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King Lear and the wrong end of the telescope

What is King Lear about? More importantly, who is it about? The answer is a surprising one. Logically, the answer is Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester.

Of course, that is not the obvious answer. The obvious answer is that the play is about King Lear—his tragedy and destruction.

Now what I propose is to think through both propositions at once. Doing so enables us to see what makes Lear so effective as a tragedy and so radical in its construction.


“I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall,” Kent announces to start the play. It is a very conventional opening for Shakespeare. We begin in mid-conversation and settle in with some minor characters (in this case we are with Kent, Gloucester, and Edmund) who are busy trying to make sense of some important public crisis or event about to be settled by our major characters who are about to emerge. Action from the get-go—that was Shakespeare’s MO. It revolutionized a theater that before had offered living statues declaiming beautiful rhetoric about events too well known to be acted out (the lowering of Christ from the Cross, the sacking of Troy).

Next Lear sweeps in with his plan for the division of the kingdom and his test of his daughters. Belle Yang has provided a fascinating cognate fairy tale in her blog:


I am keeping it in mind as I write. However I am going to table for now an examination of this scene in Lear (“Nothing, my Lord”). Suffice to say, Lear explodes and in a rage divides his kingdom between Albany and Cornwall. France leaves with Cordelia.

Next Edmund reappears (that in itself is a key bit of the play's structure) and we are introduced to Lear’s major subplot: the duping of Gloucester. The instigator and benefactor of this plan will be Edmund the bastard.

Now comes the tricky part. It is a question of construction and perspective. If we view the play as unified through the fathers—Gloucester and Lear—then we see the play as coherent through its patterning (it is a doubled fall). But to see Lear this way is to court the conclusion that Lear is an aesthetic failure because in the end the Gloucester plot comes to rival and indeed, surpass the main plot. This judgment, that the play breaks in half, is a common one and in my opinion quite justified if we see the play as being about two foolish fathers.

But what happens when we look through the other end of the telescope and see the play as about Edmund. Then it becomes a story not unlike the recent movie There Will Be Blood. It is a play about the rise of a man who is as evil as he is charmed. Now what appeared fractured becomes unified because Edmund crosses both plots. Edmund destroys Gloucester and Edmund seduces both Goneril and Regan.

To contemplate Lear is to be asked to hold these two images in your mind at once: a concentrated beam of evil and shattered fragments of good paternal intention. We tend to see the fathers more because we are drawn to a psychological puzzle—why do these fathers act as they do? Why can neither man see what is so transparent—the love of Cordelia and of Edgar? We find less interesting the question of evil, of why Edmund acts as he does. But I think Shakespeare went at it the other way round. He was always comfortable with evil. Everyone saw what he could do in Titus with Aaron the Moor (and as Brian Vickers has convincingly argued—complete with stylometric analysis, Titus is co-written with George Peele and Shakespeare tracks with Aaron). Aaron was a revelation. Shakespeare then made good on the promise he showed there with Richard III, a stunning triumph that revels in evil. Then comes Iago. But only Edmund manages to have two queens/sisters plot each other’s death in order to win his devilish hand. Now that is just too rich. No, it is Edmund who lies at the play’s center. A cold blooded killer, and a ladies man. Always this type was Shakespeare’s blanket, and he needed him more than ever to breath life into King Lear.

But what is at the center of Edmund? The answer there is an enigma. But one that takes a recognizable form. I will end my blog with a description of it. In the second scene of Act One, Edmund makes fun of Edger for following horoscopes. He declares that he would be who he was regardless of what stars were in the sky when his mother conceived him. It is important to grasp this contradiction: Edger is the villain. Period. When in Shakespeare villains say they are villains, you had better take them at their word. (Consider the opening of Othello. Desdemona’s father shouts at Iago, you sir are a villain. Iago: And you sir, are a Senator. Both statements are flatly true, they are job descriptions and its funny because senator and villain are pretty much the same thing.) At the same time this villain (who in one sense is evil simply because the play requires him to be so) declares that he doesn’t believe in flat one dimensional characters like villains—he believes in depth. What we get then is a stock character saying that there are no such things as stock characters. Or to put it another way, the stock character cancels himself, leaving us face to face with an enigma for a person. The product of this act of cancellation is what we feel to be Edmund’s individuality precisely because we can apprehend it in no other way. It (this special kernel of you that makes you you) is in our thinking what in the west we once called a soul. And in Edmund’s case it is a dark one, yet its mass is the center around which the shattered world of Lear revolves.


Belle’s question about redemption at the end of Lear deserves the best answer I can offer. For now I would ask Belle--who is Edmund in your Grandfather's story?

I am learning from everyone’s comments big time. But I have to get a few threads on the table before I can offer a reading of the play’s ending. So in my next blog I am going to explore the Lear Cordelia plot (that thing of nothings).

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Thank you

for going about this discussion by placing one foot in front of the other.

So is Edmund a black hole--a non human force in the universe--and dark holesin the universe have mass.

It used to bother me that Regan, Goneril and Edmund were flat characters and I voiced this complaint to Steve Hauk.  Cordelia is not round either.   Steve simply said, Shakespeare can do that.  Question:  why can Shakespeare do that?


My former agent wanted me to cut out one of the 4 sons of the Patriarch, my great grandfather, but I couldn't do it.

My father's father is Cordelia the Buddhist truth speaker (but he is not all good either)

His second uncle is the Daoist wise fool.

His third uncle is Goneril--he wants control of the land in the countryside all to himself.  He is the Patriarch's favorite.

Fourth Uncle is Regan--he is the engineer.  All machinations.  He brings the old man meat on his pay day, pretending to Confucian filial piety.

The Communism that destroys the entire social fabric of old China is Edmund.  Communism is as dark and as unfathomnable in its evil as is Edmund.  Communism is dark and it has mass.  Communism is as evil as it is charming.

But none, of course, are exact matches to the characters in Lear.  No one is entirely evil.

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Mathew I think you are

Mathew I think you are completely right about the villains. They are just bad. But Shakespeare gets under their skins and makes them work. We sympathise with Edmund when he says: why should I take any notice of this “bastard” thing? Okay, you want bastard, I’ll give you bastard. (The play starts with Gloucester patronizing Edmund: “the whoreson must be acknowledged.”)

Belle’s Lear:

Thinking structure now. Shakespeare is a great simplifier in the bones of his work.

Lear’s journey is from stupidity/blindness, via overt madness, to sanity, humanity and sight.

Gloucester’s journey is from stupidity/blindness, via literal blindness, to clear sightedness.

Both men misjudge their children and travel from not seeing to seeing. The two stories resonate off each other. “Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind”

What to steal? Those polar journeys, maybe? Principle characters going all the way from A to Z?

The villain is interesting, because there’s Mao for a template. All that stuff about making the world better. How to get under his skin? See things from his POV?

One of the things that makes Shakespeare’s villains work, is their profound enjoyment of their own villainy.

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My Favorite Lines of Edmund's

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit
of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on:

Delightfully honest viciousness.