Free Will: King Lear
Do we as humans have our fates predetermined, or do we have free will? In Shakespeare’s King Lear each character struggles with that very question. Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son strikes the best balance between fate and free will. Edmund attempts to get rid of his older brother Edgar who is Gloucester’s legitimate child, Edmund also argues the fact that the sun, moon, and stars really do not guide us in life, and lastly is the relationship Edmund has with himself. Edmund’s approach to each of these situations in the story leaves the reader thinking he has the best balance of fate, and free will.
The first example of Edmund displaying a phenomenal balance between free will and fate is his plan to get rid of his older brother Edgar who unlike Edmund was born a legitimate child. First off as an illegitimate child people do not treat Edmund well. Edmund constantly is being ridiculed and judged, Edmund argues an illegitimate child can be just as smart, beautiful a legitimate child. The words illegitimate child and bastard really hurt Edmund and he will stop at nothing to change the way people perceive him. Stand in the plaque of custom, and permit the curiosity, of nations to deprive me, for that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines 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? Who in the lusty stealth of nature, take more composition and fierce quality than doth within a dull, stale, tired bed, go to creating a whole tribe of fops, got tween asleep and wake?
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Well, then, legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. Our father’s love is too the bastard Edmund as to the legitimate, Fine word-legitimate! Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed, and my invention thrive, Edmund the base shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper. Now, gods, stand up for bastards! ” (1. 2 1-22). This quotation strongly shows the balance Edmund displays between fate and free will. This is because one, Edmund seems to understand the way this world works and how society views illegitimate children, however Edmund might understand it, he does not accept it.
That is as balanced as it gets, Edmund understands that as fate would have it he is a bastard, but Edmund trusts his free will and decides to take a course of action to change this. Now for Edmund’s plan, he writes a letter to himself from “Edgar” the letter discusses killing their father Gloucester and splitting what they get, land, money etc. Edmund shows his father the letter and Gloucester becomes very distraught. The next part of his plan is to convince Edgar that his father is upset with him, and he is not safe in town that people are after him and he should carry a weapon with him just to be safe.
Both Edgar and Gloucester fall the Edmund’s trick at first but Edmund is made out to be a fraud at the end. The next event that makes Edmund out to be the most balanced character in the story fate and free will wise is his personal opinion on how astrology is linked with fate. Gloucester after reading the letter will do anything to make some sense out of the fact his favorite and eldest son wants to kill him. Gloucester believes his position with Edgar wanting to kill him (according to the letter) might have to deal with astrology.
Gloucester even brings up that King Lear is facing hardships during this time and it has to deal with astrology. Gloucester goes off on a rant about why in fact the stars, moon, and sun actually have a lot to do with problems in society. “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature scourged by the sequent effects, love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in cities, munities; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixton and father. (1. 2 103-109). This quote shows how much Gloucester believes in fate and how we do not control our ups or our downs but in fact our solar system can predict when things will go sour. Just by seeing an eclipse people would believe waves of negative things are to coming in their direction. Edmund however is not one to just accept bad outcomes because it is what fate has in store, Edmund is the kind of person to get out there and not let the weather determine what kind of day it is going to be.
Edmund comments on his view of astrology and how it can affect a person’s life. “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the dun, 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 adulters, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by divine thrusting on.
An admirable evasion of whore master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! ” (1. 2 117-126). Edmund’s quote describes the world as foolish forever believing the sun, moon and stars have something to with something bad happening. Edmund’s quote shows that he believes we are responsible for our own actions. This may seem like Edmund is more over towards free will than being balanced between the two, but Edmund shows a lot more balance and even maturity than most other characters regarding free will and fate.
Lastly is the relationship between Edmund and himself. Edmund shows strong balance between free will and fate with all the physical and mental actions he takes throughout King Lear. During the story Edmund says to himself that he is glad to have a brother and father as good as the ones he has now, because they will never see how much pain he is in, because they could never fathom it which will make his job easier in deceiving both of them.
Edmund is saying that because he knows he is a bastard which is looked down upon which is why he is executing these evil plans, his free will wants Edmund to do it. Edmund knows how society looks at bastards and he knows how his older brother and father look at him and in his eyes he will not be able to change that because of fate. However using fate to his advantage he is able to execute his plan because everyone else is so unsuspecting of Edmund even thinking there is a way for people to have a different mindset on bastards, because according to fate there is nothing Edmund can do.
The reader can see more balance between free will and fate with Edmund towards the end of the story when Edmund’s plan falls apart Edgar has some words of fate for Edmund. “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us” (5. 3 1219. 170-171). Edgar is saying that Edmund’s plan did not work because of fate, it was never supposed to work, he is the legitimate son, and no matter what fights might happen between Edgar and Edmund god will be just. Edmund goes on to say “Thou hast spoken right, tis’ true; the wheel is come full circle! ” (5. 3 173-174).
This really shows how balanced Edmund is because he did everything that free will would allow him to do to change things for the better in his eyes and in the end Edmund still did reach his final goal and he accepts his failure as fate. In conclusion the age old question of do we as humans practice free will or do we have a path paved for us, it remains a mystery. As for characters in King Lear, Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son by far displays the most balance between having free will and trying to exercise it in correspondence with fate and the path already laid out before us.
Edmund shows superior balance between the two when; Edmund tries to get rid of Edgar for good, how he looks at astrology and how it deals with fate, and lastly his own personal relationship with himself. Each one of these situations prove that Edmund has the most balance between free will and fate, and Edmund is also an example of showing that having balance between the two does not always end in a positive result for himself.
Shakespeare, William. “King Lear” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Greenblatt, Stephen. Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 1143-1223. Print