Act I - Scene II

The Earl of Gloucester's castle.

[Enter Edmund, with a letter]

Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines(5)
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?(10)
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well, then,(15)
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base(20)
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

[Enter Gloucester]

Kent banished thus! and France in choler parted!
And the king gone tonight! subscribed his power!(25)
Confined to exhibition! All this done
Upon the gad! Edmund, how now! what news?
So please your lordship, none. [putting up the letter]
Why so earnestly seek you to put up that letter?(30)
I know no news, my lord.
What paper were you reading?
Nothing, my lord.
No? What needed, then, that terrible dispatch of
it into your pocket? the quality of nothing hath not such(35)
need to hide itself. Let's see: come, if it be nothing, I shall
not need spectacles.
I beseech you, sir, pardon me: it is a letter from my
brother, that I have not all o'er-read; and for so much as I
have perused, I find it not fit for your o'er-looking.(40)
Give me the letter, sir.
I shall offend, either to detain or give it. The
contents, as in part I understand them, are to blame.
Let's see, let's see.
I hope, for my brother's justification, he wrote this(45)
but as an essay or taste of my virtue.
[reads] 'This policy and reverence of age makes the world bitter to the best of our times; keeps our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them. I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny; who sways, not as it hath power, but as it is suffered. Come to me, that of this I may speak more. If our father would sleep till I waked him, you should half his revenue for ever, and live the beloved of your brother, Hum–conspiracy!—“Sleep till I waked him,—you should enjoy half his revenue,”—My son Edgar! Had he a hand to write this? a heart and brain to breed it in?—When came this to you? Who brought it?

It was not brought me, my lord; there's the cunning of
it; I found it thrown in at the casement of my closet.(60)
You know the character to be your brother's?
If the matter were good, my lord, I durst swear it were
his; but, in respect of that, I would fain think it were not.
It is his.
It is his hand, my lord; but I hope his heart is not in the contents.(65)
Hath he never heretofore sounded you in this business?
Never, my lord: but I have heard him oft maintain it to
be fit, that, sons at perfect age, and fathers declining, the(70)
father should be as ward to the son, and the son manage his revenue.
O villain, villain! His very opinion in the letter!
Abhorred villain! Unnatural, detested, brutish villain! worse
than brutish! Go, sirrah, seek him; I'll apprehend him:(75)
abominable villain! Where is he?
I do not well know, my lord. If it shall please you to
suspend your indignation against my brother till you can
derive from him better testimony of his intent, you shall run a
certain course; where, if you violently proceed against him,(80)
mistaking his purpose, it would make a great gap in your
own honor, and shake in pieces the heart of his obedience. I
dare pawn down my life for him, that he hath wrote this to
feel my affection to your honor, and to no further pretense
of danger.(85)
Think you so?
If your honor judge it meet, I will place you where
you shall hear us confer of this, and by an auricular
assurance have your satisfaction; and that without any
further delay than this very evening.(90)
He cannot be such a monster—
Nor is not, sure.
To his father, that so tenderly and entirely loves
him. Heaven and earth! Edmund, seek him out: wind
me into him, I pray you: frame the business after your(95)
own wisdom. I would unstate myself, to be in a due resolution.
I will seek him, sir, presently: convey the business as
I shall find means and acquaint you withal.
These late eclipses in the sun and moon(100)
portend no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can
reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged
by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off,
brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord;
in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt son and(105)
father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction;
there's son against father: the king falls from bias of nature;
there's father against child. We have seen the best of our
time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all
ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves. Find(110)
out this villain, Edmund; it shall lose thee nothing; do it
carefully. And the noble and true-hearted Kent banished!
his offense, honesty! 'Tis strange.
This is the excellent foppery of the world,
that, when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeit(115)
of our own behavior,—we make guilty of our disasters
the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains
by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves,
thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance;
drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience(120)
of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a
divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whoremaster
man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a
star! My father compounded with my mother under the
dragon's tail; and my nativity was under Ursa major;(125)
so that it follows, I am rough and lecherous. Tut, I should
have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the
firmament twinkled on my bastardizing. Edgar—

