Shakespeare’s Villains – Edmund

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This series on Shakespeare’s villains is being done in partnership with Finding Shakespeare – curating digital stories relating to Shakespeare’s life,  work and times.  Finding Shakespeare is the blog produced by the Collections Team here at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust– you can find out more about Edmund on Thursday 11th August when they post their blog.


Edmund from King Lear

Unlike Claudius Edmund from King Lear  is one of Shakespeare’s clever charismatic villains who usually gets audience sympathy and many actors say it’s a great role to play.

Edmund is the illegitimate son of Gloucester – whom Gloucester cheerfully introduces as such claiming right in front of him that there was  <wink, wink>  ‘much sport in his making’! If you think your parents embarrass you just be glad they don’t do this (at least I hope not!)

Edmund, who should have been friends with Don John from Much Ado About Nothing another bitter illegitimate child, is roguishly honest about his bitterness and his intent to better his legitimate brother Edgar.

In a speech actors say is great fun to perform Edmund explores his feelings of bitterness. Why he claims should the illegitimate child be considered base when he is as handsome as his brother, as well formed and as generous. Why should the illegitimate son be called base when he was made in passion and love rather than the boring old marriage bed?  This he suggests might make him strong where his legitimate brother is weak. So he plans to topple his brother and to claim his land, wealth and father’s love. He ends with the rousing cry “Now gods stand up for bastards!”

Delivered with humour this charismatic speech often wins over the audience who interestingly begin to side with the mean hearted and cunning Edmund. The speech I have described above would lead you think – if you did not know otherwise – that King Lear was a comedy, But of course it is not, as the play progresses Edmund swears love to Lear’s two evil daughters Gonerill and Regan coldly playing them off against each other and causing their deaths as their mutual jealousy spirals out of control. He finally meets with his brother Edgar again in the final battle and is mortally wounded but to his credit he does attempt ‘to do some good’ before he dies trying to spare Cordelia’s life – but it is too late, his  good will gesture is too little in the face of the unfolding tragedy and Cordelia’s life is taken as Edmund’s slips away.

See what Edmund has looked like on stage



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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
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  • Ty Unglebower

    As an actor, if I were told for the rest of my life I could play one, and only one villain in the works of Shakespeare, it would be none other than Edmund. There is just something about him that make him more sympathetic than other villians within the canon. You love to hate Richard III, (as well as his incarnations in the Henvry VI plays), and many get a visceral satisfaction out of simply hated Macbeth. But with Edmund we experience neither. (At least, I would so argue in most cases.)

    We don’t love to hate him, because we don’t quite hate him, even if we can’t say we love him either. Though some may end up doing so, depending on just how lopsided and unfair the crumbling world of Lear around Edmund is made out to be in any given production. 

    In either event, he has the humanity, eloquence, (if not the soaring rhetoric of an Iago) and the boldness to make him a highly sought after character.

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