King Lear Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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Analyzing Edmund's speech "Why 'bastard'? Wherefore 'base'?" show how this is a distingushing mark of Edmund in King Lear.

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This famous speech opens with a pun: "Thou, nature, art my goddess." In Shakespearean parlance—and, indeed, until much later—the term "a natural child" was used to describe a child born outside of marriage. Edmund bitterly acknowledges that he is defined by his status as a "natural child" and says that he is bound, therefore, to the laws of nature—arguably, his own nature—rather than to the laws of society. In terms of legality, he is not his father's child, but Edmund objects to this—he asks why he should "stand in the plague of custom" and allow himself to be deprived of his rights by what the law of the land dictates, simply because he is illegitimate.

"Why bastard? wherefore base?" Here, Edmund expresses both anguish and anger at the fact that, simply because he is legally a bastard, he should be considered, ergo, "base" or lesser (note the soundplay between "bastard" and "base," to which Edmund returns). It is clear that Edmund feels genuinely anguished by this issue, as...

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Your question refers to Edmund's opening speech in act1 sc.2 of King Lear. This solo speech holds the crucial key to Edmund's character, his advocacy of 'Nature' by virtue of being a natural child, a bastard, of Gloucester. Because of being born out of wedlock, he is illegitimate and marginalised as per social convention. Gloucester's legitimate son, Edgar, is due to enjoy all property rights, and Edmund is destined to be neglected and deprived.

In this speech, Edmund raises questions against social stgmatisation of the bastards, for no faults of theirs. He is as well-shaped in body and mind as all other legitimates in the world, and yet he is set aside as base:

                      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? Why brand they us

With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base? Base?

Edmund banters at Edgar's 'legitimacy', and ventilates his grudging anguish for discriminations against the so-called bastards. Since he is a 'natural' child, he vows to go by 'nature', to go by the principle of the 'survival of the fittest', not bothering for others, but only bothering to promote self-interest.