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Playing the Role of Edgar

Playing the Role of Edgar

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Published by Jeremy Keeshin
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Published by: Jeremy Keeshin on Nov 19, 2007
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11/03/2012

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Jeremy KeeshinFinding the True Role of Edgar When a reader or viewer enters William Shakespeare’s world of 
 King Lear 
, there aremany pressing issues that arise. There are matters of love, family, deception, and superstition,and they all come together in perhaps one of the play’s most underrated characters in terms of complexity: Edgar. He is cast out from his family and must assume the role of a beggar to assuresurvival. However, Edgar’s assumption of various roles comes first out of necessity, but later serves to comfort others around him from the hazardous truth. He uses each of his distinctimpersonations to achieve some noble goal to aid others, but ultimately succeeds in empoweringand discovering himself amongst the bizarre world of 
 King Lear.
At first Edgar’s character of Poor Tom is a resort to safety and an attempt to distancehimself from his family. Edgar is thrown out of Gloucester’s castle early on in Act 2, Scene 1after Edmund brutally manipulates him. These early conversations with Edmund are the first thatthe reader sees of Edgar. He comes across as passive and questioning; the first three times hespeaks in the entire play are questions (1.2.145-158). After a little dialogue with Edmund herealizes that “some villain hath done [him] wrong” (1.2.172). It takes Edgar a while to realizethat he has been set-up. He initially is not very perceptive, all he can do is listen to every word of his brother and realize he has been wronged. The reader here must question Edgar’s naiveté; his prior relations with Edmund must have indicated some sort of cunning. However, Edgar isgullible enough to eat up Edmund’s every word. When Edmund asks if he has said anythingcontroversial, he replies, “I am sure on ‘t, not a word” (2.1.27). Although he is certain here thathe has done nothing wrong, he is nonetheless submissive to Edmund. Edmund’s trickery isevident to the reader, but for some reason Edgar is blind to it. Edgar’s first change comes in Act
 
Jeremy Keeshin2, Scene 3 when he gets a little edgy. In his banishment from the castle he was so accepting of his fate, but now that he is out in the wild, he gets a little motivated to change. He says, “I will preserve myself, and am bethought/ To take the basest and most poorest shape” (2.3.6-7). Edgar finally resolves here to look out for himself. He takes the shape of “Poor Tom” (2.3.20), butinterestingly enough this is not the first time this character is brought up. Edmund names “Tomo’ Bedlam” (1.2.143) right before the first time Edgar enters. This seems to be an interestingforeshadowing of Edgars future character. Why Poor Tom? At this point in time when Edgar agrees to disguise himself, he has the option to be any being he chooses. It is probable that thereason he chooses Poor Tom, this filthy and possessed beggar, is because he wants to get as far away from what he was before this, a son of a noble. Being Poor Tom is safe; how can Poor Tom be confused with Edgar?Edgar’s character of Poor Tom and his other disguises provide himself and those aroundhim a sense of comfort in not having to deal directly with truth. Poor Tom is comforting to Edgar  because he does not need to be himself. When he is Poor Tom he is an actor, and as he hones therole he becomes more and more believable. Poor Tom does not have the worries that Edgar had:worries of nobility, relationships, status. Edgar reveals the ease of living in disguise in hissoliloquy:Yet better thus, and known to be contemned,Than still contemned and flattered. To be worst,The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear.The lamentable change is from the best;
 
Jeremy KeeshinThe worst returns to laughter. (4.1.1-6)He tells his reader that when one is the worst, anything that happens is an improvement. This islater the sentiment echoed to Gloucester and as an aside when he thinks he has reached thelowest of human existence. He has realized so far from his act as Poor Tom, that when one hasnothing, there is nothing to worry about. Edgar becomes the lunatic and carefree Poor Tom just by assuming his character. This lends insight to Edgar’s disguise: Now that he is Poor Tom whois the worst, he has nothing to fear, and this lends him a sense of empowerment. This comfortthat he gives himself is also put the way of Gloucester. Edgar sees the blinded Gloucester and isterrified: “And worst I may be yet. The worst is not / So long as we can say “This is the worst””(4.1.30-31). Shakespeare plays with this idea of the best and the worst through Edgar who dealsin both extremes. Edgar, even in this dire time, preserves hope. Edgar’s character has been ableto adapt and persevere through disguise. He comes to a crossroads on whether or not to helpGloucester. “I cannot daub it further,” he tells the audience (4.1.60). This is important, becausenow even as Poor Tom, he regains some of his identity as Edgar, son of Gloucester. It is in thisway that the sifting through other characters helps him to find himself. He wants to helpGloucester; he wants to act the role of son now, but still opts not to. He says, “And yet I must”(4.1.62). He opts here to comfort Gloucester as Poor Tom, because maybe Gloucester is notready to deal with the true Edgar. This is evident later when Gloucester dies shortly after Edgar reveals his true nature. He tells Albany, “His flawed heart… ‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joyand grief, / Burst smilingly” (5.3.232-235). Poor Tom is about soothing, reassuring, andconsoling. Edgar’s Poor Tom is the white lie personified. The white lie is told to benefit both theliar and receiver by euphemizing the message. Poor Tom to Gloucester is a lie, but one that

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