Date:March 19, 1993
Class:Literature & Arts A-40b, Harvard University
Comments: A fairly "Harvardian" style paper, this discusses the character of Edmund in Shakespeare's King Lear. I post it here mostly to show how dull writing for the sole purpose of getting a good grade can be.
  This was for the Spring semester of the Shakespeare course I took. I really didn't like the TF at all, especially compared to my Fall semester TF for the course. As a result, I lost the desire to entertain the TF, which was a key motiviator during the fall semester.
Hook: None really, though, like most of my papers, I threw an Ozzy quote in at the beginning.


“You walk through me with your lying words,
The voices in the dark that you never heard
Came through (yeah, came through),
Your fall, emphatic, got dismembered in God
A poison father and the poisonous son,
That’s you (yeah, that’s you)
I beg you please, don’t let it get any worse,
The anger always had its tattoo and curse
On you, yeah, ’cause you
Are all the promises that never came true,
You’re gonna get what is coming to you,
That’s true (yeah, that’s true).
Are you Satan? Are you man?
You’ve changed your life since it began.”
   — Black Sabbath,
The Writ

The character of Edmund serves primarily in The Tragedy of King Lear to explore natural law, and as such is used by Shakespeare to comment upon Lear himself. Natural law is defined and set apart from social law by Edmund and he mistakes one for the other and falls, just as Lear does. By using Edmund in this way, Lear’s fall is made more given more meaning, as well as a non-interfering parallel context with which to compare it.

Through Edmund, Shakespeare sets natural law as distinct from contract law and other social constructions. When we first see Edmund, he strikes us a proper lad, following conventions of etiquette, saying little but “No, my lord” (King Lear, I.i.26) and “My services to your lordship.” (29) Our first impression of Edmund is of one who adheres to social law, and this makes his first real statement much more powerful:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess, to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base? (I.ii.1-10)

This, Edmund’s most important speech, quite directly shows Edmund defining who he is, his personal philosophy, but, more importantly, divides the universe into natural and social segments. Edmund casts away “the plague of custom” (3) and “the curiosity of nations” (4), derogatory terms which emphatically set them—and therefore the social constructs which they represent—far apart from the nature to which he has binds his service.

Of crucial import here is the phrase “to thy law” (1), used when speaking of nature. Edmund seems to be abandoning legal constraints here in favor of the anarchy of nature, but this is not the case; he binds his services not to nature, but to nature’s law, in effect exchanging one system of laws for another. This law may be more flexible than the social order he rejects, but it is law just the same, with a code of rules of sorts, holding natural ability and self-determination above all else. Edmund embraces these rules, holding his “compact dimensions” (7), “generous mind”(8), and “true shape”(8) as paramount over such triviality of whether of not his parents were married. Reinforcing the idea of ordered nature is the structure of Edmund’s speech above and in soliloquies throughout the play. The pattern of these speeches is somewhat random, containing lines of seemingly random numbers of syllables, but yet still in verse and often ending with a rhyming couplet like “wit” and “fit” (I.ii.183-4) and “state” and “debate” (V.i.68-9), as if his private speech—which we can take has his true mind—were indicative of a seemingly anarchic nature, with just enough order within it to indicate a system of rules. Edmund’s words specifically create a natural law, as opposed to natural chaos, holding it apart from societal law.

Almost immediately after setting up this definition of natural law, Shakespeare deliberately begins to subvert it, showing confusion in the characters about what is natural; again, Edmund is the main vehicle. At the end of the same scene in which Edmund holds the rules of nature as allowing him to do as he wishes, he mocks his brother for being constrained by nature, calling him “a brother noble, / Whose nature is so far from doing harms / That he suspects none” (I.ii.179-181) and therefore “foolish” (181). Edmund seems not to notice that he is degrading the following of nature’s laws which he had been embracing as his universe. In the same way, Edmund privately mocks his father for invoking astrology, even though his father specifically links nature to it. Gloucester says “Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourg’d by the sequent effects.” (I.ii.104-6) The “it” here refers to eclipses and other such portents, but Edmund does not object to this linking of nature and portents, but to the invocation of portents in general, saying:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeits of our own behavior—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by the heavenly compulsion, knaves thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence, and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star! (117-126)

Coming only a hundred lines after Edmund’s promise of following natural law to the letter, he here seems to say that such an effort is futile, without really realizing he is doing so. He calls laying your “goatish disposition on the charges of a star” an “evasion”, but yet, this is no different than trusting the gods to “stand up for bastards” (22); both rely upon natural law justify conduct and outcome.

