Edmund: The Bastard

By D.R. Gayton


Preparing for an extended lecture series, Samuel Taylor Coleridge ordered a copy of Shakespeare’s plays custom bound with blank pages interleaved throughout the volume.  In these blank pages Coleridge wrote hundreds of annotations that would then become the prime content of his lectures on Shakespeare.  Arriving at king Lear, and quickly noting the “mixture of Selfishness and Sensibility” found in the principal characters of the play, Coleridge quickly moves onto the secondary characters and lands on Edmund, the bastard.  Defining him within the plot structure as one of the prime movers, Coleridge envisions Edmund and writes,

From the first drawing up of the Curtain he has stood before us in the united strength and beauty of earliest Manhood.  Our eyes have been questioning him. Gifted thus with high advantages of person, and further endowed by Nature with a powerful intellect and a strong energetic Will, even with any concurrence of circumstances and accident, Pride will be the Sin that most easily besets him.[1] ( 582)

Lacking the visionary powers of Coleridge, but finding his rendition brilliantly fitting with the sustained attraction Edmund has maintained across the centuries, I must agree.  As Coleridge notes, as soon as the curtain rises, the eye apprehends his figure and predicts his significance in the play.  It is no surprise then that following the immediate revelation that Lear’s kingdom will be divided between Cornwall and Albany, the revelation that Gloucester’s household is also in trouble is announced when Kent asks Gloucester if the gentleman with him is his son.  By way of response, Gloucester circumvents a direct affirmation by admitting solely to having taken charge of his upbringing and having blushed many times at acknowledging him.  It is no wonder then that Kent responds, “I cannot conceive you,” highlighting thereby Gloucester’s arrant omission as well as his successive reply—which ultimately points to the improprieties of the boy’s mother.[2] If the first few pages of a script are supposed to be gripping one is immediately intrigued by the levity with which Gloucester lets such heavy words fall.  By presenting Edmund thusly, Shakespeare is giving us vast amount of background information about Edmund’s upbringing and a stark look into Gloucester’s character.  When Kent attempts to make up for any embarrassment detected in their conversation by pointing out Edmund’s handsomeness, the abruptness with which Gloucester turns the conversation to his elder and legitimate son, Edgar, surprises because in doing so Gloucester is in fact stating he was married when the “whoreson” Edmund was born.  Within Gloucester’s rash assertion it can be estimated that Edmund’s mother, whatever the circumstances of her “romance” with the Earl of Gloucester, having bedded with a married man and given birth out of wedlock was immediately, and almost universally, branded a whore.  Under such circumstances, the levity with which Gloucester tosses “whoreson” at his illegitimate son gains far greater significance.  Whoreson, Coleridge says “is the ever-trickling flow of Wormwood and Gall into the wounds of Pride” (582)[3]. So, when Kent proposes to get to know him better, and Gloucester interposes with “He hath been out nine years, and away he shall”, the audience understands that he is showing an impatience to be rid of Edmund that goes beyond quick theatre pacing.

No sooner is the tumult of the first scene over than we see Edmund appear before us again, alone this time, pledging his faith to nature, to the natural animal world of unregulated existence.  To Edmond, Stephen Greenblatt says, “the social order and the language used to articulate it are merely arbitrary constraints, obstacles to the triumph of his will” (537)[4].  Although I agree with Mr. Greenblatt’s assertion, it must be added that Edmund’s will, although undoubtedly prominent in all his actions, is guided by the deeper psychological need to validate his own identity, to legitimize his human worth.  Seeing himself as a natural child, a child of nature and of lust, Edmund asks of himself and the audience why should he have to stand “in the plague of custom, and permit / The curiosity of nations to deprive”[5](1.2. 2-3) him of what he feels he is equally worthy of possessing.  Yet it is more than titles and wealth the Edmund ultimately seeks. “Wherefore base”  Edmund repeatedly asks of himself and the spectator or reader, and for a moment both see him as a child when we asks,


…Why brand they us

With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?

