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King Lear Edmund Essay Definition


Character Analysis

You Know Nothing, Jon Snow—er—Edmund

The big thing to know about Edmund is that, as Shakespeare repeatedly says, he's "a bastard." But unlike Jon Snow, he's a real piece of work. Not only was he born out of wedlock, but he also acts like a jerk from the beginning of the play to the end. He's one of the first characters we meet, and his father Gloucester goes out of his way to let us know that Edmund is his illegitimate son. 

Here's how he introduces his Edmund to a friend: 

[...] though this knave came something / saucily into the world before he was called for, yet was / his mother fair,there was good sport at his making, / and the whoreson must be acknowledged. (1.1.21-24)

Oooh. Burn.

What Motivates Edmund

Imagine yourself at a party and your dad says: "Oh, here's my son, his mom was a hooker, but we had fun together, so here he is." Would that make you mad? Would it make you want to get even? How about if it happened again and again and again

The play makes it pretty clear that this is a standard conversation for Edmund and his dad. So the first image in this play is a father smiling and abusing his son, and the son smiles right back, just soaking it up. When Gloucester insults his son, Shakespeare clues us in to the fact that Edmund is a jerk for a reason—as the illegitimate and second born son that's always the butt of his father's jokes, Edmund has been shafted his whole life. Here's what Edmund has to say about it:

[…] 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,'

In the world of the play (which is much like Shakespeare's England), primogeniture (the rule by which eldest son inherits all his father's wealth, lands, and titles) is the rule and it makes the lives of younger brothers pretty miserable.

This means that Edmund has got some serious motives for acting like, well, a "bastard." (Don't get mad. This is Shakespeare's little joke, not ours.) So, no matter how bad Edmund behaves in the play, it's hard not to feel a little bit sorry for the guy. This is what distinguishes Edmund from the likes of some other Shakespearean villains. (In Othello, for example, we're never really quite sure what motivates the evil Iago—it's quite possible that Iago has no real motives at all.)

But this is Shakespeare, and let's face it, Edmund's a villain, and he's proud of that fact. So of course he has a plan to even the score, to punish both his father and his legitimate brother Edgar. (If you get these two brothers mixed up, just remember the "G" in Edgar for "good" and the "M" in Edmund for "mean" or "malice" or maybe…"misunderstood.")


And for all of Edmund's cruelty and manipulation, we can't forget that he attempts to save Lear and Cordelia. For the whole play, Edmund boasts about the evil that he does. It would make sense for him to go to the grave triumphant that he managed to have Lear and Cordelia killed even after he'd been defeated by his brother, Edgar. But this isn't what happens. Instead, he makes an eleventh hour attempt to save them before they're murdered by one of his soldiers. Edmund admits that this decision is totally out of character. "Some good I mean to do, despite of my own nature," he declares (5.3.291-292).

Edmund's rescue attempt is only half successful; his confession comes too late to save Cordelia. But his motivation for this sudden change of heart is very unclear. Edmund might be unexpectedly moved by Edgar's story of his father's death (5.3). Alternatively, Edmund's sudden generosity could be linked to his delight that, perhaps for the first time, someone loves him. Morbidly, this delight is over the deaths of Goneril and Regan, one of whom killed the other for his sake. Looking at their dead bodies, he boasts, "Yet Edmund was beloved" (5.3.287).

If you want to argue about it, you could say that Edmund attempts to save Lear and Cordelia because it is the kingly thing to do. Only a king has the ability to pardon those about to be executed. By attempting to pardon Lear and Cordelia, Edmund symbolically takes on the power of kingship. Edmund, originally just an illegitimate child and a social outcast, dies in command of the kind of power only held by those in the highest position.

Edmund's Timeline

"Now, gods, stand up for bastards!"

– Edmund's soliloquy, King Lear Act 1 Scene 2[1]

Edmund or Edmond is a fictional character and the main antagonist in William Shakespeare's King Lear. He is the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, and the younger brother of Edgar, the Earl's legitimate son. Early on in the play, Edmund resolves to get rid of his brother, then his father, and become Earl in his own right. He later flirts with both Goneril and Regan and attempts to play them off against each other.


Shakespeare's source for the subplot of Edmund, Edgar and Gloucester was a tale from Philip Sidney's Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia of a blind Paphlagonian king and his two sons, Leonatus and Plexitrus.[2] The name "Edmund" itself means "wealth protector" or "protector of wealth".

Edmund and Edgar were also the names of the sons of Malcolm III of Scotland who killed Macbeth. Historically Edmund of Scotland had betrayed his immediate family to support his uncle Donald III. Following the death of Malcolm III from being stabbed in the eye, they ordered the killing of Edmund's half brother Duncan II, the rightful heir, to take the Scottish throne. Edgar, Edmund's younger brother, then returned to Scotland and defeated them to become King. Edmund was then sent to an English monastery where he later died. Due to these clear parallels the choice of Edmund and Edgar as names may have been a nod by Shakespeare to the continued story of the Scottish throne following the events of Macbeth.


Gloucester's younger, illegitimate son is an opportunistic, short-sighted character[2] whose ambitions lead him to form a union with Goneril and Regan. The injustice of Edmund's situation fails to justify his subsequent actions, although at the opening of the play when Gloucester explains Edmund's illegitimacy (in his hearing) to Kent, with coarse jokes, the audience can initially feel sympathetic towards him, until his true character is revealed. Like Shylock and his "Has not a Jew eyes...?" (Merchant of Venice, III, 1, 60), Edmund makes a speech, "Why bastard? Wherefore base?" (I, 2, 5)[1] decrying his stereotype before conforming to it. Edmund rejects the laws of state and society in favour of the laws he sees as eminently more practical and useful: the laws of superior cunning and strength. Edmund’s desire to use any means possible to secure his own needs makes him appear initially as a villain without a conscience. But Edmund has some solid economic impetus for his actions, and he acts from a complexity of reasons, many of which are similar to those of Goneril and Regan. To rid himself of his father, Edmund feigns regret and laments that his nature, which is to honour his father, must be subordinate to the loyalty he feels for his country. Thus, Edmund excuses the betrayal of his own father, having willingly and easily left his father vulnerable to Cornwall's anger. Later, Edmund shows no hesitation, nor any concern about killing the king or Cordelia. Yet in the end, Edmund repents and tries to rescind his order to execute Cordelia and Lear, but it is done too late: Cordelia has already been executed at Edmund's orders.

Because of primogeniture, Edmund will inherit nothing from his father.[1] That, combined with Gloucester's poor treatment of Edmund in the opening lines of the play, gives Edmund motivation to betray his brother Edgar and manipulate his way into relationships with both Goneril and Regan. If Lear, Cordelia, and Kent represent the old ways of monarchy, order, and a distinct hierarchy, then Edmund is the most representative of a new order which adheres to a Machiavellian code. Edmund's determination to undo his brother and claim his father's title causes him to cut his own arm early in the play to make an imaginary fight between Edgar (his brother) and himself more convincing.

Late in the play, Edmund begins to adhere to the traditional values of society, and tries to repent for his sins, but he crucially delays in rescinding his order to execute Lear and Cordelia.[2]

Edmund's declaring Nature as his goddess[1] undermines the law of primogeniture and legitimacy.[2]

Another character that Edmund is often compared to is Iago of Othello, but Edmund is seen as the better character of the pair, as he tries to repent.[2]

After his betrayal of Edgar and his father, Cornwall, Regan's husband, becomes like a new father to Edmund, as he also has an opportunistic bent.[2]

Edmund's affairs with Goneril and Regan tie the two subplots together very well, although the relationships are not presented in detail, and they do not exist in the source material for Edmund, Plexitrus.[2] He does not appear to have as much affection for the two sisters as they do for him,[2] and although he was effective against his father and brother, he cannot effectively play the two sisters off against each other.[2] It is notable that when he speaks to Goneril and Regan, he does not speak well, whereas in other situations he speaks very well – this is partially due to his trying to conceal his involvement with both of them.[2] Edmund is the sisters' lust object, rather than true love, although he himself does not realise this.[2]

His marrying the two sisters as he dies is an allusion to and parody of courtly love, in which lovers separated by circumstance could be married in death.[2]

Spin offs[edit]

"Edmund, Son of Gloucester" by Chris Lambert was performed by Exiled theatre in 1996 and toured nationally. The play studied Edmund's back-story from birth to his appearance in King Lear to explore the reasons for his actions. The play starred Adrian Ross-Jones as Edmund and Robert Addie as Gloucester.


Further reading[edit]

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