Many characters can contribute to the events of a story in several ways. In the play, King Lear, written by William Shakespeare, several situations are presented which leads the audience to conclude that Edmund is a manipulative and deceitful character, whose actions contribute to the outcome of King Lear’s death. Edmunds plans to steal land and legitimacy by manipulating his father, Gloucester, and brother, Edgar, against each another, resulting in the need for Edgar to adopt a role as a crazed beggar. Also, Edmund betrays his father’s trust by revealing, to Cornwall, a letter that makes Gloucester accountable for treason, thus making Edmund promoted to the Earl of Gloucester. Lastly, Edmund promises his love to both Goneril and Reagan, which untimely leads them to their deaths. Through his misleading behaviour and his manipulation of other characters, Edmund has an intense influence on the outcome of many events in the play.
In King Lear, numerous examples are present which reveal Edmund’s determination to steal Edgar’s, Edmund’s half-brother, inheritance from Gloucester. In Edmund tricking Gloucester, making Gloucester believe Edgar is trying to kill him and vice versa. This results in Edgar taking the role of a crazed beggar so he is not caught by Gloucester. One example of Edmund's manipulation, to achieve his goal, is when he fabricates a letter from Edgar asking for Edmund's help in overthrowing Gloucester, their father. When Edmund reveals this letter to Gloucester, he believes it without question, showing the extent to which he has been deceived by Edmund: “O villain, villain! His very opinion in the / letter. Abhorred villain, unnatural, detested, / brutish villain; worse than brutish! Go, Sirrah, seek / him. I’ll apprehend him. Abominable villain! / where is he?” (Shakespeare 1.2.80-84). After knowing of the fictional letter, Gloucester sends men to apprehend Edgar. This is when Edgar takes the role of a crazed beggar because he has now learned his life is in danger. This shows Edmund's manipulation of father against son. Literary critic, Stephen Greenblatt, comments on the displacement of the legitimate by the illegitimate and Edgar’s ensuing struggle to survive in his book Shakespeare and the Exorcists:
The voice of skepticism is assimilated to Cornwall, to Goneril, and above all to Edmund, whose “naturalism” is exposed as the argument of the younger and illegitimate son bent on displacing his legitimate older brother and eventually on destroying his father. The fraudulent position and exorcism are given to the legitimate Edgar, who is forced to such shifts by the nightmarish persecution directed against him. Edgar adopts the role of Poor Tom not out of a corrupt will to deceive, but out of a commendable desire to survive. (Greenblatt 17)
Not only does Greenblatt comment on Edmund’s obsession with displacing his legitimate brother, but also views Edmund’s manipulation of father against son as the cause for Edgar’s adoption of the role of Poor Tom in order to escape his death. Through these examples, it becomes clear that Edgar’s persecution is a direct result of Edmonds manipulative and deceitful actions.
Another example of when Edmund’s manipulation and deceitfulness affect the out-coming events of the play is when, Edmund betrays Gloucester, his illegitimate father. This betrayal comes in the form of divulging Gloucester’s knowledge of a movement to avenge the King to Cornwall, who thinks Gloucester is committing treason. For this betrayal, Cornwall promotes Edmund to Earl of Gloucester. Prior to this, Edmund reveals his devious plot to convince Cornwall of his father’s treachery: “If I find him comforting / King, it will stuff his suspicion more fully. – I will / preserve in my course of loyalty, though the conflict be sore between that and my blood” (Shakespeare 3.5.21-24). Not only does Edmund plan to overthrow his father by revealing his father’s secrets to Cornwall, but he acts as if he has emotion ‘turning in his father,’ showing how far Edmund goes with his deception. Edmund’s betrayal of his father and the resulting implications of his actions are addressed by T.McAlindon, when he says that:
Addressing Cornwall, Edmund refers to his father’s loyalty to the old king as ‘treason’ and his own betrayal of his father as ‘loyalty’; at which point Cornwall gives him his father’s title and invites him to call him ‘father’ instead. (McAlindon 169)
McAlindon comments that by revealing incriminating evidence of his father’s actions to Cornwall, Edmund ensures his own promotion to Earl of Gloucester by Cornwall. Edmund’s betrayal of Gloucester contributes to the outcome of the play because Gloucester is stripped of his rank, and then Edmund is awarded his place. Through the use of this example it becomes clear to the audience that Edmund’s manipulation of Cornwall in order to be promoted has a definite effect on the outcome of the plot.
Edmund’s adulterous relationship with both Goneril and Reagan leads to the death of both sisters. By professing his love to each sister he builds tension and subsequent animosity into their relationship, which eventually leads Goneril to murder Reagan and then commit suicide. This tension is demonstrated to the audience during an aside in which Goneril states that she would rather lose to France than to her sister for Edmund’s hand: “I had rather lose the battle / that sister / Should loosen him and me” (Shakespeare 5.1.17-19). By instilling such fearsome competition in the two sisters, the extent to which they have been manipulated by Edmund becomes quite clear. This deception of Goneril and Reagan by Edmund, eventually leads to the death of the sisters. In his book, Major Literary Characters, Simon Bennett observes that: “Edmund in the final act reveals that he has promised, adulterously, to both Goneril and Reagan. When he learns of their deaths, as he is dying, he puns ‘all three now marry in an instant’” (Bennett 85). Bennett comments on the fact that Edmund has promised his affection to both Goneril and Reagan, contributing to their eventual deaths. Bennett also recognizes Edmund’s deceitful actions in his promise of love to both sisters. Edmund’s manipulation of the two sisters against each other leads to the deaths of both Goneril and Reagan.
Throughout the play there are several examples of how Edmund’s manipulative and deceitful natures contribute to the outcome of the work. Edmund plans to steal land and legitimacy by manipulating both father and son against each other, resulting in the need for Edgar to adopt a role as a crazed beggar. Also, Edmund betrays his father’s trust by divulging incriminating evidence about his activities to Cornwall, resulting in Edmund being promoted to Earl of Gloucester. Lastly, by promising his love to both Goneril and Reagan, Edmund places both sisters on a course that leads to their deaths. Perhaps the story of King Lear may have unfolded differently if Edmund was not such a manipulative and deceitful character.
Bennett, Simon. Major Literary Characters. United States of America: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992
Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespeare and the Exorcists. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987
McAlindon, T. Shakespeare’s Tragic Cosmos. New York: Press Syndicate, 1991
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Penguin Books Limited, 1998