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 Edmunds 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 fathers 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 show 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 Shakespeares 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 Edmunds 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 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 fathers 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 todays 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 Lears 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 Edmunds 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 Edmunds 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.
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.
Dill more, 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! : Shakespeares Edmund and Loves Failure. College Literature 4 (1977): 225.