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Free Study Guide-King Lear by William Shakespeare-Free Online Book Notes
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ACT, SCENE 2

Summary

This scene occurs at Gloucester Castle and begins with a soliloquy by Edmund in which he reveals his true nature. He declares that he obeys whatever pleases him, even if it is ruthless and lawless. He feels unhindered by any societal, governmental, or moral law and takes pity on himself for being illegitimate. Believing himself to be just as worthy as Edgar, he is plotting against his half-brother to prevent him from receiving all of Gloucester's estate. He holds a forged letter in his hand, supposedly written by Edgar. In it Edgar asks for Edmund's help in killing their father.

When Gloucester enters, Edmund pretends to hide the letter. A suspicious Gloucester demands to see what he is trying to hide. Edmund acts reluctant at first, but eventually shows the letter to his father. As hoped by Edmund, Gloucester reads it and accepts the contents of the letter as the truth. Edmund then cleverly pretends to shield his brother; in so doing, he manages to strengthen Gloucester's belief in Edgar's treachery. Edmund promises to find out more details about the plot from Edgar and pass them on to Gloucester. He goes off to begin his work.

Gloucester is hurt by the treason of Edgar and expresses his emotions in a soliloquy. He states that the "bond (has) cracked 'twixt son and father." He thinks about the evil of the times, including what has happened to Cordelia, and blames the evil on outside forces, such as the recent eclipses of the sun. He never questions whether he or Edmund might be in the wrong. Like Lear, he is incapable of judging good from evil.


Edmund is just outside, eavesdropping on Gloucester's spoken words and delighting in the fact that his plot is working so well. He cannot believe his father is so superstitious as to blame things on external events and outside forces, such as eclipses. Edgar enters, interrupting Edmund's thoughts. He then puzzles Edgar by asking him when he had seen their father last and whether they had parted on good terms. Edmund then announces to Edgar that their father is angry with him. He warns Edgar against meeting Gloucester and pretends to be deeply disturbed over the situation. He also tells Edgar he should arm himself, hinting at some conspiracy against him. Edgar is obviously upset by Edmund's words as he departs.

Notes

Beneath Edmund's quiet and impassive exterior lie depths of wickedness. He pities himself for his illegitimacy and resents Edgar, the legitimate son of his father. Although he openly admits that he is a product of "moral lawlessness," he erroneously reasons that he is as good as his brother is and deserving of his father's fortune. To capture what he wants, he plots against Edgar and convinces Gloucester that the younger son is trying to kill his father. In essence, Edmund is totally amoral.

Gloucester's interaction with Edmund in this scene echoes the previous one between Lear and Cordelia. When asked what he is holding, Edmund replies, "Nothing, my lord;" the response is reminiscent of Cordelia's words, but his, unlike hers, have manipulative intention. Gloucester's insistence that he see what Edmund has and his many references to sight also repeat the motif of blindness and lack of insight begun in the last scene. Gloucester's reaction is also similar to that of Lear. Just as the King did not question the flattery of the evil Goneril and Regan, Gloucester fails to question the authenticity of Edmund's letter. Both Lear and Gloucester are victimized by their own children.

When Edgar is seen later in the scene, it is obvious that he is a total contrast to the evil Edmund, just as Cordelia is a total contrast to her two wicked older sisters. Because of Edgar's trusting nature, Edmund is able to easily exploit him. The younger half-brother is too naïve to think that Edmund is capable of plotting to ruin him.

In fact, he delights in having "a credulous father, and a brother noble/whose nature is so far from doing harms,/that he suspects none." Unfortunately, the evil Edmund will be able to destroy Edgar, just as Cordelia will be destroyed by Regan and Goneril.

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