's egoistical boast: "Who wou'd not choose, like me, to yield his Breath / T' have Rival Queens contend for him in Death?" This line not only imbues Edmund with an uncharacteristic regard for status, but reduces his sentiments to mere pride at being pursued by persons of status. This alteration stands out all the more when we reflect that Tate has given his Edmund many more opportunities to be affected by the affection of the sisters. In Shakespeare, it is Albany who cries out "Save him, save him!" (V.iii.152) when Edmund is defeated in the combat, probably, as Johnson suggested (quoted in Buckley 92f), so that he can damn him by the letter Albany falsely attributes to him. In Tate's version, however, it is the sisters who cry out the line together (V.313). Afterward, in a redeeming moment with no model in Shakespeare, Tate's Regan promises to give up her kingdom to the physician who can save Edmund's life and the two sisters then argue the relative strength of their devotions before him. In short, Tate's Edmund has far more reason to be affected by the sisters than Shakespeare's, because their emotions for him seem far more evident in their actions in Tate's script, and yet Tate changes Edmund to leave him unmoved against all the logic of his other revisions to the play.

The discrepancies between the two versions seem to leave no doubt that, whatever the opinion of subsequent critics, Tate felt there to be a real and immanent danger that hearers of Shakespeare's play would not receive Edmund as a villain and that this conviction inspired him with the necessity of completely rewriting the part in order to make him one.


Even those critics most sympathetic to Edmund's cause unfailingly end their pleas for understanding with a caveat, (2) as does Summers: "If Shakespeare's remarkable perception of the effects of stigma on sensitive individuals helps motivate the actions of his characters... that is not to say that he approves of those actions or expects his audience to approve of them. Lady Macbeth and Edmund, for instance, are clearly not admirable characters. They commit horrible crimes which offend the decency of us all" (230). But if Shakespeare does not expect us to approve of Edmund, he also takes no pains (unlike Tate) to prevent us from doing so. Indeed, it would be inappropriate for him to attempt to sway us one way or the other because Edmund, as he announces in the very first line of Shakespeare's second scene, is not an ordinary character subject to our approval or disapproval; he is a force of Nature-a fact of life-that we ourselves, as men of custom who live in curious nations, have driven out beyond the horizons of human morality. We need not see him as an hero but we cannot see him as a villain, for the challenge with which we are confronted by so much of Shakespeare, as by so much of life, is acceptance, and the tragedy of King Lear has no power to heal us until that challenge is met.


R. Joseph Capet is a poet, playwright, and essayist from the West Coast whose work, in English and Esperanto, has appeared in a variety of magazines on both sides of the Pacific, including 'decomP', 'Taj Mahal Review', and 'The Eclectic Muse'. He currently serves as poetry editor for 'P.Q. Leer'.


(1) It might here be mentioned in passing that Jacob, like Edmund, also ends up awkwardly trying to negotiate a relationship with two sisters, giving us a parallel at both the beginning and the end of the play to reinforce the identification.

(2) The irrational hatred of Edmund shared by many critics is well summed up by Richard Matthews, who, in suggesting that Edmund might find redemption at the end of the play, anticipates that his readers may "shudder to accept it" (28) and assures them that it would be understandable to find such a process "utterly repugnant." (29)

Works Cited

Buckley, G.T. "Was Edmund Guilty of Capital Treason?" Shakespeare Quarterly 23.1 (1972): 87-94. Print.

Danby, John F. Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature. London, 1949. Print.

Ellis, John. "The Gulling of Gloucester: Credibility in the Subplot of King Lear." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 12.2 (1972): 275-289. Print.

Gilbert, Anthony. "Unaccomodated man" and his discontents in King Lear: Edmund the Bastard and Interrogative Puns." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (2000): 7-11. Print.

Matthews, Richard. "Edmund's Redemption in King Lear." Shakespeare Quarterly 26.1 (1975): 25-29. Print.

McNeir, Waldo F. "The Role of Edmund in King Lear." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 8.2 (1968): 187-216. Print.

Ribner, Irving. Patterns in Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Methuen, 1960. Print.

Shakespeare, Willliam. "The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice." The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974. 1198-1248. Print.

Shakespeare, Willliam. "The Tragedy of King Lear." The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974. 1249-1305. Print.

Spivack, Bernard. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil. New York, 1958. Print.

Summers, Claude J. " "Stand up for Bastards!": Shakespeare's Edmund and Love's Failure." College Literature 4.3 (1977): 225-231. Print.

Tate, Nahum. "The History of King Lear." Shakespeare Adaptations: The Tempest, The Mock Tempest, and King Lear. Ed. Montague Summers. New York: Haskell House, 1966. 177-281. Print.


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