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.