Illegitimate Edmund

Possibly one of my favorite speeches in all of Shakespeare, Edmund’s plight against his title of “bastard” in Act I, Scene 2 is one of the most telling and striking speeches in the play.  Edmund is technically the villain of the play, scheming against his brother and father, but this speech shows that Edmund is not without feeling.  His bastardly title eats away at him (“Why bastard?  Wherefore base? (1.2.6)), hating society for branding him in such a way.  Because he is illegitimate his brother, “Legitimate Edgar”, will inherit their father’s estate, leaving Edmund with nothing.  Thus begins his quest to manipulate his father and brother so that he may reap the benefits of a legitimate son.

We learn in the first scene of the play that Edmund has been kept away for the past nine years, and is due to be leaving again shortly.  Living your life knowing that society looks down on you, that you’ll never be considered equal even to your own brother, is a terrible way to go through life.  Feeling unwanted, left behind, makes people do whatever it takes to get what they feel they deserve.  Even though Gloucester loves both his sons equally, he is still embarrassed by Edmund (“I have so often blushed to acknowledge him, that now I am brazed to it” (1.1.7)) and makes jokes to Kent about Edmund’s mother in front of him.  Edmund’s speech at 1.2 is thus heartbreaking to read as you can feel his bitterness towards nature for depriving him of “legal niceties”, as the Norton cites at line four.  He is just as much Gloucester’s son as Edgar, but society has given him that then-dreaded title of “illegitimate”. 

Many of the villains that Shakespeare creates are not pure evil; he often gives them very real and human feelings (jealousy, rage) that motivate them, adding another layer of complexity to their character.  It is still difficult to sympathize with characters like Edmund in King Lear, or Tamora in Titus Andronicus, for their atrocities against innocent parties on their road to redemption.  We, as readers, have to remember that their evil has been created by outside forces.  In Edmund’s case his societal isolation has created enough anger for him to seek the downfall of his family.  Shakespeare’s complex villains are one of my favorite aspects of his plays as he forces you to view these characters not as merciless monsters, but as people who have received the short end of the stick.

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2 thoughts on “Illegitimate Edmund

  1. gallaghj1

    I enjoyed your post. It gave me a new perspective on Edmund. I agree that when reading his speech, you have to sympathize with him. It wasn’t his fault for being born illegitimate and second, right? You start to see Edmund as a trailblazer for illegitimates everywhere. Then things get a little out of hand. He purposely goes after his brother, Edgar, who is in a similar situation. It wasn’t Edgar’s fault for being born in marriage and first, right? I would be a little more accepting of Edmund’s plot if Edgar was mean to him but Edgar trusts Edmund and even thanks God that he has such a trusting brother. Maybe if Edmund spent a little less time plotting against Edgar and more time actually being a brother, Edgar would make sure he is taken care of for the rest of his life. Instead, Edmund is setting himself up for all or nothing.

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  2. Giulia Medulla

    This was a very interesting read. I’m sure the lack of birth control or care at the time lead to many illegitimate children–it still happens today. The laws at the time were very inconsiderate of circumstances such as Edmund. I did not really pay attention to this as much as a I should have and this post made me think deeper about Edmund. Sibling rivalry has been around forever and it will probably never go away. I think the rivalry between Edgar and Edmunds is one that will go on until something bad happens in the play…typical Shakespeare. The quote that you mentioned in the beginning of your post is most likely foreshadowing a future death or feud.

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