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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: June ::
Re: Edmund
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1199  Monday, 16 June 2003

[1]     From:   Edmund Taft <
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        Date:   Friday, 13 Jun 2003 09:39:56 -0400
        Subj:   Edmund

[2]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Friday, 13 Jun 2003 09:45:26 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1188 Re: Edmund


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmund Taft <
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Date:           Friday, 13 Jun 2003 09:39:56 -0400
Subject:        Edmund

Dear David:

First, thanks. That may sound odd given the content of your last post,
but I liked it anyway because it was (1) intelligent and (2) civil. I
take it that the essence of your position follows:

"Maybe we could say that a play has a letter and a spirit. In my
opinion, Ed is following out certain letters to the nth degree and
missing the spirit.  Edgar, for example, is not the villain of the
piece. Some problems just don't amount to a hill of beans."

Your position makes perfect sense if we decide in the course of viewing
or reading the play that it is really a fairy tale and should be reacted
to as such. There are two evil daughters and one good one, a good
brother and a bad one, and two old men who are not at all perfect but
certainly not as bad as some of their despicable children. Everything
else follows from that, and little issues like why France leaves or why
Edgar leads his father to the edge of the battlefield are not meant to
be important, and we shouldn't waste our time on them. Just get the big
picture, which is easy enough to see.

Fair enough? This position is both right and wrong, and I'll try to
explain why without going on too long. From at least _The Merchant of
Venice_ (1597?) on, Shakespeare, it has been widely noticed,
continuously experiments with writing plays that are a complex mixture
of realism and romance. Or, to put it slightly differently, a
combination of fairy tale and psychological realism. You and I both know
how this observation has affected interpretation of Shylock, for
example. If we see _M of V_, as mainly a simple comedy and a fairy tale,
then Shylock becomes a comic villain whom we are happy to see get his
comeuppance in the end. Basanio is a hero, Portia the heroine, and the
whole play is rather uncomplicated and really funny, especially when
Shylock rants and raves. But we both also know that other critics see a
different play that is based on class/religion/race and their related
psychologies. These viewers and readers react in a more detailed and
realistic way to what they experience, and they have far different
reactions to the play.

To make a long story short, I think the same is true, broadly speaking,
for Lr., the problem comedies, and certain other Shakespeare plays. In
effect, Shakespeare gives us a choice as we experience these plays.
Choose fairy tale or realism. Why he does this is a question I won't get
into here: art is long but life is brief. I'll simply end by pointing
out what you and I both know:
Shakespeare purposefully denies his KL audience the fairy-tale ending
that it so craves: "Is this the promised end?"

Why? Well, I think it's because there's a realistic story underneath the
fairy tale surface. I may be wrong, but surely this is a position worth
exploring, even if it proves threatening and/or uncomfortable to some.

Best wishes,
--Ed

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Friday, 13 Jun 2003 09:45:26 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 14.1188 Re: Edmund
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1188 Re: Edmund

From Martin Wiggins, "Shakespeare and the Drama of His Time", Oxford
University Press, 2000, pp. 88-89 (part of the wonderful Oxford
Shakespeare Topics series):

"Today we usually think of 'character' as something that starts inside,
in the private subjectivity of the individual mind, and then manifests
itself outside in words and actions. Character writing for the stage,
however, works perforce in the opposite direction: the theatre can only
portray what is visible externally, or can be made so. Since classical
times it had been conventional to represent the unspoken by speaking it:
characters would address the audience directly in soliloquies and asides
in order to articulate secret thoughts and motives relevant to the
operation of the plot."

Again, this topic has been discussed before in this conference, and
there is absolutely not one verbal indication in the text that Edgar
should be observed as a villain in the piece. He has one soliloquy which
states his concern and pity for his father (IV.i.) and Edmund has
several declarations of his villainy.  Furthermore, he seems more
preoccupied with condemning the world's condescension towards him than
his father's insensitivity in specific:

   Thou, Nature, are my goddess; to thy law
    My services are bound. Wherefore should I
    Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
    The curiousity of nations to deprive me,
    For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
    Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
    (I.ii. lines 1-6).

It is the social recognition of Edmund as illegitimate that Shakespeare
draws to our attention early on, both in the early ridicule of his
father and in this speech. Again, Edgar parallels Cordelia in being
supplanted by devious siblings. Again, Edgar like Cordelia rushes to his
father's rescue. It is not otherwise. Shakespeare would have made that
apparent in the text. Indeed, he makes Edgar's all too human heroism
apparent in the action and words of the play: by forcing him to disguise
himself, like Kent, into a lower rung on the Elizabethan ladder, by
giving him a soliloquy expressing these thoughts, by making us thrill at
his challenge and defeat of Edmund in the final scene, and most damning
of all, to reattribute the final lines of the play from Albany in the
quarto text to Edgar in the folio text.

To impinge modern sensibilities onto a text that in no way supports them
is a grievous misreading.

Brian Willis

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