• Created by: Pip Dan
  • Created on: 20-09-17 16:36

Edmund is one of Shakespeare's most infamous villains, not only for his cruelty but also his skill and Machiavellian nature. He orchestrates many of the events in the play and the lengths he will go to to improve his social position are staggering.


One of the first pieces of information that the audience is given in the play is that Edmund is the illegitimate son of Gloucester, indeed he is the only illegitimate character in the entire play. Gloucester introduces him as the 'whoreson' and gives quite an in-depth explanation about both of his sons. The relationship between Edmund and Gloucester at the beginning of the play is ambiguous and different productions have portrayed it in many ways. In the Gregory Doran production for example, Edmund is seen serving his father and their relationship is rather distant.

Nonetheless, as Edmund's status increases throughout the play the fact that he is illegitimate often gets forgotten. This is both a reflection on how Edmund has achieved his aims but also in how the social order has changed. Nonetheless, at the battle Albany still calls him 'halfblooded' so there is still a sense that Edmund never manages to truly escape his social confinement.

The stigma of illegitimacy was a part of Jacobean society. For example, there is the case of Robert Dudley. He was the illegitimate son of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth's favourite. In Dudley's will he referred to Robert as '*******' or 'base' seventeen times. Debate arose about whether Robert would have his father's Earldom and in the end James I intervened so that the title when to Robert Dudley's cousin. Whilst there is no evidence that Shakespeare knew of this it does show how large the stigma of illegitimacy was in his time. Edmund's soliloquys on baseness and *******y curiously seem to echo the theme of this lawsuit and reflect on the social position of the illegitimate.

The reaction to the audience to this is debatable. A Jacobean audience would probably be more wary of an illegitimate person, with Shakespeare of course reflecting on society during his own time. Nonetheless, Edmund might appear more sympathetic to a modern audience. For, in most cases, the stigma of illegitimacy is gone and the fact that Edmund is being punished for the actions of his parents seems very unjust.

Edmund's Motivations

Unlike the stereotypically evil character of Nahum Tate's reworking, Shakespeare goes to great lengths to make the audience understand Edmund's motivations. This is principally through the use of soliloquies. In a play that has few soliloquies of the kind that established a bond between character and audience, Edmund has three in his first act. His speeches are full of explanations for his actions and his future plans whilst also containing elements of sarcastic humour. They put the audience in a position of authority as they understand what will happen and thus the technique of dramatic irony is used.

Therefore, it is easy to understand what motivates Edmund:

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