King Lear And Illigetimacy Essay, Research Paper
Shakespeare’s treatment of illegitimacy in the play King Lear can be interpreted in many ways depending on the audience. The situation of illegitimacy is portrayed through the relationships of the characters the Earl Of Gloucester and his two sons Edgar and Edmund. Edmund is the illegitimate son while Edgar was born within the law. We learn of Edmund’s illegitimacy in the opening scene in the first act where The Earl of Gloucester is holding a conversation with Kent while Edmund is nearby. Gloucester speaks flippantly and lightly of the way his illegitimate son came into the world while introducing him to Kent saying, “ Though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet his mother was fair, there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged” (Act I, Scene I, Lines 19-24). There are several peculiar things about this dialogue. One of the interesting aspects of Gloucester and Kent’s discussion is the readiness of Gloucester to admit he has fathered a child out of wedlock. This may be influenced by the fact that Edmund had obviously grown into a son that a father would be proud to have. At first meeting he seems polite, courteous, and loyal. Perhaps these admirable character traits are cause for Gloucester’s willingness to publicly claim Edmund as his own. Another unusual occurrence in the opening dialogue is that Gloucester calls Edmund a whoreson and a knave while he is close by and probably in hearing distance. This seems odd because Gloucester professes to feel only love for his son and no shame but he seems to almost mock him in this situation. One explanation for this behavior may be that deep down Gloucester still harbors some discomfort about the relationship between himself and his son despite his verbal proclamations of shamelessness. This could be inferred from Gloucester’s statement, “ His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge him that now I am brazed to ‘t.” (Act I, Scene I, Line 9). Again, depending on the audience the attitudes displayed in the play by the characters and Shakespeare himself by his writing can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on the observer.
Originally Shakespeare’s played were viewed by people alive during the Elizabethan era. One can assume that in Elizabethan society there were more taboos and rules of social conduct then there are in present day. Even in modern times people do express surprise at the way Gloucester discusses his illegitimate son so lightly. One can only imagine the gasping and murmuring that went through the audience following the Earl of Gloucester’s announcement that he had a son out of wedlock. The upper classes attending the play were probably the most shocked while the lower classes may have found it amusing that an Earl, a member of the upper class was in such an unbecoming situation. Whatever their reaction may have been it is fair to say that the audience’s interest and attention was most certainly attained. In modern times some people are interested by and a little surprised at Gloucester’s admittance of an illegitimate son but are probably not as shocked or aghast at the events portrayed in the play as members of the Elizabethan audience most likely were. Possibly Shakespeare was trying to draw his audience in by opening his play with such a shocking and yet intriguing opening.
By raising the issue of illegitimacy in King Lear, Shakespeare poses some interesting questions about fatherhood. Questions such as: should a son be treated differently by his father if he born out of wedlock? And what are the consequences of that treatment? In the play Gloucester statements seem to imply that he loves both sons equally and is proud of Edmund though he does admit that there was a time when he was ashamed. It seems both a strange and noble thing that Gloucester tells Kent that he loves his sons equally and is no longer ashamed to recognize Edmund. However, Edmund was most likely deeply affected by the time that his father was ashamed of him. He may have also felt that while acceptance and love were unconditional and came easily to his half-brother, Edgar, he had to earn his father’s acknowledgement and pride. The Earl seems to mention his other son, Edmund to Kent by way of being an apology for having an illegitimate son saying, “ But I have a son, sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who is yet no dearer in my account” (Act I, Scene I, Line19). The emphasis in Gloucester’s statement is “ by order of law”. Even though Gloucester insists he loves equally there does seem to be some underlying comparison between the brothers. Edmund’s display of greed and villainy was an attempt to alienate his father from his brother so that he would inherit all his father’s wealth. This mischief may have been sparked by past treatment, feelings of inadequacy, the social stigma of the day, and comparison to his brother. All of these issues stem from the multifaceted relationship he holds with his father, which could be debated endlessly. With his pen, Shakespeare has created relationships and characters that pose complex questions, providing his readers with food for thought and discussion.