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.

Case Notes for Edgar Gloucester

By Nixy Thomeczek


In 1606, a crisis took place after an argument between an “of age” male youth and his father. The crisis was witnessed by the half-brother living in the home of similar age. This worker was contacted to facilitate crisis work for the youth henceforth Edgar, his brother Edmund, and father who asked to only be referred to as Gloucester. Currently the country is facing an invasion by a long-standing enemy, Gloucester is a political figure under stress and unable to be on scene for the crisis. This external stressor facilitated a breakdown between father and son. The youth was called in for refusal to return home, this will be his first contact with us, and the meeting place is designated at a public park. Secondary housing needs located for Edgar because of his distress and Gloucester being unable to pick him up. I was unable to get an address for Edgar as “poor Tom has no home”, a SASS (Screening, Assessment, and Support Services) worker will be contacted for a mental evaluation before placement to see if he needs inpatient treatment.


Edgar Gloucester is the full son of the Duke of Gloucester and his wife. He lives with his father, half-brother, and a myriad of servants. His mother was not mentioned during this case. Edgar’s presenting problem at the time of this worker’s interview was the removal from his home due to his father’s aggression. Edgar represented to this worker that the communication of his father’s anger was relayed through his half-brother, Edmund. Edgar said his brother told him, “you may have offended him: and at my entreaty forbear his presence till some little time hath qualified the heat of his displeasure; which at this instant so rageth in him, that with the mischief of your person it would scarcely allay.” (King Lear, act 1 scene 2) To translate, he was told that his father was greatly upset with him due to something he had said early in the day. Edgar did not attempt communication with his father, he instead left the area to avoid his father’s anger. Edgar also admitted that he did not try to communicate with the servants as to his father’s temperament. Gloucester could not be reached at the time as he was meeting with other political figures for a discussion on the current invasion. The servant who attempted to contact him said that “his eyes were coming out of his head” and that the half-brother was to take over the political position. No verbal consent could be given and so Edgar will be treated as a homeless youth rather than child runaway as he was called in.

Client Presentation:

Edgar at the time of crisis was “cosplaying” as a popular folk character known as Tom O’ Bedlam. He described his look as “my face I’ll grime with filth; Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;… Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;…” (King Lear, Act 2 Scene 3) He claimed that this was an attempt to hide rather than him expressing his grief. This worker, however, believes that this was an expression of his grief as he shows signs of emotional distress. He said, “Poor Turlygod! poor Tom! That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am.” (King Lear, Act 2 Scene 3) He appears to be struggling with his internal image and has conflicting self-concepts due to this argument with his father. He has lost his ability to see himself outside of his relationship with his father and to distinguish himself from his name. It appears that Edgar is using this character as a way to live vicariously in a way that he was unable to access before. This worker attempted to convince Edgar to go to a hotel or placement for homeless youth, but he was unreceptive to this concept. Edgar was convinced that he was being hunted by his half-brother, despite no evidence of this, and stated that being housed would put him at risk for “being discovered”. The servant that was able to be contacted described Edgar as a very trusting and good-natured character, and so this worker called again to determine if this belief was founded or paranoia. This worker was informed that Edgar’s beliefs were founded, and so this worker put a call to DCFS for a hit being put out on a youth. Because he is “of age” (still no specific age) DCFS deflected him, SASS deflected hospitalization due to Edgar being determined as to not be a danger to himself or others.

Intervention and Crisis resolution:

After attempting to facilitate a resolution with Gloucester and Edgar and failing. An attempt was made for housing not associated with federal programs that were subject to oversight. Edgar elected to squat in an abandoned house with a former king, a fool, and a knight who looks suspiciously like famous actor Jim Carter. Edgar and this worker agreed to reconvene post invasion, in an effort to stabilize Edgar.

Edgar reached out after a massive storm to inform this worker that his father’s eyes had been plucked out and they were attempting to make it to the French army and request relief. Edgar did not reveal to his father who he was, and instead he convinced his father that his father survived a suicide attempt and then disguised himself as a peasant. SASS was again contacted to assess his mental state, but they could not be located.

