In King Lear, why does Edgar speak a dialect of English?

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Michael Otis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Edgar adopts what critics call a southern stage dialect in his confrontation with Oswald:

Edg. Chill not let go, zir, without vurther [cagion].

Osw. Let go, slave, or thou di'st!

Edg. Good gentleman, go your gait, and let poor voke pass. And chud ha' bin zo long as 'tis by a vortnight. Nay, come not near th' old man; keep out, che vor'ye, or Ice try wither your costard or my ballow be the harder. Chill be plain with you.

Osw. Out, dunghill! [They fight.]

Edg. Chill pick your teeth, zir. Come, no matter vor your foins. (4.6.235-45)

Critics have been puzzled by Shakespeare's employment of a theatrical and comedic dialect in one of his darkest tragedies. Edgar is a man of the court, having no provincial associations, but with the words of the broad southern stage dialect on his lips he would have sounded like a rube from the country to his audience. In fact, the 'che vor'ye' formulation “enjoyed a certain popularity as a shibboleth of rusticity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (Kökeritz 99).

Two reasons appear to figure in Shakespeare's use of such anomalous speech in Edgar. First, in a play marked by a preoccupation with language and power, Edgar's adoption of a dialect identifies him as a man willing to associate with those outside his aristocratic circle without losing his authority. Second, this dialect of a rustic clown confirms Edgar as a master of disguise, both in form and language, thereby increasing his rhetorical power in the play as a whole.

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King Lear

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