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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: June ::
Edmund
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1033  Saturday, 31 May 2003

From:           Kullervo Makela <
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Date:           Monday, 26 May 2003 21:50:51 -0400
Subject:        Edmund

Last fall, there was a lot of interesting discussion about Edmund and
Edgar.  Reading Lear again this spring, I am left with a couple of
questions about Edmund which I am unable to answer satisfactorily.

First: Why is Edmund the way he is? (In my student actor days, this
would have been phrased in whiny, nasal tones as "But, like, what's my
motivation?"). Is it because he is a bastard? In Act 1, Scene 2, his
appeal to natural law strikes a chord in 21st century audiences, but all
them authorities have persuaded me that these arguments would have had
little resonance for Elizabethans. A bastard mugging away and
proclaiming Nature as his ally would have been seen as a telltale sign
that we are in the presence of a badguy. Or so I'm told by people who
know a lot more about these things than I do. And I don't mean that in
the least sarcastically; I am deferring to those who have made it their
work to study these sorts of things. And yet. And yet, if his bastardy
is the source of his villainy, how do we explain Goneril and Regan? Or
is it simply that Edmund is a villain among whose long list of faults is
numbered illegitimacy?

Second: Why does the dying Edmund suddenly get all goody-goody in Act 5,
Scene 3? Or, if not all goody-goody, at least helpful to the cause of
good?  Is it impending death and a need to try to improve his scorecard
before his interview with the One Great Gatekeeper? (Think of the way
you floss your teeth the day before you go to see the hygienist, as if
this could cancel the previous six months' neglect. Hey! Does WS have
anything to say about dentistry or teeth?)  Or is it a case of Edmund
himself having no further use for the deaths of Lear and Cordelia and so
- in a thoroughly practical way - giving up his plot, sort of the way a
drunken cousin of mine who has been purchasing, pilfering and hoarding
drinks tickets all night suddenly gives away a fistful in an
outrageously generous flourish once he figures out that his wife, who's
driving, really is leaving the reception? With no further use for them,
he gives them up unreservedly.

Finally - and I am approaching this as first and foremost a fan of
performance rather than as a scholarly reader of the texts - How can the
actor playing Edmund make this conversion convincing? It happens so
quickly, in so few lines, that in performance it always seems jarring
and out of character. One second, he's busy duelling Edgar to the death
and every inch a fink. In the next, he is giving up all his plots and
seemingly trying to effect some good in the world, or at least diminish
the evil of which he is the author. I have yet to see this pulled off on
stage in a way that convinces. Has anyone else?

Terve,
Kullervo

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