[we] Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take

More composition and fierce quality

Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed

(1. 2.  9-13)[6]


Crude as his speech may sound, the repetition of the word base echoes of what in fact Edmund has heard all his life. It is no surprise then, that his condition as a bastard should have marked his character so decisively.  In this sense Edmund’s tragedy is that by opposing the hierarchal structure of his society so strongly he not only ends up capitulating to it, but also embodying it when he takes his father’s title as the prestigious Earl of Gloucester.  He lets society get the best of him.  Handsome, noble minded, and as honest as the son of any honest married woman, he exalts his “natural” condition by linking it to the goddess Nature and her Laws.  In this manner, Edmund finds his argument for taking possession over his legitimate brother’s lands.  Summing his natural worth along with the greater virility awarded him through his strictly lustful conception, Edmund speaks weirdly of his legitimate brother’s conception, as if it had been something amounting to no more than a semi-masturbatory act.  That is to say, even in sex, he is almost incapable of noting anything beyond social constructs of value.  Wrapped up in his own frenzy of rebellion he calls hubris upon himself by invoking the gods to stand up—on their feet—for bastards!

Harold Bloom tentatively suggests Edmund is based on Shakespeare’s memory of Christopher Marlowe,

He is the a Marlovian figure not in that he resembles a character in a play by Marlow, but because I suspect he was intended to resemble Christopher Marlowe himself…Edmund in the pre-Christian context of King Lear, is certainly a pagan atheist and libertine naturalist…this are the roles that Marlowe’s life exemplified for his contemporaries.  Marlowe the man or rather Shakespeare’s memory of him, may be the clue to Edmund’s strange glamour, the charismatic qualities that make it so difficult for us not to like him” (504)[7].

Compelling and probable as his proposition may be, the real Marlowe like the fictional Edmund carry with them far greater nuances of character than Bloom, however lovingly and jocularly, attributes to both.

As Gloucester walks into the room where Edmund was soliloquizing, we see him mumbling a grim synopsis of what just took place in Lear’s Castle, and are reminded that he did absolutely nothing to prevent either the division of the Kingdom into Duchies or prevent the banishment of Cordelia from the kingdom.  Here, the letter that Edmund waves before his father’s face, reads as a continuation of his earlier soliloquy yet presented as his brother’s thoughts.

This policy and reverence of age makes the world bitter to the best of our times; keeps our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them.  I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny; who sways, not as it hath power, but as it is suffered.” (1. 2. 45-49)[8]

The attack noted on the letter immediately targets “policy” which is State Law and “reverence” which is custom.  That Gloucester questions not why Edgar would attack precisely what benefits him most, tells more about Gloucester’s imbecile character than it does about Edmund’s genius stratagem powers; proving thereby, perhaps, Edmund’s assertion, that “aged tyranny”, which includes established patriarchy, rules not as because it is powerful but because is it simply permitted, or allowed by a silent populace.  Overwrought with emotion over the events at the palace and the contents of Edmund’s letter, Gloucester embarks on a rant about the portents in the stars.   Consistent with his devotion to nature, to the earthy and to the physical, Edmund mocks his father’s superstitious belief in the stars and the gods. In fact, he shows absolute disgust at those who would blame their destinies and their actions on the work of the stars or the gods.  Linking this speech closely to his father, Edmund is here associating the destiny of men to their actions solely.  Calls his father a “whore-master” and his own mother by the same token nothing short of a prostitute. Edmund painfully continues to inveigh against his condition,


My/ father compounded with my mother under the / dragon’s tail,

and my nativity was under Ursa / Major, so that it follows, I am

rough and / lecherous.  Fut! I should have been that I am, / had

the maidenliest star in the firmament / twinkled on my bastardizing.

(I. ii. 117-21)[9]


Defying the gods of the firmament, Edmund will trace his destiny and take full responsibility for all of his actions.  Denying any authority but his own, he is a nihilist and an atheist.  He will mold his own destiny. “Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit” Edmunds states, adding, “All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit.” As such he is one of the earliest literary example of what the 19th century would call the egoist. No sooner is he done shattering the credibility of the stars, however, than the Curan as if he himself had been an agent of those selfsame destiny forging stars, informs Edmund of a rumored rift between Albany and Cornwall, and consequently an impending war between the Duchies.  Then, almost as if it had been staged (as it is), the very visit of the Duke of Cornwall to Gloucester’s castle provides Edmund with the perfect opportunity to get his brother to flee not just in fear but also in what seems like guilt.

