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King Lear

(Line differences from Q1 are in brackets, lines in F1 only are in italics)


Act 1 Scene 2

Enter EDMUND, with a letter 

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word — legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow, I prosper!
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!


Kent banish’d thus, and France in choler parted?
And the king gone tonight, prescribed [subscribed] his power,
Confined to exhibition? All this done
Upon the gad! Edmund, how now, what news?

So please your lordship, none.

Why so earnestly seek you to put up that letter?

I know no news, my lord.

What paper were you reading?

Nothing, my lord.

No? What needed then that terrible dispatch of
it into your pocket? The quality of nothing hath
not such need to hide itself. Let’s see: come,
if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles.

I beseech you, sir, pardon me: it is a letter
from my brother, that I have not all o’er-read,
and for so much as I have perused, I find it not
fit for your o’er-looking [liking].

Give me the letter, sir.

I shall offend, either to detain or give it. The
contents, as in part I understand them, are to blame.

Let’s see, let’s see.

I hope, for my brother’s justification, he wrote
this but as an essay or taste of my virtue.

(reads) “This policy and reverence of age makes
the world bitter to the best of our times; keeps
our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish
them. I begin to find an idle and fond bondage
in the oppression of aged tyranny, who sways,
not as it hath power, but as it is suffered. Come to
me, that of this I may speak more. If our father
would sleep till I waked him, you should enjoy half his
revenue for ever, and live the beloved of your
brother, Edgar.”
Hum! Conspiracy! “Sleep till I waked him — you
should enjoy half his revenue” —  My son Edgar!
Had he a hand to write this? A heart and brain
to breed it in? When came this to you? Who
brought it?

It was not brought me, my lord; there’s the
cunning of it. I found it thrown in at the
casement of my closet.

You know the character to be your brother’s?

If the matter were good, my lord, I
durst swear it were his; but, in respect of that,
I would fain think it were not.

It is his?

It is his hand, my lord; but I hope his heart is
not in the contents.

Hath he never heretofore sounded you in this business?

Never, my lord: but I have heard him oft
maintain it to be fit, that, sons at perfect age,
and fathers declining, the father should be as
ward to the son, and the son manage his revenue.

O villain, villain! His very opinion in the
letter! Abhorred villain! Unnatural, detested,
brutish villain — worse than brutish! Go, sirrah,
seek him; I’ll apprehend him — abominable villain!
Where is he?

I do not well know, my lord. If it shall please
you to suspend your indignation against my
brother till you can derive from him better
testimony of his intent, you should run a certain
course; where, if you violently proceed against
him, mistaking his purpose, it would make a great
gap in your own honour, and shake in pieces the
heart of his obedience. I dare pawn down my life
for him, that he hath wrote this to feel my
affection to your honour, and to no other [further]
pretence of danger.

Think you so?

If your honour judge it meet, I will place you
where you shall hear us confer of this, and by an
auricular assurance have your satisfaction; and
that without any further delay than this very evening.

He cannot be such a monster —

Nor is not, sure.

To his father, that so tenderly and entirely
loves him. Heaven and earth!] Edmund, seek him
out, wind me into him, I pray you. Frame the
business after your own wisdom. I would unstate
myself, to be in a due resolution.

I will seek him, sir, presently, convey the
business as I shall find [see] means and acquaint you withal.

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend
no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can
reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself
scourged by the sequent effects: love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son
and father. This villain of mine comes under the
prediction; there’s son against father: the king
falls from bias of nature; there’s father against
child. We have seen the best of our time;
machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all
ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our
graves. Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall
lose thee nothing; do it carefully. And the
noble and true-hearted Kent banished! his
offence, honesty! ‘Tis strange.


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: as
if we were villains by necessity, fools by
heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical [spiritual] predominance, drunkards,
liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence, and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! “My
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon’s tail, and my nativity was under
Ursa Major; so that it follows I am rough and
lecherous.” [Fut!] I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing [bastardy].


[Edgar] — And pat [out] he comes like the catastrophe of the old
comedy. My cue is villainous melancholy, with a
sigh like Tom o’ Bedlam. — O, these eclipses do
portend these divisions! fa, sol, la, mi.

How now, brother Edmund? What serious
contemplation are you in?

I am thinking, brother, of a prediction I read
this other day, what should follow these eclipses.


Do you busy yourself about that?

I promise you, the effects he writes of succeed
unhappily; [as of unnaturalness between the child
and the parent; death, dearth, dissolutions of
ancient amities; divisions in state, menaces and
maledictions against king and nobles; needless
diffidences, banishment of friends, dissipation
of cohorts, nuptial breaches, and I know not what.

How long have you been a sectary astronomical?

Come, come,]  when saw you my father last?

Why, the night gone by.

Spake you with him?

Ay, two hours together.

Parted you in good terms? Found you no
displeasure in him by word or countenance?

None at all.

Bethink yourself wherein you may have offended
him, and at my entreaty forbear his presence
till some little time hath qualified the heat of
his displeasure; which at this instant so rageth
in him that with the mischief of your person it
would scarcely allay.

