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The characterisation of Edmund and Edgar presents them as being individuals; however they are based on familiar dramatic character types. Edmund is depicted as partly dissatisfied, Machiavellian villain and Edgar is the weak, feeble character who turns hero through hardship and circumstance. Shakespeare focuses on the unfortunate consequences of their father’s actions and how these implications shape their characters. Various presentation devices are used, as well as sentence structure, language, and events to portray the characters of Edmund and Edgar.
Shakespeare uses Edgar’s soliloquies to disclose his feelings and actions he will embark on. In his first, in Act II Scene III, Edgar tells the audience he is going to disguise himself as Mad Tom.
“I will preserve myself: and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast:”
By revealing this to us, Shakespeare gives the audience a greater understanding of the character, not only what he will be doing but also that he may be scared, fear for his life or that this character solves his problems by hiding.
We know the information to be true as they are the characters thoughts and not from a conversation in which a person maybe lying.
The traits of the characters, which are revealed to the audience in the soliloquies, are then displayed in open text and Shakespeare presents them in a variety of ways using actions, language, sentence structure and also the reactions of other characters. Shakespeare’s presentation of Edmund’s ability to manipulate other characters can be seen in Act I Scene II in talks with Gloucester and then Edgar,
“It is his hand, my lord; but I hope his heart is
not in the contents.
The audience are shown by Shakespeare how apt Edmund is at this craft not only by what he says but also by how quickly and easily Gloucester is convinced. This eagerness to believe Edmund is done by Shakespeare to show the audience that Edmund is very good at manipulation and deceit and that Gloucester is naive and easy to deceive. The same can be said about Edgar. To present him as a gullible and trusting character at this point in the play, Shakespeare allows Edgar to be quickly and easily convinced by Edmund’s lies despite the fact that Edgar knows he has shown no hostilities towards his father. This reaction from Edgar not only shows his character traits but also the abilities of Edmund, showing how Shakespeare can use the reactions of other characters to display traits.
Read about Early Literacy
Conversations between Edmund and Edgar can also be used to give revealing insights into the characters as opposing figures in the play. By examining the later part of Act I Scene II, it can be noted by the sentence structure that the two characters (Edmund and Edgar) are behaving in different ways. Edmund is very calculated and thinks about what he says which can be directly contrasted with Edgar who is rash and shocked.
“Edgar: Some villain hath done me wrong.
Edmund: That’s my fear. I pray you, have a continent
Forbearance till the spied of his rage goes
Slower; and, as I say, retire with me to
It is Shakespeare’s use of sentence structure in these lines, and others, that presents the characters in the stated ways. By giving Edgar a short, unpunctuated sentence Shakespeare creates several effects. The short sentence shows that Edgar does not know what to think, he is shocked and has very little to say. Shakespeare presents him as rash by giving the sentence no punctuation. Doing this means that the line cannot be said slowly showing that Edgar is not thinking about what he says, there are no pauses for thought. This effect has been emphasised by the language used. The words are simple, easy to say words that combine together very well to create a fast flowing sentence, which would persuade the actor to say the line quickly and with some anger or shock.
To directly contrast the traits of Edgar with Edmund, Shakespeare uses the same techniques but with the opposite effects. In this scene Edmund has very long lines showing that he is in control and has a lot to say on the subject. It can also be seen that punctuation is used throughout Edmund’s speeches,
“Brother, I advise you to the best; go armed: I
am no honest man if there be any meaning
This use of punctuation creates slow sentences, clearly showing that the character is thinking about what they are saying, not being rash and speaking with confidence. It shows the audience that Edmund knows what he is doing. Finally, the language Shakespeare chooses to use for Edmund creates an entirely different tone to that of Edgar. He uses well constructed sentences with a range of varying calibre words such as “forbearance” and “credulous” which presents him as calm and confident, in stark contrast with the rash, frightened Edgar, in this point of the play.
These techniques are utilised by Shakespeare throughout the play and for all characters, and are manipulated to show changes in characters as the play goes on. An example of this can be seen through Edgar. At the beginning of the play he is portrayed as easily scared, trusting, and rash, (as discussed previously) however, towards the end of the play his character can be seen to change through an adjustment to the techniques used.
“Kent, sir, the banish’d Kent; who in disguise
Follow’d his enemy king, and did him service
Improper for a slave.”
By giving the character longer lines where once he had little, shows that he has more to say and is more confident. By using punctuation where once there was none, shows that the character is no longer rash but thinks about what he says. Shakespeare is showing the audience that the character has progressed in every aspect by changing the flaws at every level. For Edmund this is not true, as the progression of his character does not occur through literature technique. It is in what Edmund does that Shakespeare allows the audience to forgive him slightly for his past grievances. As he is dying Edmund tries to redeem himself by trying to save Cordilia and King Lear from being hanged. Although the audience cannot forgive Edmund for all that he has done, Shakespeare creates this redeeming moment so that the character will not die hated by the audience.
The progression of Edgar and of Edmund as opposing characters is presented by Shakespeare through the amount and what each has to say. In earlier scenes such as Act I Scene II and Act II Scene I it is Edmund who controls the conversation with large passages of speech, it is also Edmund who makes proposals in these speeches.
“I hear my father coming: pardon me:
In cunning I must draw my sword upon you
Draw; seem to defend yourself; now quit you well.”
Shakespeare is establishing Edmund as the dominant character in these earlier scenes by giving him much more to say than Edgar. Also, it is Edmund who controls the conversation by asking questions and making proposals, doing this allows him to find out what he wants to know, it also helps in controlling the actions of Edgar to Edmund’s advantage. Doing this furthers Shakespeare’s development of Edmund as a calculated, manipulative character. Allowing Edgar to be controlled in this way and by not giving him much to say also furthers his character, at this point in the play, as frightened and gullible.
Towards the end of the play this changes. As can be seen in Act V Scene III, Edgar now has much more to say and is making proposals and even demands of his own, more importantly, the demands are being made towards Edmund.
“Draw thy sword,
That, if my speech offend a noble heart,
Thy arm may do thee justice: here is mine.”
Shakespeare does this to illustrate to the audience that Edgar has now become the more dominant brother and it is he who now controls the situation. This rise in power of Edgar also coincides with Edmund’s fall suggesting that only one of them can be the most powerful.
Shakespeare’s presentation of the characters Edgar and Edmund takes place on many levels. Their traits and the character personas are illustrated through literacy techniques, character beliefs, character actions, what they had to say and how much they said. The actions of a character and what they reveal to the audience, give blunt demonstrations as to what that character is like, what it is that they want and why they want it. It is the language, sentence structure and punctuation used by Shakespeare, though, that reveals many of the more subtle traits of a character, and how or why it is that they are able to achieve their accomplishments. Shakespeare also went as far as to use the beliefs of the era to influence the audience’s perception of a character based on those beliefs. By using all of these techniques Shakespeare is able to build up a clear picture in his presentation of the King Lear characters Edgar and Edmund.
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