Later, putting the safety of his own skin before that of other’s, Gloucester confirms to Edmund the rift between Albany and Cornwall and then exposes the plans for a military coup that will put Lear back on the throne (3. 3. 1-17).   Again, it is as if destiny has wrought events for the benefit of Edmund.  It is an irony, that he who sees himself the freest, is in actuality enslaved by the random acts of chance.  For at this point all he needs to do is expose his father and his planned rebellion, and all that was his father’s will be his.  Informing Cornwall of Gloucester’s high treason and disobedience, Edmund is immediately named the Earl of Gloucester, however, by the same token, Edgar ironically rises in the Duke’s personal estimation.  This bites Edmund’s pride, but understandably so, it also increases his resolve.   Biting his lip, he says, “I will perséver in my course of loyalty/, though the conflict be sore between that and my blood” (3. 3. 19)[10].  That is, will have to feign further filial duty towards Cornwall, who outranking Edmund, will now be his “father in love”.

It isn’t until the end of Act 4 (4 .6 257-64)[11] that Edmunds designs are widely known.  Through the letters Oswald carried for Goneril, Edmund’s complicity with Goneril is reveal and his ultimate designs exposed.  However, by this time, all the circumstances that will lead to the ultimate fiasco of the fifth Act, have already been set in motion.  Ironically, just as Edmund’s designs become exposed, subtle differences begin to appear in his character that we had not seen before.

At the British army camp near Dover where Edmund has taken control over Regan’s forces, Edmund asks a Gentleman to find out from the Duke if he still wants to wage war, proving both thereby his lack of personal interest in this war against Lear.  Edmund’s struggle was a personal one—that is to say his goal was to get rid of his brother and take over his father’s title and lands.  It is here also, in the midst of the battle against Lear and Cordelia’s French forces that Regan confronts Edmund about his personal relationship with her sister.  Asking rather bluntly whether they had sex on not, Regan continues her interrogation of Edmund, wanting to know if he has any feelings towards her sister.  Edmund immediately says “no, by my honor”, which is of course a lie, because he has no honor to qualify his word. When left alone, Edmund asks himself, which of the two sisters shall he pick?  He has to pick one or the other to legitimize his kingdom if he will be king.  And with the battle won by his forces, Edmund declares a death warrant Lear and Cordelia, because as a supposed agent of nature, his state as warrior and as a man urges him “to defend, not to debate”.   Bribing an officer to conduct the illegal execution of Cordelia by offering him vast military honors and promotions, Shakespeare reminds us through this back-ally deal that in fact this is how men have often risen to power.  “know thou this” Edmund proclaims, “that men Are as the time is”, ever shifting and accommodating.[12]

After sending the captain with death warrant for his high-ranking POW, Goneril enters the scene with Albany, Regan and other officers.  Albany almost immediately requests the POW, in order to adjudicate over their military aggression.  Edmund answers him, saying he has sent them away; war was terrible, he explains, and we can do this later.  Taken aback by the Edmunds effrontery to make a decision without first consulting his superior, Albany is astonished.  He says “I hold you but a subject of this war, Not as a brother” (5. 3. 60), reminding Edmund thereby of his place in the social hierarchy—he is no Duke, and the privileges of his rank, as his father must have known, were limited.  Regan immediately defends Edmund,  “Sir he had my army’s command” she explains to her brother-in-law, the Duke.   Goneril interrupts her sister’s grandiloquent apology, by saying Edmund shinned more for his own merit than the honors her sister wishes to confer upon him.  Bickering over Edmund, Regan finally admits he intentions to wed saying, “Witness the world, that I create thee [Edmund] here/ My lord and master”.   You mean to marry him? Goneril asks, wherein Albany finally interposes, reminding his wife that she can’t forbid her sister to marry Edmund.  Whereupon Edmund retorts with a quick, “neither can you”.  Albany simply explodes after this comment! He calls Edmund a “half-blooded fellow”, a bastard, and orders his arrest.  Further, Albany accuses him and Goneril of capital treason then to proof their, he calls out a witness that will back up his accusations.  However, if no witnesses turn up, he will challenge Edmund to a duel and proof him to be in fact a traitor.  Edmund accepts and challenges the Duke in return with equal bravado; call the Harold, Edmund defies all, totally willing to accept what ever comes his way; he is defiant even at this moment when he knows everything has been exposed.  Stepping forward to attest for Edmunds vast schemes of greed, Edgar challenges him,