[Enter Edgar]

And pat he comes, like the catastrophe of the old
comedy: my cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh(130)
like Tom o' Bedlam. O, these eclipses do portend these
divisions! fa, sol, la, mi.
How now, brother Edmund! what serious contemplation
are you in?
I am thinking, brother, of a prediction I read this other(135)
day, what should follow these eclipses.
Do you busy yourself about that?
I promise you, the effects he writes of succeed
unhappily; as of unnaturalness between the child and
the parent; death, dearth, dissolutions of ancient amities;(140)
divisions in state, menaces and maledictions against king
and nobles; needless diffidences, banishment of friends,
dissipation of cohorts, nuptial breaches, and I know not
How long have you been a sectary astronomical?(145)
Come, come; when saw you my father last?
Why, the night gone by.
Spake you with him?
Ay, two hours together.
Parted you in good terms? Found you no displeasure in(150)
him by word or countenance?
None at all.
Bethink yourself wherein 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(155)
this instant so rageth in him, that with the mischief of your
person it would scarcely allay.
Some villain hath done me wrong.
That's my fear. I pray you, have a continent forbearance
till the speed of his rage goes slower; and, as I say, retire with me to my lodging, from whence I will fitly bring you to hear my lord speak: pray ye, go; there's my key: if you do stir abroad, go armed.
Armed, brother!
Brother, I advise you to the best; go armed: I am no(165)
honest man if there be any good meaning towards you: I have
told you what I have seen and heard; but faintly, nothing like
the image and horror of it: pray you, away.
Shall I hear from you anon?
I do serve you in this business.(170)

[Exit Edgar.]

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! I see the business.
Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit:(175)
All with me's meet that I can fashion fit.

[Exit Edmund.]


