Explore the presentation of Edmund in 'King Lear'

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Explore the presentation of Edmund in ‘King Lear’

There is all the difference in the world between the evil of Goneril and Regan – dour, stark, and mean-minded – and the evil of Edmund, which has an almost magnificent vitality and elegance. His first appearance in Act 1 reveals all; scorns traditional attitude, establishing himself as a crusader in the cause of amorality. There is tremendous energy and vigour here; martial fidelity and family ties are swept aside. Self-confident and poised, for Edmund a man is what makes himself, especially ‘by wit’. His pride in his cunning is justified; Edgar and Gloucester are slickly manipulated, while Cornwall and Regan are smoothly incorporated into his plans other people are there to be used; he uses, when suited, Goneril and Regan against each other. Yet nobody is allowed to use him, as we see when he fights shy of Goneril’s suggestion that he should murder Albany. Such single mindedness makes him a successful military leader, concerned with results and not the niceties of principle. Yet we must beware of glamourising this dangerous man, and remind ourselves that he does callously abuse those who are closest to him. He delivers Gloucester into the hands of Cornwall and Regan; he later rides out to apply the final murderous thrust to his own father; he calmly orders the execution of Lear and Cordeila. He is attractive in his zest, perhaps, yet lethally unscrupulous.    

Edmund is not a diabolically evil person, a devil incarnate like Richard of Gloucester. And he has no specific agenda. He is a recognizably normal person who wants to get on the world and who is prepared to abandon ancient communal traditions in order to secure an advantage for himself. He's not all that interested in being cruel to others or killing them just for sake of hurting others, but he's not going to let any traditional notions of obligation, respect, virtue, or bonding prevent him from making what he can of his opportunities.


The first scene introduces all the major characters except Edgar and the Fool and hinges upon the conflict of wills from which the plot develops. Kent and Gloucester reveal that this is a time a flux, with the future of the country uncertain. Their exchange is in prose – often reserved by Shakespeare for conversational interludes. It is appropriate for the vulgarity with which Gloucester refers to Edmund. This taciturn individual is established as a man of ambition, for we hear that he has been seeking his fortune abroad for some nine years.

The next we hear of Edmund is in Act I scene ii, where a day has passed and the scene is in Gloucester’s castle. Edmund voices openly his resentment at his status. He pledges himself to a compulsive drive to satisfy his desires, exulting in his bastardy; he is as good as any legitimate son, if not better – more vigorous, more full-blooded. Edmund is much changed from the sombre character of the first scene. His position on stage is more forceful; he strides to the edge, confronting the audience with his lust for status. He shows a combative vigour, precisely expressed in ‘the lusty stealth of nature’ and in the belligerent questions which dominate his opening speech and encapsulate his rejection of moral standards. The words ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ are picked up again here; for Lear and Gloucester they represent behavioural norms, all that is part of the right order of things. But Edmund, as he inverts accepted standards by exalting bastardy above legitimacy, reverses this also; his goddess of Nature presides over the alter of self-interest and scorn for convention. Marriage is ‘a dull stale, tired bed’ and legitimate children ‘a whole tribe of fops’.

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Edmund’s language is alive, full of questions, playing with the ideas of bastardy/base and ‘legitimate’. There is an enormous scorn for anything inactive – ‘the plague of custom’, the ‘dull stale tired bed’ and the ‘tribe of fops’, and the conclusion is full of active verbs – “I grow” “I prosper”

There is a link between the language Shakespeare has used and the characters actions. Edmund is an evil, active, scheming and cunning; his language he used is at times sarcastic, dark, active verbs are used quite often. When Edmund is in his soliloquy he is loud, alive, calling to ...

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