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Questions of personal responsibility, free will, and justice move our sympathies through a work of literature, causing readers to relate with or despise characters as they are shaped within a piece. In The Tragedy of King Lear, William Shakespeare draws our support for his villains as well as his heroes, asking us to explore what drives someone to action. We are invited to determine culpability for characters’ deeds and to decide how fitting are their punishments.
Shakespeare tests our sensibilities in letting us meet his villains intimately through their soliloquies. In Act One, Scene Two, we meet Edmund who is plotting against his half-brother, Edgar, in order to win the whole of their elderly father’s fortune. Edmund attempts to persuade us that he is only doing what he must, on his own volition, because it is his rightful obligation. However, though Shakespeare raises the issue of whether past circumstances can mitigate fault, he falls short of casting a viable doubt on Edmund’s guilt. In this way, King Lear suggests that people are given what they deserve, that there is justice in the end result and the way things turn out are always fitting.
Edmund thinks about his own accountability immediately following the execution of his plan against Edgar. He presents his father with a letter, seemingly from his brother, in which Edmund has detailed Edgar’s supposed greed and impatience in acquiring Gloucester’s inheritance. After Gloucester reads the letter, Edmund appeases him with promises to seek out Edgar and confront him about his intentions. Gloucester exits and we are brought into the head of this illegitimate son who is determined to secure his financial position.
To this end, Edmund coldly admits that he is aware of what he is doing. “This is the excellent foppery of the world,” Edmund says. “That when we are sick in fortune…we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and the stars; as if we were villains by necessity” (I.ii.99-102). Edmund makes a distinction between one who will not accept responsibility for his actions and himself who will not blame “heavenly compulsion” (I.ii.102) for what he is doing.
This admission makes Edmund’s tricks appear more sinister; he believes that he is in control of his actions and he is scheming against his brother freely. However, we also grudgingly give him our respect; he is not childishly trying to hide his guilt.
The words that Edmund uses, “an admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star” (I.ii.105-6), recalls the words of his father just minutes earlier. Referring to Cordelia’s brazenness, Kent’s banishment, and his own son’s apparent disloyalty, Gloucester blames “these late eclipses of the sun and moon” (I.ii.88). Gloucester’s superstitions make him appear foolish next to Edmund’s calm, unaffected rationality. These are not just subtle differences in character between father and son, however, but also clues to Edmund’s irreverence toward Gloucester. Edmund is probably making reference to his father when he describes the behavior of “drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by enforced obedience of planetary influence” (I.ii.103-4). Edmund does not feel that Gloucester has taken responsibility for his affair with his mother and is still resentful of this fact.
The circumstances of Edmund’s birth show up as an increasingly clear source of the resentment that Edmund is harboring. “My father compounded with my mother under the dragon’s tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so it follows, I am rough and lecherous,” Edmund says. “Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing” (I.ii.106-110). Edmund is implying that his “bastardizing,” not his “birth” or his “nature,” is the reason why he is the way he is; Edmund may not blame the stars in the cosmos for his greed but he does blame his father. In ending with the word “bastardizing,” he is shifting emphasis onto that event as a significant reason why he is “rough and lecherous;” the circumstances of his birth left him no choice but to look out for himself.
Edmund’s words are self-critical and they invoke, at this early portion of the play, a sort of vague pathos. We still remember the first scene of Gloucester introducing his illegitimate son to the Earl of Kent. “Though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet his mother was fair; there was good sport at his making, and whoreson must be acknowledged,” Gloucester said (I.i.16-19). Edmund seems as if he is much younger than he is, answering respectfully to his father’s mockery of his mother and resignation at having been “brazed” (I.i.9) to concede his mistake with a mistress.
The genre of King Lear is unquestionably tragedy: tragic because of the absence of love within these five acts. The subplot of Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar especially highlights this lack of love within a family. From the beginning, Gloucester makes light of his affair with Edmund’s mother and his filial obligations of raising her son. It is no wonder that Edmund, in describing his conception, says, “My father compounded [sic] with my mother” (I.ii.106) in an almost technical way, the way one might mix chemicals.
Edmund’s own views on love and sexual relations are also skewed as we move toward the end of the play. When confronted with two sisters who are both interested in relationships with him, Edmund thinks logically and strategically about which one he should choose. “To both sisters have I sworn my love,” Edmund says. “Each jealous of the other, as the stung / are of the adder” (V.i.55-7). He is even callous when the deaths of the two sisters are announced; he says, “Yet Edmund was beloved / The one the other poisoned for my sake / And after slew herself” (V.ii.239-41). He expresses no love for Regan or Goneril, only a faint, grim pride.