Edgar again reached out to this worker, only a few hours after the defeat of the invading army, claiming his father died when he told him who he was, and he was going to go kill his half-brother who was engaging in risky sexual behavior with both ruling women. This worker again contacted SASS as he was threatening harm to others, Edgar was again unable to be located.

Edgar contacted this worker again to inform her of the resolution. Gloucester is dead from an unknown cause, Edmund is dead by Edgar’s actions, both ruling women are dead in a murder suicide, former king is dead of an unknown cause, Cordelia (third ruler?) died by hanging, and Edgar is now king. This worker is using this space to write her formal resignation, and to let readers know that I will be moving literally anywhere else.


Edgar is an unstable person suffering from extreme grief and trauma who uses disguises to cope with loss of the people he uses to create his identity. He seems lacking in a core belief of self and has no higher goals now that Edmund and Gloucester are dead. His belief of self appeared to be informed entirely on external opinions, and he has no clear motivator since his massive loss. I am concerned that with no people around to ground him, he may struggle with the weight of power and the court of public opinion to the point where he is a dangerous ruler. He seemed unable to experience emotions as himself and turned to his made and adopted characters as a way to express his intense emotions. This is not uncommon, many people under high stress have hidden lives and it helps them so long as they do not fall to deeply into their constructed characters. Issues with his newer experience and power are a cause for concern. Now leading a country, he may not know how to function without seeking revenge, and in doing so he may send his country to war by unjustly blaming the king of France for his father’s death. This worker hopes that while he was acting as poor tom and a peasant, he was able to learn emotional expression in a helpful and healthy way. Hopefully Edgar is able to recover the kindness and selfless attitude from before this trauma and able to rule well and with fairness.


Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. (1877). King Lear. Oxford :Clarendon Press,

Sarah and Her Battle for “Purity” In Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse

By Gavin Hosto

I was assigned to observe Sarah for my collegiate thesis on the many ways dreams are a direct reflection of the workings in one’s consciousness. Admitted in as recently as October 1964, Sarah has been plagued with awful visions and manifestations of her internal turmoil that have begun to affect her external self. From the scant information about her before meeting, I was told of her self-hatred and of her obsession with the color black and white. These colors have a lot of meaning in dreams, purity for white and evil for black. Even Sarah herself said, “Black is evil and has been from the beginning.” (10)

I was given a briefing right before our first session where the staff have told me that I will have no problem with getting her to talk. She has a particular warmness to my pale skin. Staff members who were African American are stationed far away from her cell as she would have a fit of rage, resulting in either self-harm or direct violence towards the orderlies. She had shaved her head to rid herself of what she calls “frizzy hair, unmistakably Negro kinky hair,” expressing sorrow for not having the straight hair of a white woman (11).

She flashed a bright smile at me when I entered her cell. The fluorescent lights gave everything an unnatural brightness. I had no shadow and I noted that there is no bed frame in her cell as that would cast a shadow. She wore white mitts as a preventative measure to her practice of self-harm. The mitts were fastened onto her forearm similar to how straitjackets are secured. I explained my reasoning for being here and she seemed to comply with the study. All I asked of her was to recount the dreams, or a more apt term would be nightmares, so I could help her.

Personal & Social Effects

She is a mixed girl who was at an Atlanta College with an English major which her mother was also an English major. She graduated and worked in various libraries. She has an obsessive quality about being liked, no, adored by her white peers. The fear of darker skinned I already knew but she was stressed about how white people will see her and judge her. She explained to me that all educated black folks “out of life and death essential – I find it necessary to maintain a stark fortress against recognition of myself.” (11)  She has crafted a narrative similar to the ways anti-black propaganda films and newspapers have done. She dreamt of owning European antiques, hanging picture of Roman ruins on her apartment wall and having a white glass table to eat at. “I will visit my friends’ apartments which will contain books, photographs of Roman ruins, pianos and oriental carpets. My friends will be white.” (11)  The incident that had her admitted was a meltdown. The pressures of trying to be the best for her white peers and her own troubled past led to this. The Landlady heard screams of “the Beast” attacking Sarah and called the police.

