Edmund Character Analysis in King Lear by Shakespeare
Edmund, a character from Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, was portrayed as someone who grew up facing many challenges. Growing up as the illegitimate child of Gloucester, he was set up for a life of people looking down on him which lead Edmund to be the power-driven and the evil character the readers know from the play. However, by searching more in-depth into Edmund’s character, he also seems to be driven by his desire to be loved or cared for. This can be found when looking closer at the way Edmund talks in the play, the psychological effects of being an illegitimate child, and how Edmund had been neglected from any parental love.
In the first scene of the play, Edmund is immediately introduced by Gloucester as his illegitimate son. In scene one of Shakespeare’s, King Lear, Gloucester says, “His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge / I have so often blushed to acknowledge him that now I am brazed to it” (Shakespeare, King Lear, 100, Scene1). This was the third line of the play and almost immediately Edmund was identified as an illegitimate child, or better known as a bastard child back then, by his father. During the time period King Lear was set in, the 17th century, illegitimate children were treated very poorly and frowned upon. The idea of an illegitimate child was seen as extremely negative in the 17th century, and while it has become more accepted in the modern-day, it is still looked down upon. In an article written by David Murray, in 1994, he wrote: “Consider how the word ‘bastard’ has come to mean someone heartless, cruel, or prone to cheat.” Being identified as a ‘bastard’ child, like Edmund was, in the 17th century, left these children treated like how Murray described, and possibly worse due to the time period.
Not only are these children treated poorly by society, but also the parents who caused these children their ‘bastard’ status. Many of the biological parents of illegitimate children feel obligated to take them in, just as Gloucester did with Edmund in King Lear. However, according to another quote by David Murray in his article, in 1994 he says: “But these relationships are not with formal kinsmen, in the legal sense, and claims upon them are contingent and avoidable.” Looking at this, while the parents may feel obligated to the child, they know that they don’t have to. This could explain why Gloucester acts as if he’s doing “charity” by caring for Edmund. While it doesn’t seem like neglect because Gloucester is caring for Edmund, he’s not caring for him like a father would.
Many illegitimate children grow up feeling like they are victims to a life that they were brought into, as said by David Murray in 1994: “The absence of marriage is not only a major reason why single parents are found so often in poverty, but why their children so often become solitary victims and victimizers.” In King Lear, Edmund sees himself as a victim due to his bastard status and believes that the way he and other illegitimate children are treated is unfair. In scene two, at the end of Edmund’s speech where he is plotting to betray his father, he says: “Now gods, stand up for the bastards” (Shakespeare, King Lear, 117, Scene 2). This statement shows how he feels like all illegitimate children are overlooked and victims of neglect by their biological parents and the society they are living in. In an article written by Ronald W. Cooley, in 2008, he wrote about Edmund’s thoughts on being the victim by saying: “…he sees himself as victimized by rules of legitimacy and primogeniture.” However, he is not the only victim in the play that is hurt by the rules of primogeniture.
Interestingly, readers can see a similarity in the situations that King Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordellia, and Edmund, are going through. Both are being denied any of their father’s inheritance; however, they both have very different behaviors to being denied the inheritance. Another quote by Ronald W. Cooley, in his 2008, he explains the difference between the two and how they behaved to being denied inheritance:
“Disowned and disinherited, Cordelia is treated with an exaggerated version of the cruelty younger sons resented, and she responds generously. Elevated to the status of an heir, Edmund is treated with an exaggerated version of the generosity younger sons craved, and he responds with cruelty, betraying his father to Cornwall and Regan.”
Keeping in mind that the law in the 17th century denied younger sons any inheritance, this is how Cooley is comparing them. While it is unfair the way Edmund is treated, being that is he is an illegitimate child in the 17th century, like Cooley said in the quote, Edmund is being given a lot of generosity by his father. This plays a factor when looking at if Edmund’s main motive is power and wanting his father’s inheritance. Instead of accepting what he is given because of his bastard status, he pushes for more, something to make him more like a son that truly cared about by his father, like his brother is. Cooley even mentioning the same thing in his article saying: “…Edmund promotes himself from aristocratic bastard to younger son, in order to avail himself of a set of culturally resonant complaints.” This also explains why he seems to despise his brother and, not only planning to betray his father, but also his brother in the process.
As Edmund plots a plan to betray his father and his brother, Edgar, who was the legitimate child of Gloucester. While readers don’t know a lot about the relationship between Edgar and his father, it is clear that he was treated much better by his father and was the heir to all of his father’s land. That’s why in the very beginning of scene two, when Edmund is plotting the betrayal, he mentions Edgar and how he will steal their father’s love: “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land / Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund” (Shakespeare, King Lear, 117, Scene 2). Also, within that quote by Edmund, he talks about love and how his plan will result in his father loving him. Readers look at the plan and see how one result is his stealing the land from Edgar but after reading this, you can see that he might also be gaining something that he has been deprived of and deeply wanting, love. Edmund thinks that if his plan works, his dad will see him as the favorite son and reward him with the love that his father gives to his brother. While being power-hungry and stealing the land is a major part of his plan, his desire to be loved is driving him as well.
Edmund’s desire for love comes from the neglect of love he gets from his father. Love is a basic human need because it means that someone cares about the person. Edmund’s father has neglected him of love and, because of that, Edmund does not know that he is cared for. Readers may believe that his father has to love him due to Edmund being blood to Gloucester, but that is not at all the case. Love is more than just a relationship, as Niko Kolodny said in an article, written in 2003: “We don't love relationships, after all; we love people.” Gloucester may have believed he was showing love to Edmund by having a relationship, but Edmund could tell that there was no love in their relationship and that his father loved Edgar by the difference in the way he treated him. While Edmund was desperate for his father’s love, he failed to see that others loved and cared for him. It wasn’t until scene 24 when Edmund realized that he was loved and cared for. In this scene, the bodies of King Lear’s daughters, Gonoril and Regan, were brought in after they were found dead. This is where Edmund made the shocking discovery that they loved and cared for him, even dying for him. After seeing the girls were dead Edmund said: “Yet Edmund was beloved / The one the other poisoned for my sake, / And after slew herself” (Shakespeare, King Lear, 269, Scene 24).
Edmund’s character is a hard character to understand and it takes a lot of digging into Edmund’s lines in the play and how his illegitimacy has affected his life. Shakespeare portrays Edmund as an evil character who is power-hungry, but Edmund also showed signs of being driven by a desire for love in the play. While it’s easy for readers to believe he is just an evil character, all evil characters have more to them, just like Edmund.
Cooley, Ronald W. "Kent and Primogeniture in King Lear." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 48, no. 2, 2008, p. 327+. Gale Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A210385322/GLS?u=j043908&sid=GLS&xid=ea9e22aa.
Kolodny, Niko. "Love as valuing a relationship." The Philosophical Review, vol. 112, no. 2, 2003, p. 135+. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A121571755/AONE?u=txshracd2559&sid=AONE&xid=ddfb1585.
Murray, David W. "Poor suffering bastards: an anthropologist looks at illegitimacy." Policy Review, no. 68, 1994, p. 9+. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A15329614/AONE?u=txshracd2559&sid=AONE&xid=4533fdbe.
Shakespeare, W., Shakespeare, W., Wells, S., & Taylor, G. (2008). King Lear. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.