Custom and Nature

   One of the most important aspects of the play, King Lear, is the character of Edmund and the paradox that his character creates. This is mainly seen in the paradox of the way that he embodies both aspects of the natural world and the society of custom.This play tells the story of king Lear’s decision to separate his kingdom amongst his daughters and also of Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester and his desire to take power for himself. A significant amount of the plot and this character’s actions are motivated by the conflict between these two concepts, mainly in how he is able to relate to both of them.
   In the play King Lear, the character of Edmund is a surprisingly complicated character in regard to the way that he deals with the two main opposing aspects of his nature, that of custom and nature. This is not just aspects of his nature but also external worlds that he lives in. In the world of custom, he is in essence screwed. This is mostly due to the fact that he is unable to inherit any of his father’s money due to the fact that he is both illegitimate and the second born. As a result of custom he is incapable of attaining any real amount of wealth, or even status of any kind. This is something that causes a great deal of pain for him, particularly in the way that he is forced to live in a world that he both detests and at the same time most conform to. This can be seen, “Wherefore should I/ stand in the plague of custom, and permit/ the curiosity of nations to deprive me.” (1.1.2-4). It is clear from this statement that a significant factor in his actions and overall personality. Another aspect of his nature lies in his desire to live in a world based on nature, basically a world free from the custom that undermines his ability to gain status in the world. This is seen in, “Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law/ my services are bound.” (1.1.1-2). In contrast with the utter disdain that Edmund had for the world of custom, the way he talks about nature approaches an almost religious fervor swearing that his “services are bound.” It is clear that a world which does not rely on the custom or tradition is much more appealing to him as it implies that his status would be dependent on his own abilities and not the order or manner of his birth. Both of these worlds are in constant conflict with each other, both in terms of social orders and in terms of dual aspects of Edmund’s own personality. It is a result of these two conflicting aspects that propels the actions of Edmund throughout the entire play.
   The play King Lear tells the story of a King who gives up his land in order to retire from the pressures of being a king, but one of the most important and compelling subplots is the actions of Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester. This character is driven by two main forces, the world of custom and the natural world. With custom, Edmund is forced to live without any real power or money because of the circumstances of his birth, while with nature Edmund would be able to rise and fall mainly on the merits of his own natural abilities. It is the conflict between these two opposing forces that drives Edmund’s actions.


2 thoughts on “Custom and Nature

  1. Jade Asta

    The relationship between law and nature is incredibly important to this play. The fact that both Edmund and Lear break custom right in the beginning of the play is a fantastic upheaval in the world of the play, which sets all other acts in motion. It is important to note that Lear is partially to blame for the position he finds himself in as the play continues, because he chose to relinquish power into the hands of his daughters. While he didn't know how they would treat him, he is still culpable.

  2. Cyrus Mulready

    Do you have any thoughts, Tim, on what happens in the conclusion of the play? Do Edmund's final actions give us any idea about the status of "nature" vs. "custom" as it plays out in the end. It seems there might be a claim for the return of law, but I wonder if there is also a way in which we see an argument for the power of nature remaining in place.


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