King Lear Act I, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act I, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis

In Edmund’s opening soliloquy, we move from King Lear’s palace in the previous scene to the castle of the Earl of Gloucester. The subplot of the play is set in motion when Edmund calls upon his goddess, Nature, to whose law he is bound. As the illegitimate son of Gloucester, Edmund challenges his supposed inferiority to his legitimate brother Edgar. He is also aware that Edgar is no dearer to his father than he is and intends to capitalize on the Earl’s trust in him. Determined to snatch his half-brother’s land and future title as Earl of Gloucester, Edmund forges his brother’s name in a letter in which Edgar presumably suggests a plan to murder his father. With the letter in his hand, Edmund confidently invokes the gods to “stand up for bastards” as he prepares to meet his father.

As Gloucester enters, he is preoccupied with the disturbing events of the recent past. Edmund, however, makes sure that his father sees him attempting to hide the letter. Gloucester’s curiosity is aroused by Edmund’s strange behavior, and he repeatedly questions him about the piece of paper in his hand. Edmund, pretending to spare his father’s feelings, cautiously breaks the news. He tells him the letter is from his brother, and “I find it not fit for your o’erlooking.” This only increases Gloucester’s curiosity, and, after much coaxing, Edmund finally hands it to him. Gloucester, stunned by its contents, questions the handwriting but is easily convinced it is Edgar’s. Gloucester’s harsh invectives against Edgar, the seeming villain, are promptly checked by Edmund, however. Under the guise of protecting his father’s safety, Edmund asks him to leave the matter to him.

In the meantime, Gloucester blames the “late eclipses in the sun and moon” for the recent happenings turning son against father and the king against his child. When his father is out of sight, Edmund ridicules his superstitious beliefs, convinced that people blame the stars as an excuse for their own faults.

When Edgar approaches, Edmund feigns an interest in astrology, much to his brother’s surprise. Quickly changing the subject, however, Edmund moves to the matter at hand which is to inform his brother that their father is furiously angry at Edgar for some unknown reason. He advises Edgar to arm himself if he plans to go out in public and gives him a key to his lodgings, where he will be safe until a proper time when Edmund will bring Edgar to his father.

After Edgar leaves, Edmund, realizing he has easily duped his father and brother, revels over their gullibility.

Edmund’s soliloquy, introducing the subplot of the play, reveals an attitude of free will and equality that is easily understood by people in modern society. Our sympathies are certainly with Edmund in his complaint: “Wherefore should I/ Stand in the plague of custom.” He pierces our sensibilities with his satirical repetition of the word “legitimate,” and the sensation is heightened further with his alliterative “Why brand they us/ With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?” Today, in all fairness, we would agree that people are not “base” by virtue of their birth. Reference to legitimate and illegitimate children is seldom seen in today’s world. But we must be careful not to mistake Edmund’s view as an ideal of modern society. The goddess Nature that Edgar invokes has no righteousness. There is, instead, a devil-may-care attitude where “gods stand up for bastards” regardless of what they do. Edmund’s actions are brought about by deception, linking him with the evils of Goneril and Regan as the play progresses. He judges his superiority “by the lusty stealth of nature” in which he has “more composition” than the “dull, stale, tired bed” of marriage. Edmund’s idea of...

(The entire section is 976 words.)