Edmund’s moral degeneracy 

Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, plays a number of related roles which centre on the play’s exploration of moral degeneracy. Contrary to firm contemporary beliefs about the sanctity of family bonds, Edmund conspires against his elder, legitimate brother Edgar and causes him to be banished into the wilderness. He also betrays his father into the cruel hands of Regan and Cornwall, who gouge out the old man’s eyes and depose him in favour of his younger son.
Edmund also betrays the sanctity of the marriage contract, by carrying on a love affair with Goneril and plotting to murder her husband, the Duke of Albany. Duplicitous even to his mistress, he also encourages a love triangle when Regan attempts to seize Edmund from Goneril. 
Yet, like many of Shakespeare’s rogues and villains (think of Iago, Autolycus, Richard III) there is an attractive energy to Edmund. The audience responds to his barefaced cheek and quick-witted manipulation of those who should have better sense than to be gulled by him. Whilst he is the underdog there may even be sympathy for an outsider who takes on the constrictions of the establishment. It is only as his ascendancy continues that we recognise the dreadful consequences of his amoral, selfish ambition.

Edmund the bastard

It was a common idea in Shakespeare’s time that bastards were immoral and potentially treacherous. It was believed (wrongly) that the word came from the same root as ‘base’, so bastards were frequently thought of as corrupt, self-seeking and prone to deceit. Yet in Edmund’s first speech it is clear that Shakespeare is not so much presenting a stereotypical bastard, as someone who is highly conscious of the prejudices that people have – indeed he feels as if he has been branded with the name of ‘bastard’ – and has decided to live up (or rather down) to their opinions.
Edmund has some legitimate grievances. After all, it was not his fault that he was born outside wedlock and yet the law of the time did not allow illegitimate children to inherit their parents’ wealth, titles etc. That said, as the younger brother, Edmund would not have inherited his father’s estate anyway, but this does not mitigate his resentment. Edmund does however see one distinct advantage in being born out of wedlock: he believes that bastards are endowed with much more energy than legitimate children since they have been conceived ‘in the lusty stealth of nature’.

Edmund as soldier

Edmund leads Cornwall’s army against the supporters of Cordelia and is clearly effective, gaining the loyalty of soldiers such as the one he sends to execute Cordelia by offering promotion. In victory, he shows his complete lack of mercy, imprisoning Lear and Cordelia and ordering their deaths against the wishes of Albany.
When his brother Edgar challenges him to a trial by combat, we see Edmund’s vigour in the fight, but ultimately he is wounded fatally. It is only when he faces the loss of his own powers (having rejected reliance on any other) that he confesses his plans to execute Lear and Cordelia. However, it is too late: the consequences of his aggression and vengeance cannot be revoked - Cordelia is executed, leading to Lear’s own grief-induced death.

A callow lover and easy villain

Edmund is not a complex character. His amoral scheming is initially successful because those he practises on (his brother and father) lack the strength and insight to see through his lies.
In some ways he serves as a dark parody of the courtier soldier/lover. His charisma and sexual attractiveness have led to two women (Goneril and Regan) fighting over him. Yet this merely contributes to his self-obsession – Edmund cares for no-one other than himself and tolerates people only so far as they serve his own purposes. 
His declaration of repentance in Act 5 Scene 3 (‘some good I mean to do / Despite of mine own nature’) may at that moment be sincere, but is too little, too late. It is telling that news of his offstage death is dismissed by Albany with the words: ‘That’s but a trifle here.’ Set within the moral complexities of the whole play, Edmund’s ambitions for title, power and wealth seem banal and simplistic.

A character of Shakespeare’s times

Some commentators see in Edmund a representative of the aspiring middle classes of the early seventeenth century. Without inherited wealth or titles, they had only their own endeavour to propel them forward in society and were regarded as a threat by the old nobility who had wielded power with the monarch for centuries. As the new King James established his court, he imported many new faces from Scotland who displaced some of Elizabeth’s councilors, which further added to the unease of the Establishment. The Machiavellian machinations of Edmund the outsider would only exacerbate such fears.
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