  1. When coupled with the numbers twelve and fourteen, we understand that this is an archaic term for months, the length of which were originally derived by cycles of the moons.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. To “unstate” means to give up one’s rank or wealth. Here, Gloucester is essentially saying that he would give anything to be free of doubts about the letter’s veracity.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. The word “fop” has negative connotations and is the equivalent to calling someone a weak-minded fool. This word choice provides insight into how Edmund views those around him.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. “Tom o’ Bedlam” is not a specific person, but rather the name given to any person that is a wandering beggar. When Edmund says he must, “sigh like Tom o’ Bedlam,” he means that he must feign sadness and regret, and sigh like a beggar.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. The word “fain,” no longer in common use, means “willingly” or “obligingly.” In this context, Edmund says that if the letter had good news, he would swear the handwriting to be his brothers. Since it contains bad news, he says he’s inclined to believe to not be Edgar’s.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. “Surfeits” are excesses. Edmund suggests that humans attempt to blame the heavens or nature for their misfortunes, but it is often human desire for excess that is actually to blame when things go awry.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The verb “compound” means to put together parts so as to form a whole. Based on the context here, we see that Edmund is using it as a term to mean that his parents had sexual intercourse.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. A “casement” is a window, and a “closet,” in this context, is a private room. Edmund is saying that the letter had been thrown into his room through the window.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. A "cue" is a signal for an actor's entrance or speech; Edmund is sarcastically saying that Edgar has entered right on schedule.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. In this context, “base” is an adjective used to describe someone who is lowborn. In Shakespeare’s time, Edmund would be considered base because he was born out of wedlock.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Today we recognize comedy as a particular genre involving humorous events and storylines. However, here Edmund uses its more traditional meaning—simply, a play or a drama.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. The phrase “auricular assurance” means to hear for oneself. Edmund is offering to speak to Edgar to secure his confession, while Gloucester secretly listens in.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. In medieval science, emotions were believed to be derived from bodily fluids, or humors, and the balance of them. In this case, choler refers to yellow bile, a humor associated with the liver and believed to cause anger. So, Gloucester is saying that the King of France left Lear’s court in anger.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. “Anon” is an archaic adjective meaning “soon” or “quickly.” Edgar’s haste indicates that he trusts that Edmund’s warning is true, and awaits further advising.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. By “character,” Gloucester means the handwriting in the letter. Note here how he trusts Edmund to answer this question, suggesting that Gloucester either doesn’t know his son Edgar’s handwriting or that he blindly trusts Edmund to tell the truth.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. “Abominable” means detestable and loathsome. Gloucester believes that Edgar has written the letter, and he immediately views his son as a villain without seeking any explanation from Edgar.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. The choice of "villains" and "fools" here is important. Edmund has just elected himself to be a villain, claiming that he will act according to his own interests as opposed to the will of the heavenly bodies. Ironically, his decision to act the villain could be seen as proof of Gloucester's prediction of negative events. This complication represents Shakespeare's goal to subtly reiterate the role of fate throughout the tragedy. Finally, “fools” will also play important roles later on complicating the question of whether the heavens or human actions lead to madness.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. After Gloucester leaves, Edmund mocks his comments, stating that the motion of the sun, moon, and planets have no influence on human actions. Further complicating the theme of family relationships, this statement emphasizes a generational difference: Gloucester defers to the heavens and believes them to be important; Edmund seeks more personal control over events. This parallels the contrast between Lear's belief in authority and tradition with his elder daughters' desire for personal control of their own fortunes.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. Recall that in Act I, scene i, characters invoke the gods as authorities on order and justice. From Edmund’s perspective, the laws of “nature” give him as much right to rule as Edgar, which prompts Edmund to invoke nature as a goddess of divine order. Characters will continue to invoke nature throughout the play, as the natural world allows characters to transcend the rigid social order they are confined to.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. The word "nothing" continues to echo throughout the play, as it did in scene i. Its repetition emphasizes the theme of nothingness and disorder. Cordelia’s answer to Lear’s request, and Edmund’s insistence that the letter is “nothing” both serves to break down the social order of these families.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  21. Recall the conversation in the previous scene with Lear and Cordelia. Gloucester quickly falls for Edmund's tricks, a lack of judgment that matches Lear's own misjudgment of Cordelia’s actions. This misjudgment characterizes both older men as blind to the true actions of others and lacking proper insight.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  22. In addition to Edmund revealing his ambitious desires, we also learn here of how he will begin to realize them. The mention of a letter in conjunction with the phrase “invention thrive” (which means that a fabrication or a lie does what it is intended to do) tells us that Edmund has created a letter meant to accomplish a certain goal. We shall shortly see what the goal is and the contents of the letter.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  23. While Edmund is Gloucester’s son, the social structure regards him as “illegitimate” and denies him any claim to his father’s land and title. Here, we see Edmund’s desire to transgress social norms for the first time, choosing nature as an alternate means for achieving status and power. This clever sidestep of social order reveals Edmund’s ambitious and cunning character—he is willing to go to great lengths to accomplish his goals.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  24. Gloucester, believing Edmund's deception, claims that the movements in the heavens foreshadow bad things to come. It is notable here that Gloucester invokes the sun and moon shortly after Edmund's swearing allegiance to nature. Both appear to be appealing to the same force(s), but their methods are distinctly different. Edmund looks to nature as a way to circumvent the constraints of society while Gloucester sees it as a divine power that rules over humanity. These views provide readers with a complex symbolic system, one in which the characters will interpret differently based on their beliefs and desires.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  25. Edmund has manipulated Gloucester into believing that his older brother Edgar wanted to murder their father so that both Edgar and Edmund would each receive half of their fathers inheritance/revenue. When in actual fact Edmund is trying to make his older brother Edgar seem like a villian so that Edmund can have all of his fathers inheritance to himself.

    — Angel Sleiman
  26. It is ironic that this letter expresses Edmund's own thoughts and feelings and yet he uses them to turn Gloucester against Edgar. Edmund could hardly have written such a letter if he hadn't been expressing thoughts and feelings with which he was personally familiar. He may even, as the letter suggests, been thinking of murdering his father if he could think of how to profit by doing so. 

    — William Delaney