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Kristie DeVlieger David Cope ENG 252: Shakespeare 8 November 2009

Edmund: The classic Anti-hero

The Hero’s Journey is a concept that was laid out by Joseph Campbell in his

book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and was simplified by Christopher Vogler in his

book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic structure for storytellers and screenwriters. The

hero’s journey is the heart of every story, play, or movie; the hero’s journey around

fortune’s wheel. It’s components are: the ordinary world, the call, meeting the mentor,

crossing the first threshold, tests, allies, and enemies, the approach, the supreme

ordeal, the reward, the road back, resurrection, and the return (with the elixir). In King

Lear Edmund goes through enough of these stages to prove he is a hero.

Edmund is in essence, a hero. The archetype, as defined by Vogler is “the ego’s

search for identity and wholeness,” (Vogler, 39) the very thing that Edmund is actually

searching for in his Machiavellian plot. He was born the younger child, and a bastard, of

the Earl of Gloucester. Because of his bastard state, he can not inherit anything from his

father, and in shame he has been sent abroad for 9 years (I.i.30). The very definition of

a bastard in his time was that it was a base individual; a criminal by nature, and as a

result of this labeling, he grew to become exactly what his society created him to be: an

anti-hero. “These are flawed Heroes who never overcome their inner demons and are

brought down and destroyed by them. They may be charming, they may have admirable

qualities, but the flaw wins out in the end” (Vogler, 46). In this guise, he is in his

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ordinary world.

The call is an inner call that Edmund feels to gain his rightful place, despite

society’s laws. He rants about the unfairness of the inheritance laws, and about his

birth, asking “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?” (I.ii.

6-9). He states clearly that he wants to have his brother’s land later in this passage, and

ends, goading himself, “Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed, and my invention thrive,

Edmund the base shall top the legitimate” (I.ii.19-21). He has answered his inner call by

creating a plot to eliminate Edgar as an heir, and by putting that plot into action by

carrying the letter he has written to himself and playing it off as being written by his

brother. When Gloucester reads this incriminating letter (I.ii.45-52), Edmund sets the

next part in action by setting up a situation in which he can be alone with Edgar to catch

Edgar unawares of what’s going on, and enabling him to hide Edgar in his room.

Edmund crosses the first threshold when he eliminates Edgar. When he goes to

Edmund later in the day he convinces his brother to draw his sword, and after they

fence a little, his brother leaves. The noise of their pretend battle draws his father. But

not quick enough for him to catch Edmund wounding himself (II.i. 30-35). The Duke and

Regan arrive then, possible allies for Edmund in his war against his brother. They are

told the story as well, and they commend his actions, becoming his allies (II.i. 90-120).

As if this weren’t enough, he achieves his original goal already; his brother’s land,

thanks to his father, who promises “my land, Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means

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to make thee capable” (II.i.84-86).

Edmund’s tests, allies, and enemies are the logical next step for him in a scheme

to make it to the top of the ladder and thumb his nose at the nobility. His present allies,

Regan and Cromwell can take him far, since Regan is one of the Queens, and all he

has left to do is befriend Goneril and the Duke of Albany, and he will be in favor of the

ruling parties. His true test of loyalty is when the Earl of Gloucester confides in him that

he has a dangerous letter locked in his room, and that he plans on speaking to the king,

in III.iii, where we see his true colors in wanting his father to fall so that he can have

what is his. He runs and tattles to Cornwall, saying “this is the letter he spoke of, which

approves him an intelligent party to the advantages of France” (III.v. 8-9). This betrayal

proves advantageous for him once more, as Cornwall tells him “it hath made thee Earl

of Gloucester. Seek out where thy father is, that he may be ready for our

apprehension” (III.v. 14-16). Edmund readily goes along, despite the fact that his

betrayal has cost his father his eyes. Over the course of the next act, he begins to use

these newfound allies to his purpose, explaining his plot for the Queens thusly; “To both

these sisters have I sworn my love; Each jealous of the other, as the stung Are of the

adder. Which of them shall I take?” (V.i. 55-57). He also foreshadows what will happen

to Lear and Cordelia, saying “the battle done, and they within our power, shall never see

his [Albany] pardon; for my state stands on me to defend, not to debate” (V.i.67-69), for

if any of the royal blood are left to oppose him, they can claim the throne from him and

are his rivals and enemies.

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Edmund’s supreme ordeal is his fight with Edgar. Edgar and Albany meet

beforehand and plan the fight, knowing Edmund would not stand for the besmirching of

his name that he has worked so hard to build up into something it is not. In this way he

is convinced to fight Edgar in his disguise, and reveal his original plot, giving himself

away completely when he loses. This costs him his ally Albany, as well as revealing the

plot Goneril and Edmund have conceived. It strips Edmund of almost everything he has

fought so hard to gain, but he still has the love of the two Queens, an important piece of

the power puzzle. He himself says “The wheel is come full circle! I am here (at the

bottom)” (V.iii.173). But this is not true yet.

The true road back for Edmund is the fulfillment of his plot with the two sisters.

At the critical moment it achieves fruition, delaying the inevitable for him. As Edgar and

Albany begin to bond further as allies and discuss the topic of a suitable punishment for

Edmund’s crimes, a servant enters, shouting “she’s dead!

and her sister by her is

poisoned; she hath confessed it” (V.iii.223-226). Edmund seems pleased by this all,

having achieved his true desire of merely being loved, a human desire that everyone

can relate to, explaining to his judges “Yet Edmund was beloved. The one the other

poisoned for my sake, and after slew herself” (V.iii.238-240). This eliminates all

competition for the throne except for Albany, Lear, and Cordelia-- two people he’s

already got things in action for.

Edmund’s path to resurrection is a failed attempt at saving himself. He admits

this himself, saying “I pant for life. Some good I mean to do, despite of mine own

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nature” (V.iii.242-243). He tells them of the locations of Lear and Cordelia, and explain

“He hath commission from thy wife [Goneril] and me to hang Cordelia” (V.iii.250-251).

Unfortunately this last admission is his undoing.

Edmund’s admission of ordering to have Cordelia proves to be his undoing, and

the formation of his return to the ordinary world. He returns at the literal bottom rung- a

base, bastard. Nothing he has done is actually murder or anything condemnable up to

this point, but the death of Cordelia is the end of this. The order is in his hand and was

carried out under his command, causing the death of someone close to the crown.

Because of this Edmund is borne off to the dungeon, and ultimately dies (V.iii.294).

Edgar and Gloucester are back to where things were in the beginning.

Edmund’s rise and fall is parallel to that of the hero’s journey. He is truly an anti-

hero, of the tragic kind, as well as being a Machiavellian. As a character he is very

rounded, and it is interesting to watch him go through the journey fighting his inner


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Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. “King Lear” (conflated text). The Norton Shakespeare. Second ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al; eds. New York: Norton, 2007. 2493-2567.

Volger, Christopher. The Writer ʼ s Journey: Mythic structure for storytellers and screenwriters. California: Michael Wiese Productions, 1992.

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