The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1043  Monday, 2 June 2003

[1]     From:   Thomas Larque <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Monday, 2 Jun 2003 01:31:04 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1033 Edmund

[2]     From:   Annalisa Castaldo <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Sunday, 1 Jun 2003 20:51:12 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1033 Edmund

[3]     From:   John-Paul Spiro <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Sunday, 01 Jun 2003 21:49:39 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1033 Edmund

From:           Thomas Larque <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Monday, 2 Jun 2003 01:31:04 +0100
Subject: 14.1033 Edmund
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1033 Edmund

>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?

My gut response to this is that Edmund, Goneril, and Regan share one
thing ... envy of a preferred sibling.

Edmund specifically complains that his brother unjustly stands in better
case than him, both in honour "... my dimensions are as well compact, /
My mind as generous, and my shape as true, / As honest madam's issue /
Why brand they us with base? with baseness? bastardy?  base, base?", and
in inheritance of wealth, "Wherefore should I ... permit / The curiosity
of nations to deprive me ... Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land".
Gloucester specifically denies that he prefers Edgar to Edmund, when
talking to Kent ("I have, sir, a son by order of law, some year / Elder
than this, who yet is no dearer in my account"), but Edmund's repetition
of this phrase ("Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund / As to the
legitimate") - invariably in a contemptuous sneer, in all the
performances that I have seen - suggests that he either thinks that
Gloucester is lying, or objects to the patronising implications of
difference (Gloucester is effectively saying - "Edmund's a bastard, and
Edgar is my lawful son, that means it would be natural for you to assume
that I prefer the honest boy to the bastard, but despite the fact that
Edmund is just a bastard, I surprisingly like them both just as well as
each other"), in any case Edmund  seems deliberately to compare the
supposed (possibly fake?) egalitarianism of these platitudinous words
with blunt reality.  Whatever his father says, in truth Edmund is
considered lower than his brother, he is insulted, looked down on, and
kept in comparative poverty, and if his father's final comments describe
Edmund rather than Kent ("He has been away nine years.  And away he
shall again") then Edmund apparently has a rather distant and distancing
relationship (physically, and by implication emotionally) with his
father, while Edgar - we might presume - is kept at home and close to
his father, another probable sign of favouritism.  Finally, Edmund
imagines overturning this "natural" order in which he always comes
second - "Edmund the base / Shall top the legitimate" - at the time that
he is speaking, then, Edmund is bottom of the heap and Edgar is on top.

Goneril and Regan show some signs of having a similar complaint against
their father.  As I understand it, quoting from memory, Jacobean
daughters, unlike sons, were expected to be co-heirs if they had no
brothers, and divided the estate between them.  Lear demands that they
compete with each other in telling him how much they each love him, and
rewards them with land that shows them how much he values their love.

During the scene, Lear's own preference becomes clear, he gives Regan a
portion that apparently exactly matches Goneril's ("To thee ... this
ample third of our fair kingdom, / No less in space, validity, and
pleasure / Than that conferr'd on Goneril"), but then offers Cordelia
the opportunity to win "A third more opulent than your sisters".  Having
cut off two parts of the Kingdom, it seems likely that there is only one
part of a fixed size left, and this is apparently "more opulent" than
that given to Goneril and Regan.  Lear apparently expects to give it to
Cordelia, and only fails to do so when she fails to give him any sort of
answer at all.  Stung, he declares openly what must already have been
apparent "I loved her most", and adds something that suggests that he
was planning to rely on her in his retirement "and thought to set my
rest / On her kind nursery".  Does this mean that he would have stayed
only with Cordelia, and not ever with her sisters?  There is a tone of
disappointment in his fall-back position, which is to stay with Goneril
and Regan in turn.  Again, he loves Cordelia most, and Goneril and Regan
come as a joint and interchangeable second.

