Edmund’s vigorous and energetic soliloquy at the start of Act I ii combines humour, reason according to his values and a different concept of Nature, his goddess. This is his concept of a force which is without the structure of society and the universe and means something like animal nature or basic instinct. He is standing outside Gloucerter’s castle which is, confusingly, a night’s journey from the town of Gloucester, a fact which contributes to the geographical vagueness of the play. Since he is the younger and illegitimate son he must rely on his own powers and will not “Stand in the plague of custom ” [be dependent on a diseased accepted hierarchy] and allow the “curiosity” [fastidiousness] of others to rob him of his inheritance because he is a year or so younger than Edgar.
Punning on the disparaging term “bastard” he asks in what way he is “base” since he is as handsome, well-built and intelligent as a legitimate son. We know this to be true from the comments at the start of the play and have much sympathy with him at this point, partly because his blank verse has such enthusiasm and pulsing prose rhythms that it carries us with him with its questions, claims and jokes. Reminding us again of Gloucester’s earlier words, he points out, amusingly, that bastards are conceived in passion, “the lusty stealth of nature” unlike those born in wedlock, “the dull, stale, tired bed”, a comparison which makes law and order seem weary and worthless. We are now prepared to find Edgar a man “Got ‘tween sleep and wake” and, unfortunately for our balanced reactions, he does seem like this when we meet him. Edmund is focussed and single-minded, wanting his inheritance and scorning whatever stands in his way. As an outsider, he will bend the world to his demands and has written a letter to achieve his ends, knowing (as we do) that his father loves him as much as his elder brother. He has no position within this society or ordered chain and his positive language contrasts with Lear’s weariness and the hypocritical high-flown speeches of Goneril and Regan: he is another plain speaker in soliloquy. The tone is not yet that of tragedy here and the audience, particularly a modern one, asks how evil is the wish to break a set of rules he believes is wrong. He wants to move into the structure and then up it and, at this point, we may sympathise with him. There is a subversive virility in his: “I grow, O prosper;/Now gods stand up for bastards” which adds a new note to the drama. We sense that, for a while, the sub-plot will be in his hands and we await, with tense interest, the unfolding of his scheme.
The entry of Gloucester reminds us that he missed the ceremony but it is clear he has heard a report of what happened with emphasis on the trouble that everyone has noticed and is alarmed about: “upon the gad” [suddenly as if pricked by a goad] underlines the irrationality and thoughtlessnes of Lear’s actions against his faithful supporters. His power is “Confin’d to exhibition” [restricted to an allowance]; this is ironic prefigurement as Gloucester is about to behave in the same hasty and sudden fashion himself. Edmund makes a fuss about putting the letter away, knowing that his father is curious by nature and will enquire. The word “Nothing” starts off this plot also. Sight and eyes, keywords throughout, are mentioned and Edmund does not have to be particularly clever to arouse his father’s investigations. He pre-empts disbelief or suspicion by stating that the forged letter must be a test of his own loyalty.
It may possibly be luck on Edmund’s part or could be hasty planning that the letter plays on the very fears aroused in Gloucester by the ceremony: disloyal children and inheritance. Edmund continues to pre-empt, saying that the handwriting [character} is his brother’s even though the content is wicked and here he does have to be more wily as Gloucester starts to question. With adroit quick-wittedness, he merely claims that Edgar has sounded him out in general terms about sons managing a father’s affairs in advance of death. Gloucester is another hot-tempered man and reacts immediately as the wording repeats exactly what has happened in Lear’s court and he declares that Edgar has sunk to the level of a beast by being unnatural as a son. Edmund plays the calm ally, skilfully guarding against a sudden meeting between his father and brother and provoking reactions by his constant gibes that his own virtue is being tested. These work against him as they force him to set up a scene where Gloucester can overhear them discussing the matter. Foolishly Gloucester distrusts the son he is familiar with in favour of the one he barely knows. The old man is superstitious and blames the recent eclipses; “the wisdom of Nature” means “natural philosophy” and “Nature finds itself scourg’d” refers to the chain effect of unnatural behaviour. There is a correspondence between the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the world of mankind. He lists the many broken bonds which ensue and shows himself a typical old man in thinking: “we have seen the best of out time” and foreseeing, accurately as it will happen, catastrophes to come. The prefigurement prepares us for chaos even though the reasoning is lax, but he does recognise the good people and knows that the “noble and true-hearted Kent” should not have been banished.
Edmund is now given another soliloquy, prose this time, but in just as energetic and lively mode as his earlier blank verse. In it he scorns superstition and the tendency of people to blame their “disasters” [a pun on the derivation of the word] on the heavens. The tone is that of comedy as he warms to his theme until a climactic “all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on.” He scorns astrology as a prediction of character and, refreshingly, takes responsibility for his own disposition with the humorous: “Fut. I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardising.” We laugh and admire him since he seems to have reason and forcefulness on his side and it is hard to believe, at this stage, that his deeds will lead to truly terrible consequences. He is about to speak of Edgar when he enters “pat” just as if in an “old comedy” and Edmund plays the part of the superstitious melancholic, again drawing forth curiosity from his brother and amusement from the audience.