From our sessions, I could tell that she was a one point very religious which might have come from her father as he was a deeply devout man. Her obsession with white could be related to angelic connotations of purity and spiritual cleanliness. In spite of that, she has a less than favorable view of Christianity in the present. For example, Jesus is a reoccurring character in her dreams but He is a hunchback that’s deformed and sickly. Almost described as a ghoul of some sorts. My hypothesis is that her father plays a role into why she feels this way about religion and I will explain later in this study.


Repetition is a key aspect of Sarah’s madness. In the different iterations of herselves in the dreamscape, repetition is a part of their speech and how they move within the quandaries of the dream. For example, a character named Raymond or Funnyman, always laughs while he talks and he opens and closes the blinds. She said that the blinds open to mirrors which I think is an important thing to note. The dream version of her Landlady laughs when speaking as well. This could be interpreted as her mocking the pain she’s been through as they’re usually talking about Sarah’s personal tragedies and insecurities. Environmental repetition such as the knocking comes into play and might hint at certain events that may have transpired in her adolescence. This repetition could point to her mosaic emotions or as if she is trying to find something deep within her subconsciousness.

Dissonance, paranoia and memory gaps/loss is another unfortunate symptom to her illness. She said her father was a social worker but her dream self as Funnyman Raymond said that he was a doctor. She says her father raped her innocent, white mother, that he’s a beast who hunts in the night, haunting her conception. There is a symbol of the ebony mask in her dreams that she often talks about it when describing how she killed him. Could be her wishing to kill the black side of her mixed identity. She spends a lot of her dreams centered around this figure in her life. Nothing is 100% certain of what he did to make her believe that he is a rabid animal other than being born with dark skin.

In all our sessions, she never sat down longer than two minutes before getting up and pacing around the cell. She will sometimes repeat the actions of the characters like the opening and closing of the blinds, though there are no blinds in the ward. In some of her dreams, she can recite the same speech identically save for a few certain portions that relate to her father. Patrice Lumumba is a figure in her dreamscape and is seen as a reflection of her. A fascinating detail about this is that Lumumba was a huge proponent to decolonizing the Democratic Republic of Congo from the Belgian colonial powers which could indicate that she wishes to get rid of the hurtful thoughts of being mixed but like Lumumba, is shot down for trying to change it. “My friends will be white. I need them as an embankment to keep me from reflecting too much upon the fact that I am Patrice Lumumba who haunted my mother’s conception.” (17) He, as a version of Sarah, repeats her speech but with harsher terms for describing himself like vile and using racial slurs. The most bewildering change is where Patrice said that his mother and father both social work majors when Sarah said that it was her mother and her that shared an English major while the father was a social work major. It comes across as though conflicting memories and thoughts of what her life was like and what truly happened and what was imagined intersect, leading to a loss of reality.


From compiling all my notes, the history of her affliction is still a bit blurry. In both retellings, the father was a social worker, but the mother is still a mystery. We are given little insight in what became of the mother. Sarah’s mother was sent to an asylum and had a bald head which baldness is another repeating motif of her dreams. It could explain her baldness as well. Not only to get rid of her self-described “wild, kinky” hair, the marker for her blackness, but to be more akin to her white mother. There is a dream where there is this faceless man, carrying a mask, and explaining how his “mother” was losing hair and crying on the bed. The mother was admitted to a hospital, and she says, “Black diseases, Sarah, she says. Black diseases.” and “I never should have let a black man put his hands on me.” (16)

