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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: November ::
Re: Edmund and Edgar
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.2314  Wednesday, 20 November 2002

[1]     From:   Carol Barton <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Nov 2002 08:30:19 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.2296 Re: Edmund and Edgar

[2]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 20 Nov 2002 02:54:33 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.2296 Re: Edmund and Edgar


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Carol Barton <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Nov 2002 08:30:19 -0500
Subject: 13.2296 Re: Edmund and Edgar
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.2296 Re: Edmund and Edgar

Speaking in my own voice after a long hiatus, and coming into this
thread in medias res, I should like to point out that Edgar's
characterization relies on the inverse of Iago's: as Milton will phrase
it, "for goodness thinks no ill where no ill seems," and "hypocrisy is
the only evil that walks unknown, / Except to God alone." Gloucester is
as fond and foolish an old man as Lear; both are "blind" to any truth
they don't want to see; and both confuse true love and fidelity
(Cordelia/Kent/Edgar) with flattery they want to hear.

(Edmund's "confidences" to his father turn without demand on the same
principle as "which of you doth love us most," and replicate a common
ploy among siblings: "he's a bad boy, but I love you, Daddy." To that
extent, such portrayals are not only psychologically valid: they are
blood-chilling, for there but for the grace of God go any of us.)

Edmund's soliloquy turns not on bastardy, but on "legitimacy," in my
estimation: a world that looks to the stars (Nature) to find its faults
is perfectly content to rely on abstract and arbitrary man-made *law* to
declare perfectly well-proportioned and morally and spiritually whole
human beings non-entities, by virtue of the accident of their birth, and
Edmund rejects the fiction as he rejects the social posturing and
hypocrisy that accompany it; it is also this "artificiality" of
civilization and its "rules"---particularly its legal ones---that
enables evil people like Goneril and Regan to dupe good ones like Lear
and Gloucester. Because they all accept the same artificial conventions
(unnatural professions of love on demand, vs. the natural love of a
child for his parent and vice versa, got twixt "legitimate" sheets or
not), they all fall victim to their own "manners" and artificial
(social) masks. Gloucester is himself a hypocrite, from this
perspective: he is perfectly happy to bed Edmund's mother, and brags
about the good sex that preceded his getting----a natural reaction to
natural desire---but once the child is born, he re-adopts his
"respectable" world view, and calls him "illegitimate," repudiating the
act of natural love outside his presumably passionless but "legitimate"
marriage (Edmund again) as an abomination (recall Mary I's reaction to
Henry's declaration of his marriage to her mother as unlawful).  The
"natural" man, living by his wits, outsmarts the "civilized man" who is
living and playing according to arbitrary rules that don't operate in
the natural world. The same principle underlies the success of the
Serpent's temptation of Eve (at least, according to Milton): when Adam
insists that she remain by his side in Book IX of _Paradise Lost_, Eve
tells him indignantly that the Adversary will not be so cowardly as to
attack her, the weaker vessel, first---but the Adversary does not act
according to the "laws" of chivalry: he acts according to more Darwinian
principles, and takes his advantage (as Edmund does) where he sees it.

The point is that Good understands Evil far better than Evil will ever
understand Good, except when it comes to hypocrisy. We hear what we want
to hear, and believe what we want to believe, in spite of the empirical
("natural") evidence . . . especially when love clouds our vision . . .
and we foolishly assume that every player in the game understands and
accepts "the rules." Those who exist outside societal conventions are
not subject to them . . . Edmund's natural decency shows itself at last
before his death ("Some good I mean to do before I die . . ."): what
would he have been, had he not been born Nature's "bastard"?

The psychological validity of _Lear_ extends even to Cordelia's
relationship with her father, whom she mirrors, temperamentally. Any
daughter who loves her father well knows exactly how far she can "push"
him, before she reaches the limit of his patience---and Cordelia's
stubborn refusal to mend her speech, even a little, is as foolish and
self-defeating as is Lear's stubborn refusal to recognize the fidelity
in her disobedience. He knows she loves him, but cannot brook her
defiance---and she knows, or should know, the extent to which she
provokes him by maintaining it. Social constructs interfere with natural
emotions: Cordelia will recognize Lear as king and father (sire and
sire?) or be his daughter no more---but in the abstract sense only.
Cordelia is by nature (and by Nature) his daughter: and that is a bond
his abstract---"legitimate," in the sense of "legal"--disowning of her
cannot break.

