Edmund Character Analysis in ‘King Lear’

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Edmund, one of the main characters in William Shakespeare's 'King Lear' is complex. To some, he seems immoral, like a man missing his moral compass. To others, he seems clever, like a man set on finding success through illegitimate means. But in my eyes, I see him as a desperate man looking for closure through means of climbing the hierarchical ladder while simultaneously destroying it. Many label him as the antagonist of the play, many may also follow the book’s claims and consider him the illegitimate Earl of Gloucester. However, my opinion cannot be based on a bandwagon trend, in fact, I am fascinated by his mental state journey. In my journey of reading and understanding the play, as well as analyzing Edmund’s character arc, my thoughts and opinions changed quite a lot. My essay structure follows Gretchen Bernabei’s 'Story of My Thinking' format, where I explain my thoughts on Edmund before and after a turning point in the character, such as when he explains that he shouldn’t be illegitimate, he proves to the world that he isn’t okay with that negative label, and lastly his truth in his journey from start to end.

To initiate, Edmund had a reason to commit his past deeds and continually proceed with them. As I stated earlier, I want to look at Edmund’s mental state throughout his life. When being mentally abused for a long period of time, especially since birth, it can and will take a mental toll on someone. Edmund’s character arc fascinates me because he uses his mental abuse to fuel him for future success. I think that his character was mentally broken, so I personally do not blame him for his actions. Since birth, he was deemed illegitimate, a man who was an outlier of his family. Excluded from society and, even worse, his family. Edmund's emulation is intriguing because it magnifies a desire for his personal power, but it shows he longs for personal acceptance since he was rejected. Edmund's views are not solely inward-looking however, his views include a revolt opposing the hierarchical society that prevents him from the same as his brother, a 'legitimate' descendant of Gloucester, Edgar. Gloucester is not afraid to mention the legitimacy of his children, even in front of them. In a scene where Gloucester and Kent speak, Gloucester mentions the difference between his children: “But I have, sir, a son by order of law, some year older than this”(1.1.18-19). It really is crazy how one can insult another to their face, especially the father to his son. When reading, the audience does not take into account that Edmund, because of this, faces a barrier in his life that his 'legitimate' brother does not have to. Edmund verbally acknowledges the mental abuse by the social societal hierarchy within his monologue: “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?” (1.2.6-10). Here he questions why he is labeled with these negative connotations when he is equal to, if not better than, his brother. This quote also proves that his villain persona did not begin without an end goal, but rather he wants to be considered equal and accepted instead of inferior and illegitimate. It is unfortunate to see that the same society that he was born and raised in has still something against him that he has no control over. It speaks to me as if it were like racism or sexism. Discriminating against one because of their race or sexual orientation, just like he feels discriminated against based on an uncontrollable variable in their life. It shows a difference in ideology. I used to agree with the typical 'paint Edmund as a villainous character' and all others are a victim of his grand plan, but after he explains himself, I think I feel sorry for him. I do not agree with his actions, but I also do not think that he should be held to blame for his actions, and society and his upbringing should be looked at more and take a larger blame than he does.

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Edmund’s character is the epitome of a Shakespearean tragedy. It plays a nod to both the struggle against the hierarchical social ladder and the fight between those you love and destiny. But it’s time I look at how Edmund conquers the social hierarchical ladder as well as feeds his greed for power whilst maintaining his pathway to his destiny. While I was still reading the play, I felt like I was one of the only students who sympathized with Edmund's journey. However, my opinions of him quickly changed when I took a deeper look at his character. Now, not only do I sympathize with the character, but I also respect him. He laid out a plan for himself to get back at the world for the 'illegitimate' label that they put on him. The society around him treats him as unequal and as unneeded. However, when investigating Edmund’s character, I quickly realized that this whole act that he had put on was to prove to the rest of the world and greater himself that he is capable of fighting and he is not okay with the 'illegitimate' label. He proves his hate of the system: “'Now gods stand up for bastards', Edmund commands, but in fact, he depends not on divine aid but on his own initiative” (1.2.22). Here he says he will no longer be oppressed by others and will stand up for what he believes in. This is one of the many things that I so deeply love about this character that makes me think about him more than just a villain with no goal, in other words, he is not a typical psychopath.

A recurring argument that continually comes up here is Edmund's mental state and how his mental state has always been affected since the start of the play. Throughout the play, I grew to like and sympathize with Edmund's character, however, I never truly knew for a fact that I should trust Edmund. Most villains that I have heard of play their story to paint themselves as the 'right' one in the grand picture. However, one thing that I like about Edmund's character is that he stuck true with his words, all the way to his end. He always wanted to prove himself that he wasn’t the 'illegitimate' label that they painted on him. But that's what I thought. However, when I heard him say with his dying breath at the end of his journey, “Yet Edmund was beloved” (5.3.238), his unusual comment was enough to make me think, whilst the carnage, whether Edmund’s villain persona arose not from his cruel wrath but simply from a deep desire, misdirected thirst for familial love that he experiences around the society he was born and raised in. This was my final taste of him and now I feel sympathetic towards his character for his past. I know he is a fighter and he’ll fight to prove that he isn’t the 'illegitimate' child everyone labels him to be. And now I believe that he is a trustworthy villain.

To conclude, Edmund’s actions throughout 'King Lear' are acts of a man devoted to proving to others that he is as capable as all in the collective society. Edmund stays committed to proving that he isn’t the label 'illegitimate' that his father paints him to be, bringing about the downfall of the social hierarchical ladder, as well as showing beyond doubt that he really does believe in his cause. Shakespeare cleverly uses a character that works in the light, but his plans are for the dark to bring about the resolution he so desperately longed for, his legitimacy and his desire for love.

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Edmund Character Analysis in ‘King Lear’. (2024, February 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/edmund-character-analysis-in-king-lear/
“Edmund Character Analysis in ‘King Lear’.” Edubirdie, 28 Feb. 2024, edubirdie.com/examples/edmund-character-analysis-in-king-lear/
Edmund Character Analysis in ‘King Lear’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/edmund-character-analysis-in-king-lear/> [Accessed 23 Jul. 2024].
Edmund Character Analysis in ‘King Lear’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2024 Feb 28 [cited 2024 Jul 23]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/edmund-character-analysis-in-king-lear/
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