Religion incorporates itself into the father’s role and how she perceives herself. For the father, the role of religion plays into his social work where he wants to go to Africa and decolonize it, similar to Moses freeing the Jewish slaves from the pharaohs. The white mother even pushes for him to do it, which conflicts with Sarah’s understanding of her white and black identity. Whites shouldn’t let black people free as they are beasts and will harm the young, innocent white girls. Sarah told me, though this account’s validity seems to be iffy, her father told her, “Sarah, Sarah, he would say to me, the soldiers are coming and a cross that are placing high on the tree and are dragging me through the grass and nailing me on the cross.” (19) But what makes this interesting is the fact that Christianity was a means of colonizing Africa. Her black father is using the religion that put his people into bondage as a way to free them as well. Another character that reflects Sarah is Jesus but here, He is a yellow-skinned, hunchback dwarf wearing nothing but white rags and sandals. Her religious mania has made her think that she’s being punished similarly to Jesus. I see the yellow skin being covered by the white rags as Sarah’s attempt to fit in with the educated white people at her university, hiding her mixed heritage for she and others will see it as ghastly and hideous. She is a dwarf because of how she feels about her place in life with her father killing himself and being, most likely, the only mixed girl on campus. Her back is hunched from the weight of expectations she put on herself, to be the model mixed girl, to please her white peers and professors. It is a cross that she bears and has left her distorted and deformed.

The death of the father had an obvious effect on her though we do not know exactly how he died. I tried to access records but I do not have proper authorization to see death certificates of people unrelated to me so we can only estimate from the sessions on what happened. My theory is that her father killed himself given the symbol of the bloodied noose around Sarah’s neck and the repeated knocking throughout most of her dreams. She did say that “he tried to hang himself once” (19) which may suggest that her father was suicidal in her childhood. Sarah might have been the one knocking at her father’s door, asking him to cook for her or to play with her. Sarah keeps knocking and knocking with no answer. Upset by the lack of attention, she opens the door to find her father, suspended in the air with the noose around his neck. She never fully says this but connecting certain details have led me to that conclusion. However, when she does explicitly talk about her father’s death, she said that she killed him by bludgeoning him with the ebony mask. There is a lot to glean from this: she feels guilty about her father dying and may feel as though she was the cause, she kills him because of the anger she feels about him leaving her and her mother like that and that she hates him for giving her the “undesirable” characteristics that all African Americans have. And yet, there’s conflicting accounts of his death where Funnyman Raymond at the end of one dream told the Landlady, “Her father never hung himself in a Harlem hotel when Patrice Lumumba was murdered.” (26) From the evidence Sarah has given me, the father died which led to a breakdown for the mother and was institutionalized for it, leaving Sarah alone and for her to try and learn about the world from racist perspectives.


What I have gathered here from my time working with Sarah, the image of oneself is never concrete. New revelations, new perspectives and other inventions play a role in how the subconscious deals with your identity. For Sarah, she has these dueling perspectives, these conflicting self-concepts, that cannot be resolved in a neat and organized way. Societal influences creates her worldview of identity and how she needs to be so many things and to turn away from other aspects of her personhood. “You can’t be mixed; you have to choose white to please the masses and bestialize the black.” Laws, entertainment and academia favors white people so she has to become a model citizen to distract her from how she will never be fully accepted for her being half-black and to be unlike her mother and father. Religion is what possibly killed her father and yet can still find common ground with the figure of Jesus, being tortured and weighed down by internal and external influences. These mounting burdens of the propaganda that dehumanized black people for centuries, the trauma of losing her parents, religion no longer being a place of sanctuary and the people pleasing that puts herself down is what drives her madness. Funnyman Raymond in the dreams opens and closes the blinds, revealing mirrors. It is as if she is so close to realizing the futility of this effort to not be fully herself and that there’s a way to live more truthfully but she quickly dashes away any chances of this dream to be reality.

Work Cited

Kennedy, Adrienne. Funnyhouse of a Negro. Samuel French Acting Edition by Concord Theatricals, 1997. Retrieved April 13, 2022.