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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  Watercolors of Shakespearean Characters 
~ Bastards, Frauds & Tellers of the Truth  ~


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EDMUND in KING LEAR
by Hannah Tompkins
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Edmund Watercolor by Hannah Tompkins

 

Ten years have elapsed since Shakespeare first created Faulconbridge and the experience he acquired in that time is evident in the character of Edmund, the most complete bastard of all.

He has the physical charm and aggressive energy of Faulconbridge; Thersites' patent contempt for the 'establishment'; and the craft of cunning manipulation of Don John, which he also uses to revenge the stigma of illegitimacy.

He devises schemes to cheat his 'legitimate' half-brother Edgar out of his inheritance of title and estate and goes about it in a diabolical and deliberate way.

In bitter rancor he presents his argument in a monologue: Act I sc.ii:
"Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound.
Why bastard? wherefor base?
When 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?

Well, then,
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!"
But by the end of the play he does a turn-a-bout. Dying from a mortal wound inflicted by his disguised brother Edgar in a duel, Edmund repents. He is the only one of Shakespeare's bastards to do so.. maybe because he is also the only bastard to die in the course of the drama. Realizing the fatality he says:
"I pant for life: some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send,
Be brief in it, to the castle: for my writ
Is on the life of Lear and Cordelia:
Nay, send in time."
But it is too late. Cordelia has already been hanged and Lear dies of a broken heart.
As for her two elder sisters, both were trapped by the intrigues and deceptions of Edmund. In jealousy and futility, Goneril poisons Regan and then commits suicide.
And so, most everybody gets wiped out. This play is, after all, a tragedy.

3 out of 4 in this group of bastards were of noble birth, or had noble blood.
The father of Faulconbridge was Richard the Lion Hearted, king:
The father of Don John was a Prince of Arragon,(the title inherited by the half-brother, Don Pedro.)
The father of Edmund was the Earl of Gloucester.
Thersites makes no mention of his father though he confesses his mother was a whore.
Some psychiatrists might attribute his provocative arrogance to a 'defense mechanism' for his bastardy, but then again it may have been his deformity... who can tell?

Let not such speculation diminish the larger question of Legaility vs. Morality. They are not necessarily correspondent.
For examples In Measure for Measure a child is born out of wedlock but of a very moral relationship. An illegal thing can be highly moral and vice-versa, as we have seen in the bastards of Shakespeare and the situations he has put them in.

Laws go in and out of fashion like hem-lines, but attitudes of morality haven't changed much. In fact some of my best friends are....


Copyright © 1982 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved.

 

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