Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scene 2
Edmund enters the scene — set in the Earl of Gloucester's house — talking out loud to himself. In this soliloquy, Edmund figuratively asks Nature why society sees him as inferior to his brother Edgar simply because he is not his father's legitimate firstborn. Edmund's soliloquy reveals his plan to undermine his brother's position by tricking his father with a forged letter, which he presents to Gloucester in this scene.
Edmund also succeeds in convincing Edgar that he's looking out for his brother's safety when he suggests that Edgar carry a weapon as protection from their father's anger — a wrath, Edmund intimates, that's directed toward Edmund.
Edmund's musings offer insight into his unhappiness. Edmund feels that each brother, equally loved, should share equally in his father's bounty. But there is no equality under the current law, and Edmund's ideal is not reality. Edmund asks why he is not as respected as his brother:
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
An honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base? (I.2.7-10)
Edmund rejects the laws of state and society in favor of the laws he sees as eminently more practical and useful — the laws of superior cunning and strength. Edmund's willingness to seize what he wants invokes laws of nature, although not the natural laws familiar to Elizabethan audiences in a class-defined society. Instead, Edmund supports survival of the fittest, an animalistic nature not based on human morality and common decency. Edmund says that he will take what he deserves through wit, even if he is not entitled by birth. This resolve is an affront to the nature that Edgar addresses in his opening soliloquy; underestimating the force of nature will also prove critical to Edmund's downfall.
Edmund appears to be a villain without a conscience, selfishly driven to secure his own needs. Still, Edmund lacks the ill will of another of Shakespeare's villains, Iago, with whom Edmund is most often compared. In Othello, Iago acts without clear reason, since none of his suggested motives withstand a close examination. In contrast, Edmund has solid economic and emotional reasons for his actions. Edmund may also have overheard his father describe the "good sport at his making" (I.1.22). If so, Edmund's actions reveal a desire for personal revenge.
The cavalier attitude with which Gloucester dismisses Edmund's paternity further reinforces the difference between Edmund and Edgar. Where Edgar is entitled to his father's name, his title, and his property, Edmund is entitled to nothing but the coarse jesting that accompanied his conception.
Gloucester ignores any possibility that his youngest son may resent this easy dismissal of both Edmund's birth and his future prospects, but Edmund finds in his father's thoughtless words a reason to destroy Gloucester. In plotting his revenge, Edmund reveals that he is a worthy opponent, even though much of his desire for revenge is an emotional response to Gloucester's words. In Shakespeare's Othello, Iago makes sport of his actions while proving himself superior intellectually to those around him. In comparison, Edmund reacts to his situation with seriousness and reason, but his actions never stem from a need to make sport.
Language is particularly noteworthy in this scene. Shakespeare weaves in much talk of seeing, although Gloucester does not truly see until he is blinded later in the play. Gloucester says that if Edmund's letter contains nothing significant, then "I shall not need my spectacles" (I.2.35). But, of course, even with spectacles, he cannot see that Edmund is deceiving him. After exclaiming "let's see, let's see" (I.2.42), he shows that he can neither recognize the dishonestly in what he reads nor see that Edmund is lying. In mistaking Edmund's motives, Gloucester is already blind to the evil events unfolding around him.
Edmund condemns his father's age in the forged letter by suggesting that old men should step down and give control to those who are younger. Gloucester is referred to as an aged tyrant who desires to maintain control in order to keep his sons from receiving their inheritances.
This brief exchange reminds the audience of Goneril and Regan's dismissal of Lear's actions as those of an old man, unable to decipher or understand the actions around him. And just as Lear condemned the guiltless Cordelia, Gloucester now condemns the innocent Edgar, who has no knowledge of the false letter. The irony of the letter's message — that the old should be displaced — proves true for Gloucester. Clearly, he is not intuitive or quick enough to understand the plotting or undercurrents present around him. Gloucester buys into Edmund's trickery.
Gloucester asserts that the sun and moon play a role in current events. Gloucester absolves himself of any responsibility for his actions by giving power to the stars. Relying on astrological signs makes it easier to accept that Edgar might betray his father: "These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us" (I.2.100-101). This reflection echoes Lear's earlier statement about the astrological influences on man's life: "By all the operation of the orbs / From whom we do exist and cease to be" (I.1.110-111). Both fathers count on the stars to provide an excuse for their children's actions. But Edmund has his own opinion of these astrological signs, of which he says:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and teachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars and adulterers by an enforc'd obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! (I.2.115-125).
Edmund acknowledges that man is ultimately responsible for his actions. This passage also reveals how effectively Edmund is able to work the audience. He succeeds in making his father's beliefs and actions appear foolish. Gloucester's reliance on the stars appears to support Edmund's contention that his father is a witless old man.
Edmund also easily fools Edgar, but not because of any misguided reliance upon astrological signs. Edgar's innate honesty and dignity make accepting Edmund's duplicity easy and prevents any questioning of Edmund's lies. Edgar cannot imagine that his brother would lie to him since Edgar would not lie to his brother. Edmund easily convinces Edgar that he should arm himself against their father, a man whom Edgar loves.
The double plot is an important literary device in this play. With two plots, perfectly intertwined and yet offering parallel lessons, Shakespeare is able to demonstrate the tragic consequences that result when man's law is given precedence over natural law. Eventually, Gloucester and Lear learn the importance of natural law when they recognize that they have violated these basic tenets, with both finally turning to nature to find answers for why their children have betrayed them. Their counterparts, Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall, represent the evil that functions in violation of natural law.
The double plot serves an important function, emphasizing natural law as an essential facet of both plots. Shakespeare then uses the two plots to point to how essential an acknowledgment of natural law is in a moral society. In both plots the absence of natural law is destructive, and ultimately even those who are good cannot act to save Cordelia or the other good characters from the ravages of evil and tyranny.
more composition the act of composing, or putting together a whole by combining parts.
speed to have good fortune; prosper; succeed.
character style of printing or handwriting.
pawn anything given as security, as for a debt, performance of an action, and so on; pledge; guaranty.
goatish lustful; lecherous.