At “O! these eclipses” he raises his voice and continues his act, using overdone alliteration of “d” and “m” whilst borrowing Gloucester’s ideas so that they will ring true when Edgar meets him. His wits are sharp and he abounds with energy but Edgar is suspicious and asks how long he has been a believer in astrology. Edmund must change tack and so he cleverly suggests that his brother avoid his father for a while: he cannot risk a meeting in which the two sort out the truth about the letter and he eagerly accepts the idea that “some villain” is at work, a neat pre-empting device. By suggesting that Edgar go armed he leads him further into doubt as Gloucester will think he intends to attack him. There are a few weaknesses in his ploys, such as his vague “nothing like the image and horror of it” as he sends Edgar away. Left alone, he shows his perceptiveness of human nature but does recognise his brother’s “noble” character which he intends to use for evil. and regards as foolish. There is no imagery of the devil here: he is a human plotter and a much more rounded character than Edgar, who is difficult to reconcile with a realistic reading of the play as he is so weak and fits any role ascribed to him by the exigencies of the plot (which is largely Edmund’s). Edmund is without conscience over his machinations as he believes his cause is justified and takes a child-like pleasure in his own schemes and the ease with which they are working out: “my practices ride easy.”
The trouble in the main plot starts with Lear’s Fool, a person licensed in the court to behave subversively and say uncomfortable truths often without rebuke. We do not see the incident and should not see the knights’ behaviour at any length. They are symbolic (a hundred is a neatly emblematic number) of an unnecesary appendage which Lear requires and which Goneril (and later Regan) wishes to strip from him. If we are shown them either rioting or inoffensive, it swings the balance and it is vital that there is no proven truth in either Goneril’s or Lear’s view of them. Goneril has inherited her father’s temper and retreats, giving Oswald liberty to do as he pleases. She wants discord and an eruption so that the situation can be decided: “I’d have it come to question”, claiming that she knows that Regan agrees and yet feeling the need to write her to be sure. Her plan is that he, an “idle old man” and his attendants should be treated discourteously with “checks as flatteries” to control their conduct. This latter word reminds us of her earlier high language and brings the disparity between that and her present harsh bluntmess into prominence: she is also breaking bronds of repect to a father, an old man and a royal personage. She points to the underlying folly of Lear’s actions in that he wishes to “manage those authorities/That he hath given away.” She is reckless and wants evil to “breed”, this being a theme of the play: when bonds are broken nothing can restrain the spread of chaos. The onset of this disruption was foreseen in the first scene but it has started with unusual speed, showing that the consequences are what matters in this drama rather than a credible humanised process of persuasion or corruption.
Scene iv takes place in the same spot, Albany’s palace, with the loyal and self-sacrificing Kent disguising himelf so that he can continue to love and serve the man who has treated him so badly. Lear’s entrance shows his abruptly autocratic manner, a vestige of former power which has no place or gounding now. (We know from the end of the last scene that dinner is already being prepared and so he appears impatient and irascible.) Kent knows how to please Lear by his claims and his words find their target as Lear is already starting to realise his errors and newly impoverished condition: “If thou be’st as poor for a subject as he is for a King, thou art poor enough.” When Kent claims he can see “authority” in Lear’s face, he touches a vulnerable spot as he does also when he praises plain speaking and honesty and regards love of women as folly. It is when Lear’s daughters love other men that he believes them to have become disloyal.
Lear seems to know his own fault of changeability when he leaves it a while before hiring him: his further path to self-knowledge will be slow and painful in the extreme. Oswald behaves according to instructions and answers rudely; Lear needs his Fool by his side as consolation in his increasing isolation. Everyone, even the Knight (who is the only one we see in action and who appears perfectly proper), has noticed the first signs of disrepect in Albany, Goneril and the servants. Lear has perceived “a most faint neglect” which he was unwilling to acknowledge to himself and would not face as he sees that it means he is now powerless to command attention. The Knight’s answer “Since my young Lady’s going into France, Sir, the Fool hath much pined away” and Lear’s unwillingness to hear this make us observe the strange and inexplicable relationship between the characters of Cordelia and the Fool: it is as though they are connected by an umbilical cord which nourishes the Fool. It is possible to have one actor play both roles as they are never on stage together and this device stresses the connection. Oswald’s definition of Lear as “My Lady’s father” enrages him as it reveals the truth but Kent uses the fracas as his opportunity to gain approval by swift and physical action: love here is shown by deed not word and Lear accepts his service.