“An admirable evasion of whoremaster man”



“King Lear” is one of the richest, most thought-provoking plays I know of. In it Shakespeare comments on human nature.  What are we and how is it that we are that way? At one point Edmund, Lear’s illegitimate son, comments on the foolishness inherent in blaming outside forces for our indiscretions and foolish acts. As he says, if we are lecherous, we blame it on astrology. Sartre will make a similar point when he describes a category of people he calls “laches”, i.e. those who constantly make excuses for themselves and refuse to take responsibility for their own actions. In “Carmen” Don Jose falls into this kind of rationalization when he blames destiny for his falling in love with Carmen (by doing so he becomes a deserter from the army and a smuggler): As he sings in “The Flower Song”:

« Pourquoi faut-il que le destin l’ait mise la, sur mon chemin ? »

As if it were the fault of destiny for his poor judgment and weakness.

This tendency to rationalize is common and can be seen at work all the time. Often it is hard to detect because there are so many ways that we can rationalize: astrology, a bad upbringing, bad genes, a rotten education, the devil who ‘made you do it’, bad luck, ugly looks, a marriage partner who ruined you, etc. –the possibilities are endless and it is tempting to have recourse to one or more of them.

A passage from King Lear:

Early in the play Edmund’s father, the Duke of Gloucester, boasted that he had enjoyed great sex (“great sport”)  with his extra-marital partner when Edmund was conceived. We also learn that he had Edmund sent abroad from time to time so that he wouldn’t be an embarrassment.

In this soliloquy Edmund implies that he doesn’t believe in Christianity but rather, if he believes in anything, it would be in the power of nature. Nature is his Goddess and that means that none of the Christian moral laws affect him. He refuses to accept that being born a bastard (born out of wedlock) has anything shameful in it and that being a bastard is not anything he should worry about.

He is therefore free to make his way through life with boldness and guile. The letter he refers to is one that he will show his father. Its message is that Gloucester’s legitimate son, Edgar, plans to kill him and get his inheritance as soon as possible. Later in the play Edmund will court two of Lear’s evil daughters at the same time, skillfully playing one against the other.

Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?

Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate. Fine word—“legitimate”!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

Further lines of this soliloquy show Edmund’s belief that bastards are stronger, physically and mentally, from legitimate children.

Below is an analysis that I found on the Internet. I pretty much agree with it.

Edmund delivers this soliloquy just before he tricks his father, Gloucester, into believing that Gloucester’s legitimate son, Edgar, is plotting against him (1.2.1–22). “I grow; I prosper,” he says, and these words define his character throughout the play. Deprived by his bastard birth of the respect and rank that he believes to be rightfully his, Edmund sets about raising himself by his own efforts, forging personal prosperity through treachery and betrayals. The repeated use of the epithet “legitimate” in reference to Edgar reveals Edmund’s obsession with his brother’s enviable status as their father’s rightful heir. With its attack on the “plague of custom,” this quotation embodies Edmund’s resentment of the social order of the world and his accompanying craving for respect and power. He invokes “nature” because only in the unregulated, anarchic scheme of the natural world can one of such low birth achieve his goals. He wants recognition more than anything else—perhaps, it is suggested later, because of the familial love that has been denied him—and he sets about getting that recognition by any means necessary.

I have given you a link so that you can hear a professional actor speak these lines. Look for the link at the top of this post. Scroll through it and paste it into your search bar.

I plan to write more blogs about Shakespeare. Watch for them.

My website is http://www.godwinbooks.com

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