Edgar Linton

The legitimate son

Edgar is the legitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, meaning that he is the lawful child of Gloucester and his deceased mother. This would have given him sole rights of inheriting his father’s title and property. The fact that English common law – as well as social attitudes in general - discriminated so harshly against illegitimate children gives rise to his brother Edmund’s resentment against him.

Edgar’s role in the play

Because of the lies told to him by his illegitimate son Edmund, Gloucester sentences Edgar to exile in the wilderness, an action which mirrors Lear's rejection of his daughter Cordelia. In Act 2 Scene 3, whilst threatened with execution, Edgar disguises himself as a wandering ‘Tom o’Bedlam’, a lunatic. When Lear is banished by his evil daughters, the disguised Edgar accompanies him. When his father Gloucester is blinded and expelled as a result of his loyalty to the King, Edgar (still in disguise) becomes his father's guide in Act 4, saving him both from suicide and from a murder attempt by Oswald.

He has the last word

In Act 5 Edgar finally takes control, exposing Edmund and Goneril's plot to murder the Duke of Albany before defeating Edmund in a trial by combat. At the play's conclusion, Edgar is invited by Albany to share with him in ruling Britain. In his final lines he offers one possible lesson to be drawn from the play: that we must be aware of our human frailty and susceptibility to folly, thus learning from the way in which moral blindness has led to so many tragic disasters. His conclusion is: ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey.’ (Act 5 Scene 3).

A symbolic character

Edgar is a strongly symbolic character in his role as the insane Tom of Bedlam. Dressed only in a loin cloth (or less in some productions), his hair in knots and with thorns stuck in his flesh he seems to sum up the play’s theme of disease and misery as products of human stupidity. As a naked outcast, Edgar also highlights the theme of social justice and the significance of how populations are cared for, topical in a society which was trying to deal with high levels of vagrancy and the effects of the recent Elizabethan Poor Law (of 1603)
Edgar’s assumed character blames his lunacy on his own sexual promiscuity (not a quality which would be associated with the virtuous Edgar), linking his role with the negative attitude towards sex that permeates the whole play. His motivation is perhaps explained when he appears as himself at the end of the play and attributes the tragedy of his father Gloucester to ‘The dark and vicious place’ where Edmund was conceived, making it clear that his father's sexual immorality and unfaithfulness to his wife have brought this punishment upon him.

Parallels with Cordelia (and Christ)

The role of Edgar in showing unconditional love and loyalty to his father parallels that of Cordelia to Lear. Although King Lear is clearly set within a pagan universe, Shakespeare’s audience would see many parallels between the selflessness of Edgar and Cordelia and that of Jesus Christ
All are:
  • Subject to the will of their fathers, as Jesus claimed of himself (John 8:28), yet wishing to uphold the honour of their parent regardless (John 17:4)
  • Willing to sacrifice themselves whilst being innocent of the crimes attributed to them (Ephesians 5:2)
  • Examples of patience and fortitude (Luke 22:44)
  • Constant encouragements in the midst of suffering (Philippians 2:1)
  • Associated with vision and light (Mark 10:49-52, John 8:12)
  • Agents of redemption, preserving order and goodness where chaos and evil threaten (Hebrews 9:28)
  • Figures of apparent vulnerability yet of inner strength (Isaiah 53:3).

Edgar as rescuer

When Edgar deceives his father into thinking that he has jumped from a cliff and survived, Edgar declares this to be ‘a miracle’. Many Christians believe that miracles suggest that God is intervening in human affairs, subsequently confirming faith. This is true of Edgar’s intervention in as much as it brings about his father's change in moral perspective, Gloucester concluding that he should not give in to despair but rather endure everything that life throws at him. Although his father is literally blinded, Edgar has metaphorically opened his eyes.
Edgar embodies a basic principle that is at the core of the tragedy: even though painful, we must struggle to make the best of our lives, patiently accepting suffering and yielding to death only when its time comes. As Edgar says to Gloucester:
      Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
Ripeness is all. 
(Act 5 Scene 2).    

A new kind of leader

Edgar acts as a loyal guide, firstly for the King, then his father and finally for Britain as a whole. It is likely that ultimately he will assume power with Albany, but will exercise leadership in a very different way to the previous generation. He has suffered, been at one with the poor and is very aware of what constitutes genuine justice, which lessons the old King learned too late. He will carry this experience into his assumption of authority (which also echoes the Christian belief that the humanity Christ acquired on earth – known as the incarnation - was taken back to heaven on his ascension and shapes his subsequent reign). 
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