This hypocritical confusion over what is natural is the key to Edmund’s destruction, his tragic flaw. He puts down “drunkards, liars, and adulterers” who blame their flaws on “and enforc’d obedience of planetary influence” as “foppery”, but this is exactly what he is doing, holding natural law before his as a legitimation of his actions. When he wounds himself, he compares himself to a drunkard (II.i.34), he continually lies, and is promised to both Goneril and Regan, committing a form of adultery, all the while saying that such offenses are not offenses, because such behavior follows nature’s law. He violates his own ethics by condemning his own behavior, all in pursuit of control over the social conventions which he has rejected. Edmund’s ultimate goal is to gain his father’s land and title, but he invokes natural law not to steal land from Gloucester, but to discredit his brother and gain the land through inheritance, a social construction. Instead of eliminating both Edgar and Gloucester and taking the land, he instead mentions that “our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund / As to the legitimate.” (I.ii.17-8) His methods rely on social law, and, in fact, his goal does as well, in spite of his rejection of that law. Even his death is engineered by a social construction: trial by combat. He mistakes ambition for natural law, and worse, social law for natural law, and this is ultimately his undoing.

Edmund’s exploration of natural and social law has many other interesting ramifications (what is natural law between parents and children?, for example, or what role, in any, does choice play in nature?) but within the context of the play the most important facet of such an exploration is that it acts as a mirror to the character of Lear, making both Lear’s and Edmund’s paths more understandable and meaningful. The stories of the two are meant to be taken separately and compared, without having them interact. Just as parallel lines never intersect, so to Lear and Edmund are almost never on stage together. Even the last scene, before he has a chance to die, Edmund is somewhat artificially removed from the stage just before Lear enters the scene. The two do take the stage together in the beginning of Act V, scene III, but they do no communicating at all. In fact, they barely refer to one another, with Edmund saying only “take them away” (V.iii.1 and 19). The lack of connection between the two in this scene seems to remove all chance that the compartmentalization of the two characters throughout the play is coincidental. Shakespeare deliberately keeps them apart, so that their choices in life and the results thereof may be compared. While it is true that the actions of one may be felt by the other (after all, Edmund did order the hanging of Cordelia), they never sit down and compare notes about events in their lives; it intentionally falls to the audience to do that.

Edmund’s flaw is Lear’s as well, as Lear, even more forcefully and with greater consequences, mistakes social law for natural law. When Lear divides the kingdom amongst his daughters, according to their love, the whole scene has all the naturalness of a game show. Until Cordelia speaks, everyone speaks in phrases that sound legalistic, phony and pre-rehearsed, like Don Pardo telling everyone that they’ve won a year’s supply of Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat. Lear speaks in legalistic parentheticals:

Tell me, my daughters
(Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state),
Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge? (I.i.48-53)

What’s more, when answered with legal and economic words like “liberty”, “valued”, “rich”, “poor”, “prize”, “deed”, “enemy” and “possesses” (56-76), he takes them for real love, confusing “merit” with “nature”. When Cordelia fails to speak legalistically of her love, and Lear disowns her, he does so by disclaiming all his “propinquity and property of blood” (114) holding love as a property instead of an emotion. Cordelia doesn’t participate in the game show, and Lear takes this as an unnatural act—calling her “a wretch whom Nature is asham’d / Almost to acknowledge hers” (212-3)—instead of seeing his game show as unnatural. He sees social law as nature, much as Edmund has, and this leads to his undoing, much as it did Edmund’s.

Being a complex play, King Lear deals with many issues besides natural law, but using Edmund, Shakespeare seems to make the friction between natural and social law the main theme. Lear’s story, without Edmund, involves conflicts between the old and young, the relation between parents and children, predestination, even the lack of accepting the truth, and all of these are legitimate themes in King Lear; however, Edmund’s story contains only a two of these elements: the relation between parents and children and natural vs. social law. Given the parallel reinforcement between Lear and Edmund, Shakespeare seems to intend one or both of these facets as being more central to King Lear than the others. Of the two, only natural law remains unaltered. The actions of both Lear and Edmund show family concerns as being apart from natural law, but while Lear turns parental love to legal contract, putting it into the realm of social law, Edmund’s case is not so clear cut. He calls his brother’s supposed treason against their father an “unnatural purpose” (II.i.50), indicating that Gloucester, at least, would find a violation of family love unnatural, but clearly Edmund does not think love for family is natural, as he preports to be natural and yet is deceiving and destroying his family. On the other hand, Edmund never gives any indication that he thinks family love is a social construction either. He seems only concerned with reaping the benefits of his scheme. This is much different from Lear’s mistake, which would seem to indicate that it is not the details of the mistake that Shakespeare wishes to make the audience notice, but the identical source of the mistake, the conflict between (and confusion of) natural and social law.

Edmund’s story is used to focus attention on this natural law, a story existing independently from Lear’s but paralleling and bringing meaning to it. Shakespeare uses Edmund almost like a scientific control, exploring the concept of natural law so crucial to Lear without distracting the audience by having Lear himself ponder on it.

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