Comments on Act 1 Scene 2
Shakespeare took his subplot concerning the family of Gloucester from a similar story in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590). As A. C. Bradley comments, “This repetition [of the Lear plot] does not simply double the pain with which the tragedy is witnessed. It startles and terrifies by suggesting that the folly of Lear and the ingratitude of his daughters are no accidents or merely individual aberrations, but that in that dark cold world some fateful malignant influence is abroad” (Shakespearean Tragedy, 211).
“The ease with which Edmund deceives his father into believing that Edgar wrote the forged letter suggests that Gloucester does not know the character of either of his sons well, and that the younger bastard has become adept at exploiting his father’s weaknesses” (R. V. Young, in King Lear: New Critical Essays, 2008, 265).
This scene introduces the idea of two conflicting views of Nature, a theme which runs throughout the play. In the traditional view since the Middle Ages, Nature formed a Great Chain of Being, a benevolent order established by God and suitable for humanity to follow as a pattern for social behavior. Every living creature had its divinely determined and appropriate place in the chain: kings above subjects, men above women, fathers above children, the elderly above the young. To challenge this hierarchy was to strike against heaven’s ordained order.
Suspecting him of treachery, Gloucester calls Edgar an “unnatural villain” and sees signs in the heavens as omens that all’s not right with the world when sons uproot fathers. Likewise in the previous scene, Lear sees disorder, a challenge to natural law, in Cordelia and Kent’s response, but he is wrong about the source: he himself has caused the disruption by dividing a peaceful kingdom and forsaking his duties as ruler. In 2.4 he calls his daughters “unnatural hags” for their ingratitude and questions whether his wife gave birth to another man’s children. In 4.6 upon seeing the mad Lear a gentleman comments, “Thou hast one daughter [Cordelia] who redeems Nature from the general curse which twain [her two sisters] have brought it to.”
This traditional view of Nature is challenged by Edmund, the spokesman for the new scientific view, which Thomas Hobbes would shortly popularize in 17th century England. The goddess of Nature whom Edmund worships upholds the principle of “survival of the fittest” with no respect for tradition or custom; to the strong and cunning go the spoils. It’s a dog-eat-dog world: in 4.2 Albany describes humanity preying upon itself “like monsters of the deep.”
Edmund has “a burning impatience with customary laws and practices, fueled by a suspicion that there is nothing supporting them besides the arbitrary will of the established rulers” (Young 269). According to Edmund’s view of Nature, there is nothing unnatural about a bastard son surpassing his legitimate brother; only the artificial rules of society punish him for being the product of his father’s adultery.
He scoffs at the idea that the heavens determine a person’s fate or place in society: “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars.” Compare his sentiments with those of Cassius in Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.” Edmund intends to scratch and claw his way to the top, crawling over the bodies of his father and elder brother to do so.
Lear prays to a different goddess when he curses Goneril with sterility (1.4). He still does not see that he is the source of this unnatural behavior. His madness is an escape from self-revelation, and serves as a symbol of disorder, a break in the unity of being.
Neither Q nor F give a location for this scene; later editors added that it takes place at Gloucester’s residence, but there is no reason why it should not follow immediately. In some productions Edmund is onstage throughout the first scene, and remains in the throne room for this scene. Some actors have moved up to the throne and actually sat on it, demonstrating Edmund’s rising ambition.