King Lear by William Shakespeare

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Edmund is established as a malcontent , placed outside the normal boundaries of society and denied its rewards. He is granted one of the few soliloquies of the play, and his villainous sharing of his plans with the audience, as well as the sheer gusto with which he deceives first his father, then his brother, indicate that the subplot will be acted, at times at least, in a slightly less serious vein that the main action. This can be seen, for example, in Gloucester’s burlesque rant at Edgar’s ‘treachery,’ which is a kind of comic echo of Lear’s great rages. Both characters are obviously paralleled as ‘blind fools,’ though, of course, Gloucester is being deceived , while Lear is deceiving himself .

1 ‘Thou, Nature, art my goddess, to thy law/My services are bound’ – Edmund’s speech is a subtle parody of what he hears around him. A director of the play, in fact, is quite entitled to keep him on stage throughout Scene One: his ‘exit’ at line 35 is editorial and not in the original text. It is quite possible that Shakespeare intended this. The figure of the brooding malcontent is familiar in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. The audience will assume anyway that he knows something of the discussion of natural law and natural bonds between parent and child. His own ‘Nature’ is of a different sort altogether: it is fallen human nature – our appetite for such things as power and sex – that he honours, and his ‘law’ is that by which the fittest and strongest survive and prosper.

3 ‘the plague of custom’ – The philosophy of the day held that custom and convention were the result of man’s fall from a more ideal natural existence. Edmund twists this belief to his own purposes: one should not stand by ‘customs’ such as truthfulness and filial loyalty, but follow one’s own ‘natural’ desires and appetites.

4 ‘the curiosity of nations’ – Elizabethan’s believed in several degrees of law. Firstly, there was God’s Law; from this Natural Law was derived, and dependent on both of these were the actual laws of different nations. Edmund is placing his version of ‘Natural Law’ above the law of nations.

10 ‘With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?’ – This obsession with his supposed inferiority is clearly the cause of Edmund’s determination to achieve what he wants at any cost. It is, of course, possible to see Gloucester’s actions in conceiving him and his subsequent treatment of him as a breach of Natural Law, an analogy therefore to Cordelia’s treatment by Lear. This moral is indeed drawn in the play by Edgar (‘The dark place where thee he got/Cost him his eyes’) – in other words, Gloucester’s sufferings are the result of his unnatural treatment of Edmund and his mother.

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William Shakespeare