Some villain hath done me wrong.

That’s my fear. I pray you, have a continent
forbearance till the speed of his rage goes
slower; and, as I say, retire with me to my
lodging, from whence I will fitly bring you to
hear my lord speak. Pray ye, go; there’s my key.
If you do stir abroad, go armed.

Armed, brother?

Brother, I advise you to the best; go armed. I
am no honest man if there be any good meaning
towards you. I have told you what I have seen
and heard, but faintly, nothing like the image
and horror of it. Pray you, away.

Shall I hear from you anon?

I do serve you in this business.


A credulous father, and a brother noble,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms,
That he suspects none: on whose foolish honesty
My practices ride easy! I see the business.
Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit:
All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit.



Nature: the natural world, governed by amoral laws of cause and effect, not human decrees and social restrictions, such as the censure of illegitimacy that holds Edmund back (see commentary for more explanation)

Wherefore: why

Stand … custom: accept the curse that society places on me, just because I’m a bastard

curiosity: moral scruples of a society that looks down on the illegitimate

moon-shines: months

lag: short of, younger than; Edmund is a year or so younger than Edgar, so he also loses the major part of the inheritance by not being the first-born

wherefore base?: why does my being born illegitimate make me a lowly and unworthy person?

compact: his body and features are well put together; that is, he’s well built and good looking

generous: as well endowed with intellect and ability (not generous in the sense of willing to give to others)

honest madam’s issue: a married woman’s child

Who: the antecedent appears to be “us”; that is, we bastards gain more qualities in our lusty birth than do most legitimate children who are born fools

lusty stealth of nature: the secret, hidden affairs of natural lust

composition and fierce quality: complete and full of energy, robust

dull … bed: reference to the faithful marriage bed, dull and stale because of a lack of variety of lovers

fops: fools

Got: begotten

speed: succeed

invention: plot

top: rise above, defeat (“top” is the 1768 editor Capell’s suggested correction; Q has “tooth,” F has “to th”)

choler: anger

prescribed: limited

exhibition: an allowance or pension

gad: goad, as a horse is pricked by a goad; that is, on the spur of the moment

put up: Edmund makes an obvious attempt to hide the letter

terrible dispatch: trying to conceal the letter hastily

o’er-looking: examination

taste: test

policy: the practice of a son having to wait for his father to die in order to receive the inheritance

fond: foolish

who sways: which rules

suffered: allowed, that is, this custom stands only because we permit it

sleep: metaphor for death

casement of my closet: window of his room

character: the handwriting

matter: subject matter of the letter

durst: would dare

fain: prefer to

sounded: tested these ideas on you

perfect age: the prime of life

sirrah: sir

certain course: proceed safely, knowing the path

pawn down: stake, put at risk

feel: feel out, test

meet: fitting

auricular: hearing with your own ears

wind: work your way into his confidence

unstate … resolution: I would give everything I own to know the truth about this matter

eclipses: Gloucester blames ominous astrological signs for the recent misfortunes

wisdom of nature: scientific learning

scourged: whipped, punished

sequent: consequent; the effects following these bad omens

‘twixt: between

prediction: my son’s treason falls under the stars’ influence

bias of nature: Lear has fallen away from the natural bias he should have toward Cordelia

machinations: plots

hollowness: insincerity

disquietly: unquietly

foppery: foolishness

sick in fortune: suffering bad luck

surfeit: excesses

guilty: we blame the results of our own misdeeds on the stars

heavenly compulsion: as if the stars made us act this way without our free will

treachers: traitors, those who commit treachery

spherical predominance: whichever planet he was born under (astrology)

divine thrusting on: influence by the gods

whoremaster: lecherous

goatish: lustful, after the mythical satyrs which were known to be lecherous

charge: fault (we lay the blame for our own sins on the stars)

compounded: joined with her sexually

dragon’s tail: the constellation of Draco

nativity: birth

Ursa Major: the Great Bear (also known as the Big Dipper)

Fut: swear word, short for “God’s foot”

maidenliest: most virginal

firmament: heavens

Edgar: When Edmund sees his brother enter, his first few lines are spoken as an aside

pat: immediately (“speak of the devil, here he is”)

castastrophe: conclusion of a play, referring to predictable comedies which resolve the dramatic conflict in the nick of time

Tom o’ Bedlam: a madman from Bethlehem (Bedlam) Hospital (ironically, Edgar will later take on this disguise); Q1 has “them of Bedlam”

portend: predict  (ironically echoing his father)

fa, so, la, mi: notes on a scale (singing to himself)

succeed: unfortunately, this man’s unfortunate (unhappy) predictions often come true

amities: friendships

diffidences: distrust

nuptial breaches: broken marriages

sectary: believer in astrology

countenance: facial expression

forbear: avoid

allay: even an injury to you would not appease his anger

continent forbearance: keep a cautious distance

fitly: when it’s appropriate

good meaning: if our father means you any good

faintly: my words can barely express the trouble you are in

anon: soon

credulous: all too believing, gullible

practices: plots

meet: proper

fashion fit: shape to my purposes

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