King Lear Society and Class Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Act.Scene.Line). Line numbers correspond to the Norton edition.
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,'
Edmund is pretty sick and tired of the way society treats younger brothers and illegitimate children (Edmund is both). According to Edmund, he's just as smart and attractive as his older, "legitimate" brother, Edgar. And yet, because of the system of primogeniture, Edgar will inherit everything when his father dies and Edmund will get nothing. (Primogeniture is the system by which eldest sons inherit all their father's land, wealth, and titles.) This is totally unfair – it's not Edmund's fault his dad had an affair or that he was born 12 or 14 months after Edgar.
If we think about Lear as a play that offers social commentary, what do we think Shakespeare is up to here? Is he trying to make Edmund a sympathetic figure? Is he pointing to the unfairness of primogeniture? Something else?
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th' legitimate. Fine word, 'legitimate.'
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow, I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards! (1.2.15-22)
Hmm. A few seconds ago, we were beginning to feel sorry for poor Edmund. After all, it's no fun being labeled an "illegitimate" child. But, by this point in Edmund's soliloquy (a lengthy speech that reveals a character's inner thoughts), Edmund's self-serving speech is starting to sound pretty Darwinian. In other words, Edmund sounds like he ascribes to the idea of "the survival of the fittest," don't you think?
Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no
need to care for her frowning; now thou art an O
without a figure: I am better than thou art now; I
am a fool, thou art nothing. To Goneril. Yes,
forsooth, I will hold my tongue. So your face
bids me, though you say nothing.
He that keeps nor crust nor crumb,
Weary of all, shall want some.
He points at Lear.
That's a shelled peascod.
Not only, sir, this your all-licensed Fool,
But other of your insolent retinue
Do hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth
In rank and not-to-be endurèd riots. (1.4.196-208)
Here, Goneril complains to Lear about the licensed fool's "insolence." (A "licensed fool" literally has a license to say whatever he wants. Lear's Fool is a lot like Feste in Twelfth Night.) So, what's Goneril complaining about, exactly? As we can see from this passage, the Fool offers some pretty precise and irreverent social commentary—King Lear is "nothing" now that he's given all his power and land to his children, and so on.