Character Case Study: Edmund’s “Madness” in King Lear

By Kyrie Watson


Through his relationship with his family, his status as an illegitimate child, and the political circus Edmund is thrust into, we start to see a form of “madness” in Edmund’s behavior in King Lear. By juxtaposing Edmund’s deceit, and Edgar’s honesty, Shakespeare creates a vessel in which we can view the severity of his actions. Edmund’s true “madness” comes from his immoral views of ambition. While dishonesty, and the quest for power are exceedingly common, Edmund’s level of dishonesty, and the steps he takes to gain that power, are socially unacceptable. In some instances, this reaches the level of taboo, in which actions in the pursuit of ambition become condemnable. Intrinsically, we seek out familial relationships, we seek comfort, and belonging from our family, Edmund’s refusal of this belonging, and his inability to feel naturally occurring pleasure, leaves him to his own devices. Throughout the play, Edmund has gained this pathological need for power, with truly little control over his own thoughts and feelings, that are urging him to perform these unacceptable behaviors.


Edmund’s “madness”, in which he plots the level of status and power only achievable to him through lies, and deceit, can be traced back to his relationship with his father, Gloucester, and his half-brother Edgar. Edmund is the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, and younger than his brother. Although Gloucester and Edgar treat him fairly, and attempt to create familial bonds, Edmund resents his position as the bastard son. His feelings of inadequacy can first be observed in Act 1, Scene 1, when Edmund, Gloucester, and Kent are discussing the issue of his lineage. Gloucester admits to Kent that Edmund is, “…this knave came saucily to the world before he was sent for… but the whoreson must be acknowledged.” (1.1.20-23). Gloucester admits embarrassment initially at Edmund’s conception, but goes on to mention his eldest son, Edgar, and although he has more pride in Edgar’s birth, he goes on to say, “But I have a son, sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer on my account.” (1.1.18-19).  Although Gloucester and Edgar accept Edmund into their lives, Edmund refuses this acceptance. We can infer that this might be caused by the position, power-wise, that Edmund is placed in. As the youngest son and illegitimate, Edmund has almost no claim to political power, or the status that his father and eldest brother have achieved.

We are told by Edmund himself, his feelings in response to Gloucester’s view on his birth. In Act 1, Scene Two, during his exchange with Edmund, Gloucester speaks about Edgar’s ill will towards him similarly to Edmund’s conception, blaming nature itself for his own believed mistakes, “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us… This villain of mine comes under the prediction—there’s son against father.” (1.2.102-103,109-110). Edmund views Gloucester’s unwillingness to take responsibility for both his conception and Edgar’s betrayal as weakness. He believes that the belief in omens, and in forces unknown become a crutch on which a guilty man stands, he says to himself in the same scene, “An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!” (1.2.126-128). Edmund later comments on his madness, confirming that it has passed the point of temporary fixation, and has turned into a much darker pathological urge, derived from his very conception. Edmund speaks to himself, stating “… Fut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing…” (1.2.131-133). Edmund’s obsession defies logic, and defies the normal capacity for empathy, instead filling Edmund with immensely powerful feelings and urges that he cannot control.         


After examining the origins of Edmund’s madness, we can begin to parse out specific moments when this madness manifested itself in Edmund’s behavior. Throughout the play, Edmund begins to plot against Gloucester, and Edgar, as mentioned previously, through his interactions with other characters we can start to develop an idea of Edmund’s symptoms. In Act3, Scene 5, directly after a conversation with his father, Edmund again talks to himself, which he does an unsettling number of times, laying out his plan against his father, “This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me That which my father loses—no less than all. The younger rises when the old doth falls.” (3.3.22-24). What makes this level of deception condemnable comes from this taboo of parental alienation. Instead of naturally embracing, and accepting his father, Edmund is actively taking steps to deceive, and harm Gloucester. This very act of child vs parent is a common theme throughout the play, like Goneril and Regan’s action towards Lear, and is seen as the root cause of this enormous tragedy.

