In Shakespeare’s play “King Lear”, Edgar is the legitimate son of Gloucester offering a contrast to the latter’s natural ( illegitimate) son, Edmund. In the wicked world of King Lear, he is the nearest kith to the good Cordelia and it is not for nothing that he has often been described as the male Cordelia of the play. In his goodness as well as in that of his female counterpart, do we find any hope that the wicked world of the play might turn into the golden world of Lear in love and redemption? This fact of his innate goodness so much impresses us that we seem almost to forgive Nahum Tate for his sacrilegious twisted version of the play with a happy ending as Tate makes Cordelia marry Edgar-a marriage of true minds indeed!
Edgar’s free, good and unsuspecting nature does not go unnoticed even by his villainous half-brother Edmund when he utters, “a credulous father, and a brother noble.” He is truthful by nature and disbelieves none. This side of his character makes him fall into Edmund’s trap all too easily. As he harbours no suspicion, he makes no attempt to seek an interview with his father to put matters right- a very strange thing for us who feel somewhat disgusted with his intellectual equipment despite all our sympathies. This apparent intellectual paralysis at the particular stage of the play scenes a bit Hamletian and it makes us wonder whether Shakespeare wanted it to be understood that any interview sought by Edgar with his father was of no avail with Gloucester, he is a wild, choleric man in the image of Lear, averse to hearing of any defence from the person who had once become his suspect.
Edgar could not conceive that Edmund, his brother, bore any hatred toward him. Once on the run for his life, Edgar is thrown on his own resources and with his amazing versatility he comes out successfully out of this ordeal. His versatile role in this crisis of his life has been compared by eminent critics to that of much suffering Odysseus “assuming first one part, then another and then again another, ever-increasing in character and ever with a beneficient aim before bim.” He first appears to us as a credulous brother, then as an outcast, and then as one feigning madness. Edgar’s feigned madness again is in contrast to Lear’s genuine madness. Edgar’s is a disguise for protecting himself from his father’s wrath; Lear’s is a function of mental tension generated by impotent fury. All his ravings in the storm scene about “poor Tom” etc. seem to be common places uttered by a village idiot beside the wrath and fury of Lear’s genuine madness and the difference between the two is quite clear to us, even if there were on “asides” to clarify the real state of affairs.
In the midst of his own personal crisis and in the state of his feigned madness, Edgar faces the heart-rending spectacle of his blinded father, Gloucester. This tragic situation makes him play another role, that of helper and comforter. He acts as a guide to his blind father and what a loving and affectionate son we find him in this role. He is continually comforting his distressed father and we hear him on his present role thus: “Bad is the trade, that must play fool to sorrow/ Angering itself and other.”
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We feel an ache in our heart with this utterance for Edgar, the spurned son of Gloucester. is his only prop and comforter while Lear has his loving Fool, and Kent and Cordelia. Edgar is the true stick of the blind, he guides his father, cheers him, and saves him ultimately from suicide.
Edgar is also a man of action and no procrastinating Hamlet. His feigned madness is used as long as it is necessary for the purpose in view. When action demands it, he rises to the occasion. This is most clearly shown when he assumes the role of a rustic to slay Oswald in a sword fight and then resumes his feigned madness. And ultimately as the unknown champion, he slays Edmund in single combat.
When all is said, we cannot fail to note that Edgar perhaps is the most religious character in the play with his quiet and firm faith in overruling Providence. This religiousness of Edgar does not mean there are superstitious beliefs in the “Eclipses of the sun and moon or his illegitimate brother’s cynical disbeliefs for everything producing an evil egotism. He never loses heart in the midst of a crisis and has an abounding hope in the redemption of mankind.
Critics point out that Edgar could have stopped with “the gods are just” and the other harsh words were not necessary implicating his blinded father and referring to the latter’s vices that begot the bastard of Edmund. This is not so. Shakespeare here again uttered the Christian theme of the play through these words of his most religious character, who again was the fittest and maturest one to utter the final philosophy of the play: Men must endure/Their going hence, even as their coming hither; / Ripeness is all.”
And this ripeness we find in Edgar maturing from his modest beginnings in the play when he played a role of no consequence to what he became at the end, combining so many qualities of love, affection, courage, heroism, endurance and what not to be styled almost a hero of the play. His character has been slightly sketched by Shakespeare but he has given him different dimensions. After knowing him through all his vicissitudes and his matching roles in crisis or situation, we are left with no doubt that it is to him that the good state will have to turn for hope and succour in the imminent task of reconstruction. He has really endured through all his goings and comings and he has attained that ripeness that is all.
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