Please explain Edmund's soliloquy in Shakespeare's King Lear, Act One, scene two, lines 1-22.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Act One, scene two, of Shakespeare's King Lear, Edmund is speaking about what it is like to be illegitimate, and that the disdain that comes with the word "bastard" is too harsh—especially when someone might be illegitimate, but just a worthy as a child born within the bounds of marriage.

Edmund wonders why, as a child of nature (saying that Nature really governs his actions), he should be bound by trivial and foolish social rules, and deprived, simply because he is twelve to fourteen months ("moonshines") younger than his brother.

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? (1-6)

Then he asks why he (or anyone in his situation) is labeled with such a low ("base") title as "bastard," when he is just as physically fit and mentally blessed as any young man born to a mother.

Why bastard? wherefore base?

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true,

As honest madam's issue? (6-9)

He wonders that such a distinction can be made when so many children who are born "properly" are absolute fools, being "made" the same way as those who are "illegitimate."

Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take

More composition and fierce quality

Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,

Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops...  (11-14)

At this point, Edmund directly addresses the absent Edgar, his "legitimate" brother (and he chuckles at the use of the word), saying that he needs Edgar's land (and all that goes with it). He also states that he is loved by their father just as much as Edgar is. If Edmund's "plot" is successful, he—the illegitimate son—will "top" the "legitimate" son. And he calls on the gods to be supportive of bastards.

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! (16-22)

It is important to note that Edmund is something of a villain. He will go to great lengths to destroy any commerce (good relations) among his family, and within King Lear's family. At this point, he will do so deceitfully in an attempt to take Edgar's lands (and title); he is going to forge a letter that will make Edgar look like a traitor, planning to kill his father, the Earl of Gloucester. Edgar has no such plan, but Edmund will be "base" in the way he acts, if not in the station to which he was born.


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