Another passage that clarifies Edmund’s behavior is in Act 1, Scene 2, following his lies to Edgar, and Gloucester meant to create a rift between the two. In lines 176 through 181 Edmund is once again speaking to himself, describing his father and brother he says “A credulous father, and a brother noble—Whose nature is so far from doing harms That he suspects none, on whose foolish honesty My practices ride easy….” (1.2.176-179). The language that Edmund uses to describe his family, a credulous or gullible father, a noble brother… foolish honesty, he describes them as unknowing participants in his game, but participants, nevertheless. Finally, ending his monologue, Edmund’s speaks of his true intentions saying “…All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit.” (1.2.181).  He explains here that regardless of the actions he must take to acquire power, however condemnable, he is willing to take them. This scene is important because it shows us that not only did Edmund recognize his madness, but he also willingly embraced these twisted means to an end.

Edmund’s relationship with Cornwall also contains recognizable symptoms of his mad behavior. Edmund manipulates Cornwall, convincing him that Edmund has fought a great moral battle in deciding to give him the incriminating letter about Gloucester. In Act 3. Scene 5, Edmund speaks this supposed moral dilemma to Cornwall stating “How, my lord, I may be censured, that nature thus gives way to loyalty, something fears me to think of.” (3.5.2-3). This makes Cornwall believe that because of his loyalty to his country, Edmund is willing to betray his father, and bring him to justice. This eventually results in Gloucester losing his eyes, which is not good enough for Edmund, who sets of to find and kill his father himself. We know that Edmund is being deceitful because of previous scenes, but also because he talks to himself (Maybe he really is crazy…) after his discussion with Cornwall. He says to himself, “If I find him comforting the king, it will stuff his suspicion more fully.” (3.5.19-20). Edmund intends to further damage his father’s reputation, hoping to catch him in the act. Edmund’s main symptom is his deceit, and manipulation of others and we can trace this back to his lack of attachment to individuals and his community.                                     

Personal effects:

Edmund’s relationships with Goneril and Regan encompass how this madness affects him at his core. Through moments of deceit, and trickery, love and compassion show through eventually. This love and passion does not present itself in an attractive manner, but regardless of our disdain towards Edmund, and the sisters, we can start to see Edmund’s internal conflict. In the moments after Edmund is wounded, and learns of the sister’s death, he reveals his true feelings about his close relationships. In Act 5, scene 3, Edmund reacts to this news, saying, “Yet Edmund was beloved. The one the other poisoned for my sake, And after slew herself.” (5.3.294-296). Edmund, the poor guy, speaks as though he has never felt loved before. We get the idea that this causes Edmund to reflect on his own immoral actions and try to redeem himself by saving Lear and Cordelia. “I pant for life. Some good I mean to do Despite of mine own nature.” (5.3.298-299). Edmund’s belief that his actions are rooted in the very nature of his being tells us that his madness was inevitable in his mind.


Knowing now that Edmund is capable of emotions beyond the scope of his own ambitions, we can start to infer that his broken relationship with his family has left him with more than resentment. Socially, we want to belong, we want to have a place in the world, and a support system. Edmund is no exception to this idea, his reversal at the end of the play tells us that Edmund longed for someone to love him, for him to feel loved. Given that his madness seems to be rooted in his very nature, we are left to wonder if this could have been prevented. Had Gloucester accepted him at birth as his son, would he have felt as slighted? Had he been placed into a different family, one without as much power and status, would the result be the same? Let’s entertain the idea for a second that because of all these culminating factors, Edmund ended up with a unique view on family, status, and power, causing him to react in the manner that he did. So, what can we imply from this? That given the right circumstances, children can murder their parents, that the rejection of paternal status creates a deep rift in the minds of children? Edmund can teach us that given the right opportunities, many are capable of unspeakable acts in the pursuit of ambition. We see it constantly in different ways, though not to the degree that Edmund practices.

Pathological desire, deceit, and ambition, we see it repeated throughout King Lear in different characters. Shakespeare intends to comment on the corruption that comes from basic human desire. From Goneril and Regan lusting after Edmund, to Lear seeking the praise of his daughters, until we see the result of this desire ends in tragedy. Edmund’s desire caused the death of multiple people, his own father, innocent Cordelia, eventually Lear and many others. Desire is a base human instinct, the ability to control this desire, and act accordingly leads us to realize that human nature is uncontrollable. Edmund shows us that human nature leads us to tragedy, and that becomes the paradox of desire.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, W. (2008). King Lear. W.W. Norton & Company, INC.