Maugre thy strength, youth, place, and eminence,

Despite they victor sword and fire-new fortune,

They valor and thy heart, thu art a traitor;

False to thy gods, they brother and they father;

(5. 3. 130-34)

Denying any such accusations, probably because he had never actually felt any fidelity to the gods, his brother and his father they fight and Edgar mortally wounds Edmund; and in what is perhaps one of the weepiest moments of the play, (comparable only to Lear and Cordelia’s reunion) Edgar indentifies himself to his dying brother saying,


Lets exchange charity

I am no less in blood than thou art, Edmund;

If more, the more thou has wronged me.

My name is Edgar, and thy father’s son.

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices

Make instruments to plague us.

The dark and vicious place where thee he got

has cost him his eyes.

            Edmund:  Thou hast spoken, right, ‘tis true;

The wheel is come full circle

(5. 3. 165-74)


The change that takes over Edmund occurs immediately thereafter.  When Edgar tells his story to Albany, how he encountered his father with his bleeding eyes, how he led him and begged for him and when he left him, he left him smiling (5.3. 180-98), we see Edmund being profoundly moved for the first time.  It is this speech by Edgar that will later lead him to recall Cordelia’s death sentence.  As A. C. Bradley notes “He admits the truth of Edgar’s words about the justice of the gods, and applies them to his own case…He shows too that he is not destitute of feeling: for he is touched by the story of his father’s death” (264).  Therefore, his last act of kindness was not for the sake of saving Cordelia’s but to prevent a father’s sorrow.  Dying shortly after, he truly dies as a prodigal son.

Looking back on Edmund, it is a pity that he and his father never seriously spoke about his condition as a bastard. The text, however, hints time and again at the impossibility of such communication.  Edmund’s real tragedy then is that in his great contempt towards the society that shunned him, he capitulated to that selfsame society. In striving to overpower that which sought to negate him, Edmunds allows society get the best of him.  In many ways Edmund was correct to negate society and he could have been a great hero if only he had left the palace with all its empty trapping, to enter the fields and as the natural son of nature, felt the warmth of the Earth with his naked feet.





Shakespeare, William.  King Lear (Conflated Text).  The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies.  New York, New York.  W. W. Norton & Company. 1986. pp 707-779.

Bradley, A. C.  Lecture VIII. King Lear. Shakespearean Tragegy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth.  New York, New York.  St. Martin’s Press. 1992. pp. 242-89.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.  Marginalia.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Major Works.  Oxford. UK.  Oxford UP. 1985.  pp 591- 603.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York, New York.  Riverhead Books.  1998. pp 476- 575.

Greenblatt, Stephen.  King Lear.  The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies.  New York, New York.  W. W. Norton & Company. 1986.  pp 536-542.





[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Marginalia”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Major Works,  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985, 582

[2] http://shakespeare.mit.edu/lear/full.html

[3] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Marginalia”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Major Works,  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985, 582

[4] Stephen Greenblatt, “King Lear,” The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 1986, 537.

[5] William Shakespeare, King Lear (Conflated Text).  The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies.  New York, New York.  W. W. Norton & Company. 1986. pp 707-779.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books.  1998, 504.

[8] William Shakespeare, King Lear (Conflated Text).  The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies.  New York, New York.  W. W. Norton & Company. 1986. pp 707-779

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid