King Lear

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Edmund Character Analysis

Gloucester's younger, illegitimate son. Edmund resents the fact that the accident of his birth has deprived him of legal status (and, therefore, an inheritance). He schemes to turn Gloucester against his legitimate son, Edgar, and eventually usurp his title. Eloquent and seductively wicked, Edmund almost succeeds in carrying out his malign plots to fruition.

Edmund Quotes in King Lear

The King Lear quotes below are all either spoken by Edmund or refer to Edmund. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of King Lear published in 2004.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
"Thou, Nature, art my goddess."
Related Characters: Edmund (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 1.2.1
Explanation and Analysis:

Edmund bemoans how his status as a bastard prevents him from having a claim to his father's title. As a result, he renounces the value of human laws and instead chooses to exalt the wonder of “Nature.”

Here we see Edmund turn away for the first time from the systems that organize human life. He reveals a wish to violate social norms and seize power for himself. Since “Nature” exists beyond the royal system that delineates between legitimate and illegitimate children, it offers a world in which Edmund could receive a proper inheritance. That Edmund selects nature to be his “goddess” also marks a subtle turn away from Christianity and toward paganism. Though religion is not a blatant theme in King Lear, it bubbles under the tragedy’s surface. Edmund’s embrace of Nature could be seen as somewhat heretical, which foreshadows the way he will sin both spiritually and politically in order to further his own ascent to power.

His soliloquy also initiates a pattern in King Lear of characters seeking solace or support in the natural environment. The tragedy often juxtaposes the banality and social cruelty of the human realm with a more egalitarian and open natural world. Shakespeare positions nature as an open psychological and physical space on which characters can project their ideal worlds, beyond the constraints of normative human society.

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"As if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion."
Related Characters: Edmund (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 1.2.128-129
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gloucester departs, Edmund mocks his father’s comments on the heavens. He believes that the motion of the planets do nothing to ordain human action.

With these characters, Shakespeare establishes two poles on the question of human agency in the context of heavenly predestination. Whereas Gloucester believes that eclipses in the sky predict negative events in the human world, Edmund finds this perspective ridiculous. This debate speaks to a philosophical question on free will, but it also expresses a generational difference. Just as Lear values ceremonial behavior and adherence to tradition, Gloucester finds deference the heavens to be important. Friction arises with both sets of children because the younger generations seek increased personal control.

To substantiate his claim on the heavens, Edmund gives two examples of where human identities should not reasonably conform to fate: “villains” and “fools.” Shakespeare has not arbitrarily selected these terms. Being himself a villain (as he has just decided), Edmund is implicitly claiming that he acts according to his own will as opposed to the effect of any celestial body. Yet we could take his exploits as proof that Gloucester was correct that eclipses foretold negative events. “Fools” will play an important role later in the tragedy, when both actual and artificial fools render unclear whether the heavens or human action lead to madness. Thus even as Edmund disparages his father’s belief in destiny, Shakespeare subtly designs the structure of the tragedy to reiterate the ever-present role of fate.

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Edmund Character Timeline in King Lear

The timeline below shows where the character Edmund appears in King Lear. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, scene 1
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Old Age Theme Icon
...his power and divide it among his daughters. Gloucester introduces Kent to his illegitimate son, Edmund, who is standing nearby. Gloucester says that, although Edmund is a "knave" (1.1.21) born out... (full context)
Act 1, scene 2
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Edmund stands alone on stage, criticizing the injustice of the laws and customs that deprive him... (full context)
Act 2, scene 1
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
At Gloucester's court, Curran mentions to Edmund that there are rumors of imminent war between Cornwall and Albany. Curran also mentions that... (full context)
Act 2, scene 2
Old Age Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
Hearing the ruckus, Edmund, Cornwall, Regan, Gloucester, and his servants, enter, and demand to know what is going on.... (full context)
Act 3, scene 3
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
Back inside, Gloucester confides in Edmund that he does not like the "unnatural dealing" (3.3.2) that Goneril and Regan have shown... (full context)
Act 3, scene 5
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Cornwall enters with Edmund, carrying the letter reporting news of the invasion from France (which Gloucester mentioned to Edmund... (full context)
Act 3, scene 7
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Cornwall enters with Regan, Goneril, Edmund and servants. Handing Goneril the letter with news that the army of France has landed,... (full context)
Act 4, scene 2
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Having traveled from Gloucester's—now Edmund's—castle, Goneril and Edmund arrive at Goneril's palace. Oswald emerges, reporting that Albany is "changed" (2.1.4)... (full context)
Act 4, scene 5
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Back at Gloucester's former palace, widowed Regan questions Oswald about Goneril and Edmund. She pauses to explain that Edmund himself has gone to kill Gloucester—whose pitiful appearance, blinded... (full context)
Act 4, scene 6
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...the Gentleman for an update. He reports that the battle between the British forces of Edmund, Goneril, and Regan and the French force led by Cordelia is imminent. (full context)
Act 4, scene 7
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
Kent remains on stage with a Gentleman. They discuss the state of the battle: Edmund is leading the British force. The Gentleman states that there is a rumor that Kent... (full context)
Act 5, scene 1
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Edmund, leading the British forces with Regan, sends a messenger to Albany to confirm that Albany... (full context)
Act 5, scene 3
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Edmund orders that the captured Lear and Cordelia be taken away to prison. Cordelia, speaking with... (full context)