The sisters are clearly aware of this favouritism, and Goneril comments
almost casually upon it when they make their first villainous (because
rebellious against their father's authority) noises.  "... he always
loved our sister most".  She gives no indication in the way that she
says this how much this may have rankled, but such an indication is
usually given vocally or with gesture by the actor playing the role, and
the same slant may have been given in performance in Shakespeare's day.
Their father's preference is so obvious, so longstanding ("always"), and
so accepted that he is willing to state such a preference to their
faces, and Goneril mentions it almost as a casual aside (what concerns
her in this speech is not his preference for her sister, which she
clearly knew about long before he blurted it out, but the danger to
herself of his senile mood-swings), but to we psychology obsessed
moderns, it seems obvious that this will be a festering sore in her
relationship with both father and preferred sister from childhood
sibling rivalry onwards.

Since Shakespeare makes clear that Edmund has similar sibling rivalry,
even though - in contrast - Gloucester *claims* to love his children
equally, it seems very likely that Shakespeare expected us to pick up on
this indication that Goneril and Regan, on some level, were motivated by
the same jealousy.

Envy, of course, was considered a sin in a traditional Christian
society  - and Shakespeare's audiences are likely to have been far less
understanding in their consideration of Edmund, Goneril, and Regan's
psychological motivations as excuses for murderous behaviour than we
are.  They might not have been able to forgive such behaviour with their
pious religious hats on, then, but they probably still understood the
feelings that lay behind such behaviour, and may have had experience of
them to a lesser extent themselves.

Thomas Larque.
"Shakespeare and His Critics"
[n.b. - my web hosting company is awful, so this site is frequently
down, and hasn't been operating for a week when I write this ...
hopefully it will be back up soon]

From:           Annalisa Castaldo <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 1 Jun 2003 20:51:12 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 14.1033 Edmund
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1033 Edmund

In answer to the last question, about how to make Edmund's conversion
work on stage, I saw a very fine actor register the shock of being
stabbed and realizing he was going to die. That "ultimate reality,"
coming face to face with his own mortality, was more than adequate
reason for the conversion. However, it needs a fine actor to make the
audience understand that this is not simply "Ow, I've been stabbed"
shock, but something deeper.

Annalisa Castaldo

From:           John-Paul Spiro <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 01 Jun 2003 21:49:39 -0400
Subject: 14.1033 Edmund
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1033 Edmund

If we trust Edmund's own words, he "is the way he is" because he resents
the conventionally arbitrary societal customs that deem him inferior to
his brother.  For all his talk of "nature," he seems to believe more in
merit: his worth is determined by himself, not by his parents' state of
sin or the positions of the stars.  Of course, his resentment takes over
his identity, and so he disproves his own argument: he is who he is
because he is a bastard, and one wonders if  he would be the same way
had he been conceived in lawful wedlock and born before Edgar.

His conversion is so last-minute and so inconsistent with his identity
up until that point that I wonder if it's real at all.  It's possible
that his conversion is just another trick: he seems to talk a long time
(and he encourages Edgar to talk a long time) all while he knows Lear
and Cordelia are about to be killed.  He seems to want to take just
enough time for them to be killed just so he can then tell everyone
about it and make them go see it--all so he can see their horror in his
last few moments on earth.  This doesn't quite work out because Lear
kills the hangman, but still it's an open question whether Edmund has
any change of heart whatsoever.  It's also possible that Shakespeare
made the conversion deliberately odd and unconvincing just so the very
concept of conversion could remain an open question, just as Lear's
"tragic revelation" is also an open question--we don't know if Lear is
still deluded or if he has gained any kind of transcendence in his final
moments.  He contradicts himself several times about Cordelia's death
and he never quite recognizes Kent.  So if we never really know if Lear
learns anything, we never really know if Edmund changes.  Edmund's
conversion is hard for any actor.  Most Edmunds I have seen have been
awful.  I think it may work if the actor and/or director decides that
the conversion is fake and it's played that way.  It may also work if
it's played ambiguously--if the actor seems to simultaneously--or
alternately--feel a change of heart and yet retain his malignity.

Talk of motives for Shakespeare's villains is enjoyable but perpetually
frustrating.  Shakespeare, particularly with Iago and Edmund, seems to
take evil as a fact, not an explainable or controllable personality
trait.  Also, Edmund, like Iago, Aaron, and Richard III, seems to simply
enjoy being evil.  It's fun.  Edmund's "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" (1.2.75-78) is in a sense a way of saying, "Evil will always
triumph over good because good is dumb."

John-Paul Spiro
CUNY Graduate Center

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