Edmund’s Bastardy

Edmund’s Bastardy

  Edm.  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? 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?
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,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? 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 th’ legitimate. I grow, I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards! 

King Lear, 1.2.1-22

Shakespeare gave King Lear a chiasmic conceptual structure when he wrote in the Gloucester subplot: on the one hand, a father (Lear) abuses his child (Cordelia) while, on the other hand, a child (Edmund) abuses his father (Gloucester). This subplot came from Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, which tells the story of a Paphlagonian King and his two children, Leonatus and the bastard Plexirtus. Bastardy is not a major theme in King Lear, but it can be hugely informative to see what happens to bastardy once Shakespeare drags it into the world of the play, and that’s how stigma often works: decent people in power (in this case, Shakespeare) unintentionally producing and perpetuating regrettable social dynamics, not because those people are wicked or stupid, but because they focus their attention elsewhere and overlook the resiliency and consequence of stereotypes. For his part, Shakespeare filtered Edmund the Bastard through the figure of stigma he had used on earlier stigmatics, such as the physically deformed Richard III and the racially marked Aaron the Moor. The figure of stigma is the configuration of abnormality, villainy, irony, and tragicomedy. In this dramatic system, an abnormal aspect of a character’s identity, present from birth, initiates two opposed elements of that character’s life: villainy and irony. The stigmatic is a villain who plots revenge against the world for his unfair birth and treatment, yet he does so in soliloquies and asides to the audience, addresses that not only display wit and verve, making the stigmatic an audience favorite, but also explicitly discuss and resist the stigma saddled upon him, attempting to redefine the meaning of his stigma and evoking sympathy from the audience in the process. Thus villainy, a feature of tragedy, and irony, a feature of comedy, coalesce in a plot that ends with tragicomedy, which (according to Renaissance definitions of the genre) rewards the virtuous and punishes the vicious on a stage that mingles clowns and kings. For example, in Richard III, Richard is set apart by his physical deformity, which his Lancastrian enemies treat as a God-given sign of his evil soul; even as he enacts the evil they attach to his body, he explains to the audience that his deformity is the cause, not the sign, of his villainy; in the end, however, good conquers evil when the Earl of Richmond kills Richard on the way to becoming King of England. In Titus Andronicus, Aaron is set apart by his black skin, which his Roman enemies treat as a sign of evil; he commits horrible crimes, but (like Richard) blames his villainy on his mistreatment; in the end, Lucius Andronicus kills Aaron on the way to becoming Emperor of Rome.

In King Lear, one year after Gloucester’s legitimate son, Edgar, is born and named by Lear (Edgar’s godfather), the bastard Edmund is born (apparently prematurely, symbolizing his wicked conception in his dicey birth). The play opens with Gloucester repeatedly, even gleefully stigmatizing Edmund as a bastard, and, when Shakespeare includes Gloucester’s superstitions on eclipses in the second scene, he suggests that stigma is magical thinking, a suggestion developed more fully in Othello and The Tempest. As we learn from Edmund’s soliloquies in the second scene (“Thou, Nature, art my goddess” and “This is the excellent foppery of the world”), the bastard not only disputes his stigma and the superstitions that establish it, but also plans to avenge his unfair birth and acquire Edgar’s inheritance for himself by framing his brother for trying to kill his father. While this plot ought to make us despise Edmund, we instead sympathize with him because he speaks directly to us, drawing us into his dangerous yet exhilarating life, an attractiveness that manifests elsewhere in his promiscuous sexual conquest of Goneril and Regan (just as Richard had his paramour, Anne, and Aaron his, Tamora). In the end, however, Shakespeare curtails the appeal of the stigmatic and good conquers evil when Edgar kills Edmund on the way to becoming King of Britain. What Edmund’s membership in the figure of stigma certifies is that Shakespeare thought of bastards in the terms of stigma; that Shakespeare used the concept of stigma to think through ultimately discrete identities, from deformity and disability to minority and bastardy; and that, for Shakespeare, stigma takes its meaning from its negation of normality, not from what it is, but from what it is not.


The Paphlagonian King
Bastardy in the Jacobean Age
Bastards in Shakespeare 


Summers, Claude J. “ ‘Stand up for Bastards!’: Shakespeare’s Edmund and Love’s Failure.” College Literature 4.3 (1977): 225-231.

Neill, Michael. “ ‘In Everything Illegitimate’: Imagining the Bastard in Renaissance Drama.” The Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): 270-92.

Findlay, Alison. “Unnatural Children.” Illegitimate Power: Bastards in Renaissance Drama. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994. 85-128.