The Tragedy of Edgar and Gloucester

One of the most puzzling aspects of King Lear to me was why it took Edgar so tragically  long to reveal his true identity to his sightless and deluded (though quite sympathetic, eventually) father the Duke of Gloucester.  In 4.1, overwhelmed by the results of his father’s torture, Edgar nevertheless resolves not to break character: “I cannot daub it further,” (4.1.53) Edgar confesses, “And yet I must” (4.1.55).  What makes Edgar’s continued ruse so confusing is the fact that in 4.1 Gloucester reveals that he knows Edgar was innocent all along!

O dear son Edgar,

The food of thy abused father’s wrath

Might I but live to see thee in my touch,

I’d say I had eyes again!  (4.1.22-25)

Why would Edgar deprive his father, and the audience of such a pathos-filled reunion?  Is the universe of King Lear too tragic for such a resolution?  Perhaps Edgar senses that he could not reveal himself to his father without paying some tragic price, which he eventually does, when Gloucester dies upon seeing his son revealed late in act 5.

Edgar’s explicit reason for not revealing himself is pretty ambiguous.  After leading his father to what he persuasively describes as the precipice of a great cliff on Dover’s shore, Edgar turns to the audience and tells us, “Why I do trifle thus with his despair/ Is done to cure it” (4.6.33-34).  It is somewhat plausible that making Gloucester think he has miraculously survived the fall off of Dover Cliff would in some way redeem him.  Edgar’s confrontation (no long as Tom, but another false identity closer to his own) with the just “fallen” Gloucester suggests a kind of spiritual redemption after a terrible fall:

Bleed’st not; speak’st; art sound.

Ten masts at each make not the altitude

Which thou has perpendicularly fell

Thy life’s a miracle. (4.6.52-55)

Soon after this event, Edgar begins to call Gloucester “father” which the Norton Anthology glosses as “old man” (2549).  In this way, Edgar reestablishes, if only partially, or verbally, his filial relationship Gloucester, a man who banished him but one whom he nevertheless has helped to redeem.  The fact that this father son relationship could only be partially reestablished is one of the great tragedies of the play–a tragedy that I think is made all the more upsetting by how close we get to witnessing an authentic reunion between father and son.

Perhaps, then, Shakespeare teased us with the possibility of happiness (here, as well as in the Cordelia and Lear plot) only to brutally revoke it in order to make the most tragic play possible.  King Lear seems to prove that tragedy is more affecting when it is placed in close proximity to happiness.



5 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Edgar and Gloucester

  1. wolferamanda

    Although such a tragic play, one of the most touching aspects to it was the relationship between Edgar and Gloucester. A blind father and his son leading him on their long journey. It is definitely pathos driven on Shakespeare’s part. I really enjoyed their scenes together and gave the play an extra added element to it. I agree with your statement “teasing us with happiness,” I definitely agree with that, the end of the play ruined any kind of happy ending for me.

  2. elisebrucche

    Zachary, I think you make a great point about the ambiguity that surrounds Edgar’s decision to keep his identity from his father. On the one hand, as you noted, it seems really selfish. However, I think there is a way to read as being a profoundly respectful act, Right after Gloucester has “jumped” off the cliff (i.e. fainted), Edgar remarks that he knows “not how conceit may rob / The treasury of life, when life itself / Yields to the theft” (Act 4). While he is referring directly to Gloucester’s attempt at suicide, he is also recognizing his father’s fragile state. Still reeling from the trauma of learning the truth about Edmund (and the loss of his eyes), Gloucester is incapable of absorbing more truth (say, for example, the real identity of his helper).

  3. gallaghj1

    I think you ask some really good questions here. When I look back on it, it is sad to think that happiness was just within reach for Edgar and Gloucester just as it was for Cordelia and Lear before it was taken away. Another way to look at it though is maybe that through death, Gloucester, Lear, and Cordelia are finally free of the corruption of society and can have a chance of being happy. I think it is better to look at Edgar’s journey with his father and see that as a joyful time, even though he was in disguise.

  4. paragwagle

    This bothered me too. I think Shakespeare does things like this on purpose to piss off his audience, with the intent to gain interest. I couldn’t stand that Edgar didn’t come forward right away and reveal his identity to Gloucester. I compare this to what happens in entertainment today. When I’m listening to a radio talk show and they say everything you want to hear, it begins to become kind of boring. It’s when the talk show host goes against what the listener is expecting that sparks the most interest. I may hate what’s happening, but for some reason I seem to stay tuned into that station. I hated that Edgar didn’t tell Gloucester who he really was, but this made me want to continue reading to see if it does eventually happen. I think of it as just another ploy by Shakespeare to build interest in his play.

  5. gagnonr1

    I also wished Edgar had revealed his identity to Gloucester earlier on in the play. However, if we could speculate just why he didn’t reveal his identity, I’d gather to say that Edgar may have been frightened of his father mistreating him like he had done earlier in the play or he had other thoughts in mind. In viewing the horrid state that Gloucester has wound up in, Edgar perhaps viewed this as getting his revenge on his father and his silence of who he is being a cruel mistreatment of his father, who mistreated Edgar previously in the play. It is worthy to note how Gloucester had died later on in the play from the shock of Edgar revealing himself and perhaps Edgar seeing Gloucester so fragile knew that revealing himself to Gloucester would kill him earlier on than at the end of the play.


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