(It's good to be back!)

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Wednesday, 20 Nov 2002 02:54:33 -0800
Subject: 13.2296 Re: Edmund and Edgar
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.2296 Re: Edmund and Edgar

Carol Barton, via Robin Hamilton, says that "the whole idea of
primogeniture in the play is undercut, as if it ran, Goneril would
inherit all." I think it works the other way around.

In the Roman plays Shakespeare could explore a different world, where,
for example, suicide could be an admirable act. Writing about a
pre-Christian Britain in Lear has another point. The Christian
prohibition of suicide has not been established, but Edgar opposes
suicide for what might be called secular, but in this context also
proto-Christian reasons. The world of this play seems to be feeling its
way toward Christianity. The barbarity of Gloucester's blinding shows
how sorely the good news of Christianity is needed.

In a parallel way, the idea that the kingdom should be passed down
according to the rule of primogeniture is also not yet fully,
consciously established.  That's why Kent and Gloucester seem surprised
at first that Lear has given his children equal portions, when he always
seemed to like Albany more than Cornwall. The difference that we
eventually see between them indicates that once Lear's heart and head
were, in this respect, in the right place. But now something crazy is
happening. No one mentions that he is doing something wrong in dividing
the kingdom, or in not giving all of it to Goneril, and, through
Goneril, to Albany.

Then Edmund mentions primogeniture, obliquely, as if it were an
established part of "the plague of custom" or its synonym, "the
curiosity of nations".  Why does he mention it, when bastardy would
trump primogeniture anyway? The best answer I can find for this question
so far is that Edmund is demonstrating his fully revolutionary, or
Machiavellian, or evil, nature by showing his disrespect for every rule
that might hold him back. At the same time, by suggesting that the rule
of primogeniture is known, he calls Lear's failure to follow it into
question. We can take it all very literally, and say that the rule is in
effect for private estates but not yet for the kingdom, but in the
play's terms we don't really know. Since Edmund's bastardy is
emphasized, while his lagging birth is only mentioned and forgotten, and
is irrelevant anyway, the mention becomes close to subliminal.

This all suggests that in Lear's world primogeniture is not an
established rule, at least for kingdoms, but that it is close to the
surface of consciousness--felt, at least, as something that might be,
like Christianity, just around the corner. We see a world where Lear
does not have to follow the unestablished rule, but would show himself
as a good, far-seeing king if he were to establish it now. To ensure the
unity of Britain would be wise. Instead, he divides the kingdom, giving
as his reason that he wants to prevent future strife. We know the
division will have the opposite effect. Immediately rumors of war are
heard. Regan's "How can many people, under two commands, hold amity"
sums up the underlying principle.

In the murky waters of the division scene, Shakespeare, I think, shows a
man who but slenderly knows himself. He does something not unlawful but
very unwise, for reasons different from the reasons he gives, because he
can't let himself openly recognize the real reason. He wants to keep
Cordelia at home, and set his rest on her kind nursery. He loves her
best, and does not want to lose her to his "great rivals" France and
Burgundy. He wants to bribe her to say she loves him best, and to stay
in Britain with him. So why not give her the whole kingdom? Because that
would too egregiously violate the almost-recognized rule of
primogeniture. It also would fail to provide an excuse for the
love-test, and he desperately wants to hear her say she loves him best.
So he goes against the obviously wise course of establishing the rule of
primogeniture officially, and gives murky, unconvincing reasons, which
sound at least plausible to the court, for his partial, pre-emptive
violation. If he had instead given the kingdom to Goneril, and therefore
Albany, he would have done the right thing. Shakespeare shows this by
showing the calamity caused by the division, and by bringing the crown
by a long and painful course back to Albany at the end. If Lear had
simply given it ot Goneril, and therefore Albany, at the beginning all
this strife would have been avoided. Then the worn out Albany passes it
to Edgar, the firstborn son Lear failed to have--the firstborn son of
his alter ego--symbolically ending the play on a note of primogenitural
rightness. The hard-earned lesson is that succession through
primogeniture is the best way to keep peace in Britain.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

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