Act 1 scene 2

Synopsis of Act 1 Scene 2

Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, is bitterly resentful of the low status which this entails. He is determined to bring about the downfall of his legitimate brother Edgar, so has forged a letter (supposedly) written by Edgar, threatening their father's life. Edmund deviously convinces his father that Edgar is plotting to kill him and seize the family estate, astrological events explaining these ‘ruinous disorders’. Not surprisingly, the Earl of Gloucester is deeply shocked and immediately concludes that Edgar is a villain.

Left alone, Edmund remarks on his father's naivety and finds it a repellent idea that people’s actions can be attributed to the planets and stars. Edgar then appears and Edmund tells him that their father is furious with him, warning him to arm himself in case he is attacked.

Commentary on Act 1 Scene 2

Act 1 Scene 2 begins the story of Gloucester and his two sons which parallels that of King Lear and his three daughters. (Shakepeare's audience would be aware of another parallel about a younger son playing on the gullability of an aging parent to disinherit an older sibling - the story of Jacob and Esau - see Genesis 27:1-41).

However, the behaviour of the two fathers is very different: Gloucester is thoughtless and gullible, whilst Lear is passionately impetuous. But both men are, initially, blind to the truth and both put their own needs above the needs of others.

Nature: The theme of Nature is announced right at the start of this scene. Nature is the 'goddess' whom Edmund serves. This suggests that Edmund will follow his desires and instincts rather than anything approaching morality. Edmund is Gloucester's 'natural' son, i.e. conceived outside marriage. He objects to the word 'bastard', since it implies baseness and conveys the idea that illegitimate children were considered to be of little worth or esteem. He speaks as if the word 'bastard' is derived from the word 'base', although this is not true.

Why brand they us / With base? Edmund's use of the word 'brand' suggests that he feels that bastards are treated no better than animals, marked with a branding iron to show ownership.

in the lusty ... nature: The idea is that a 'natural' child is conceived in the heat of sexual passion - unlike the dull, stale duty performed in the marriage bed.

The four temperaments by Lavaterin choler parted: departed in anger. Choler was one of the four bodily fluids which formed a key part of contemporary medical belief. People believed that the body contained four fluids (or humours) - choler, blood, melancholy and phlegm. How these were mixed together determined a person's character. If someone had a preponderance of choler, then it meant they were prone to become angry very quickly. See The four elements of the body 

All this done/Upon the gad: Gloucester draws attention to the amazing speed with which the momentous events of Act 1 Sc 1 have occurred. A gad is a sharp point, so the phrase means 'On the spur of the moment'.

nothing ... nothing: This repetition comes as an echo of the word as used by Cordelia and Lear in the previous scene.

This policy and reverence of age ... aged tyranny: Gloucester reads the forged letter, purportedly from his legitimate son Edgar. The theme of old versus young is present throughout the play. Gloucester is referred to as a tyrannical old man. The word 'policy' suggests that old people use the respect they feel entitled to from the young as a trick for exploiting them.

sleep till I waked him: This means 'sleep to eternity' - in other words, die. Shakespeare's first audience would have been very familiar with plays in which family members kill each other in order to obtain power. For instance, Richard III arranges the murders of at least a dozen family members on his way to the throne.

Unnatural, detested, brutish villain: Again the concept of nature is invoked. Edgar cannot be a natural son, if he supposedly wants his father dead.

auricular assurance: as understood with the ear. Notice how Edmund now speaks to his father with almost comic respect, now that he has caught him in his trap.

Image of an eclipseThese late eclipses: Astrology was the dominant 'science' of Shakespeare's day. See Astronomy and Astrology. Just as the sun and moon controlled the tides, so they believed the stars and planets influenced the lives of human beings on the earth. An eclipse was unusual and regarded as a disruption in the natural order, leading to confusion and disaster, so Gloucester thinks such an eclipse must have caused the unnatural behaviour of his son Edgar.

Investigating Act 1 Scene 2...

  • What does Edmund mean by Nature?
    • Why does he prefer it to the official, legal order?
  • How does Edmund generate sympathy for his situation?
  • How does the rivalry between Edmund and Edgar mirror that between Lear's daughters?
  • What is the effect of the repetition of the word ‘nothing’?
  • How does Gloucester’s misjudgement of Edgar compare with Lear’s misjudgement of Cordelia?
  • What does Edmund have in common with Goneril and Regan in his attitude towards old age?
  • Why is Gloucester so incredulous that Edgar could be plotting against his father?
  • How are references to ‘the heavens’ used in this scene?
  • How does Edmund plan to exploit the natural bonds between parents and children in order to obtain the inheritance which is rightfully his brother’s?
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