Edmund’s rhetoric may draw initial support from readers, but, in the end, what happens to Gloucester does not allow any sympathy for the deliverer of his fate, however hard Edmund may try to convince us otherwise. We can almost imagine ourselves to be compassionate toward Edmund when he is talking about his “bastardizing” at the onset of the play. Later, his love triangle with King Lear’s daughters, Regan and Goneril, touches upon the sisters’ own absence of love for their father. We surely are not rooting for the girls who have tried to strip their father of his titles, his honor, and even his home when first one then the other casts him out. Although, at this point, we may be little inclined to empathize with Edmund, we are less inclined to do so with Lear’s daughters.
As it follows, Gloucester is never portrayed as a benevolent father. He is first presented as adulterous and then unrepentant when he is so quick to blame the “wisdom of nature” (I.ii.89) and astrological disturbances for every upset. The best portrayal of him, by the end of the play, is of an enfeebled old man who has suffered much at the hands of the illegitimate son for whom he has not shown any love.
Lear, however, is a sorrier figure. After the elderly king (who has just divided up his kingdom) is evicted from Goneril’s house, he is taken in by Regan, who is so resentful of this arrangement that she locks him outside in the rain. “Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand / For lifting food to ‘t?” he cries. “O Regan, Goneril / Your kind father whose frank hear gave all-” (III.iv.16-17, 20-21) This father is closer to one who might bring unexpected presents to his daughters and spoil them with clothes and jewels in an outward showing of affection.
In describing his bastardizing, Edmund draws our attention. He does it unemotionally and laconically, throwing around cold words of contempt for people who won’t stand up for their own actions, for his father, even for the reader who is caught up in reminders of the first scene where we witness this father-son dynamic. He shows us his human side.
Thus we are left here to question justice. Shakespeare leaves his readers to wonder whether it is Gloucester’s own fault, as the irresponsible father, that Edmund has turned against him. Similarly, we wonder at whether Edmund’s past is a mitigating factor in our judgment of him. For justice to be served, however, Gloucester’s punishment would have to fit whatever crime we perceive he has committed.
The blinding of Gloucester is a pivotal moment of the play. Edmund leaves before Cornwall performs the deed, but he is not ignorant to what is coming. Edmund does not speak before Gloucester is brought in, but the last thing he says, scenes earlier, is an expression of his agreement for bringing the king before Cornwall, as Cornwall says, “that he may be ready for…apprehension” (III.v.15). He does not speak even when Regan and Goneril offer their suggestions on what should be inflicted on Gloucester.
“Hang him instantly,” Regan says. Says Goneril, “Pluck out his eyes” (III.vii.4-5).
The next time we meet up with Edmund, he is exchanging seemingly loving words with Goneril. That is, he is seducing the woman he knows to be responsible for the blinding of his father.
Gloucester’s punishment, however, may also be viewed as an enlightenment for the old man who is reunited with his son, Edgar, and realizes just how “blind” he has been to Edmund’s evil ways. Edmund’s retribution for his role in the blinding would have to be as gruesome as that which was suffered by his father; it’s not. Although Edmund’s punishment is death, he dies proudly, smugly; he does not die before he can be the bearer of bad news to Albany that he and Albany’s wife have ordered that Cordelia be hanged “in the prison, and / to lay the blame upon her own despair / That she did forbid herself” (V.iii.253-5).
The sense we make out of the issue of justice in this subplot is commutable to how we perceive what befell King Lear and his daughters. The punishment of the sisters is to kill each other out of greed; they fight their whole lives over clothes, property, and lovers until finally Goneril poisons her sister. It is partly Lear’s fault, spoiling them but first making them pawns in a game of words where the ability to verbalize one’s love is more important than one’s true feelings.
The sentence which was handed to the elderly king was not only the deaths of his two eldest daughters but also to be separated from his youngest (and favorite) daughter, Cordelia, after banishing her for not participating in a game of rhetoric with her sisters. When Lear is finally united with her, he and Cordelia are detained in a prison and she is hanged. Lear is also the victim of Regan and Goneril’s heartless schemes to usurp his former power: blatantly through their inheritance and more subtly by trying to separate Lear from his one hundred knights, who symbolized honor to the old man. Yet this is fitting for the father who played his daughters against each other.
Cordelia and Edmund die together in the play. Edmund dies with a raucous and Cordelia, softly. Cordelia is not given any last words, she who never believed that words could truly express emotions. She dies with her father expectantly looking to her for answers and yet she cannot and does not say anything to comfort him. This contrast between the two gives credence to the idea of a just ending. Edmund dies spouting rhetoric which was the way he maneuvered his whole life through his schemes. Both our first and last impressions of Cordelia are of a young martyr who renounced the politics of kingship. King Lear may be disturbing in its themes but its end is fitting. At its closure, there is a sort of satisfaction at the finale and we are confident that everyone has died the way he or she would have wanted to live in his or her life.
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