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Shakespeare's Characters: Edmund (King Lear)

From King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1911.

For the union of wit and wickedness, Edmund stands next to Richard and Iago. His strong and nimble intellect, his manifest courage, his energy of character, and his noble person, prepare us on our first acquaintance to expect from him not only great undertakings, but great success in them. The circumstances of our first meeting with him, the matter and manner of Gloucester's talk about him and to him, go far to explain his conduct; while the subsequent outleakings of his mind in soliloquy let us into his secret springs of action. With a mixture of guilt, shame, and waggery, his father, before his face, and in the presence of one whose respect he craves, makes him and his birth a theme of gross and wanton discourse; at the same time drawing comparisons be tween him and "another son some year elder than this," such as could hardly fail at once to wound his pride, to stimulate his ambition, and to awaken his enmity. Thus the kindly influences of human relationship and household ties are turned to their contraries. He feels himself the victim of a disgrace for which he is not to blame; which he can not hope to outgrow; which no degree of personal worth can efface; and from which he sees no escape but in the pomp and circumstance of worldly power.

Always thinking, too, of his dishonor, he is ever on the watch for signs that others are thinking of it; and the jealousy thence engendered construes every show of respect into an effort of courtesy, a thing that inflames his ambition while chafing his pride. The corroding suspicion that others are perhaps secretly scorning his noble descent while outwardly acknowledging it, leads him to find or fancy in them a disposition to indemnify themselves for his personal superiority out of his social debasement. The stings of reproach, being personally unmerited, are resented as wrongs; and with the plea of injustice he can easily reconcile his mind to the most wicked schemes. Aware of Edgar's virtues, still he has no relentings, but shrugs his shoulders, and laughs off all compunctions with an "I must"; as if justice to himself were a sufficient excuse for his criminal purposes.

With "the plague of custom" and "the curiosity of nations" Edmund has no compact; he did not consent to them, and therefore holds himself unbound by them. He came into the world in spite of them; perhaps he owes his gifts to a breach of them; may he not, then, seek to thrive by circumventing them? Since his dimensions are so well compact, his mind so generous, and his shape so true, he prefers nature as she has made him to nature as she has placed him, and freely employs the wit she has given, to compass the wealth she has withheld. Thus our free-love philosopher appeals from convention to nature; and, as usually happens in such cases, takes only so much of nature as will serve his turn. For convention itself is a part of nature, it being no less natural that men should grow up together in families and communities than that they should grow up severally as individuals.

There is not in Edmund, as in lago, any spontaneous or purposeless wickedness. Adventures in crime are not at all his pastime; they are his means, not his end; his instruments, not his element. He does not so much make war on duty, as bow and shift her off out of the way, that his wit may have free course. He deceives others, indeed, without scruple, but then he does not consider them bound to trust him, and tries to avail himself of their credulity or criminality without becoming responsible for it. He is a pretty bold experimenter, rather radical in his schemes, but this is because he has nothing to lose if he fails, and much to gain if he succeeds. Nor does he attempt to disguise from himself, or gloss over, or anywise palliate, his designs ; but boldly confronts and stares them in the face, as though assured of sufficient external grounds to justify or excuse them.


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