ACT I – Scene.ii
The action switches to the Earl of Gloucester’s castle where Edmund delivers
a soliloquy where he appeals to nature to help him undo the laws that inhibit his prospects.
He sets in motion his plan to steal Edgar’s inheritance and when his father enters, he pretends to be distraught over the contents of a letter he has forged, which he tells his father is from Edgar. The letter urges Edmund to join Edgar in a conspiracy against their father where they would assassinate the Earl and split his estate.
Gloucester is easily duped by Edmund’s story, which is no doubt partly due
to the scenes he has witnessed at King Lear’s court.
Left alone again, Edmund ridicules his father’s stupidity.
He is joined by Edgar and warns him that his father is in a rage, suggesting that he should carry a sword in order to protect himself. The reason that Edmund gives to Edgar for his father’s rage has a supernatural basis. Edmund’s clear skills of persuasion also work on Edgar and he believes the story.
As in so many of Shakespeare’s plays, he uses a soliloquy in order to reveal
to the audience the direction of the plot and the character of the orator. Edmund’s soliloquy starts,
“Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of my brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base? ''
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund ''
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”
It is perhaps difficult for the modern audience to appreciate the position that Edmund finds himself in as the illegitimate child of Gloucester. We must assume, knowing Edmund’s character that he perhaps overheard the conversation between Kent and Gloucester in the previous scene where Gloucester declared his love for both his sons, but the love he has for Edmund is tainted. The sleight he has suffered is similar to that of Iago in ‘Othello’. It is similar in intensity and causes him much pain. He is determined to have vengeance on his half-brother and father and he calls on the god of Nature to help him in his quest. Edmund possesses great powers of persuasion and he is able to convince both his father and brother of the dangers they face from each other. He is already growing in stature in both their eyes. We note his reluctance to show his father the forged letter, feigning to protect his brother from his father’s anger.
Shakespeare cleverly instills curiosity and horror in the audience as
regards the character of Edmund.
There is a supernatural element.
We note in the quotation above that Edmund refers to the age gap between himself and his older brother in terms of the moon, rather than in days. Edmund calls on the gods of nature to rescind the laws of religion and society so that his ‘race’ of bastards might usurp those that subjugate them.
The scene is framed by soliloquies and closes with Edmund saying,
“I do serve you in this business.
A credulous father, and a brother noble,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms
That he suspects none; on whose Foolish honesty
My practices ride easy! I see the business.
Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit:
All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit.”
He mocks his father and brother for their Foolish honesty, which makes his
task easy and he will gain their rank, not by birth, but by his wit.