Jeremy Keeshin Finding the True Role of Edgar

When a reader or viewer enters William Shakespeare’s world of King Lear, there are many 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 assure survival. 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 distinct impersonations to achieve some noble goal to aid others, but ultimately succeeds in empowering and 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 distance himself from his family. Edgar is thrown out of Gloucester’s castle early on in Act 2, Scene 1 after Edmund brutally manipulates him. These early conversations with Edmund are the first that the reader sees of Edgar. He comes across as passive and questioning; the first three times he speaks in the entire play are questions (1.2.145-158). After a little dialogue with Edmund he realizes that “some villain hath done [him] wrong” (1.2.172). It takes Edgar a while to realize that 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 is gullible enough to eat up Edmund’s every word. When Edmund asks if he has said anything controversial, he replies, “I am sure on ‘t, not a word” (2.1.27). Although he is certain here that he has done nothing wrong, he is nonetheless submissive to Edmund. Edmund’s trickery is evident to the reader, but for some reason Edgar is blind to it. Edgar’s first change comes in Act

Jeremy Keeshin 2, 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), but interestingly enough this is not the first time this character is brought up. Edmund names “Tom o’ Bedlam” (1.2.143) right before the first time Edgar enters. This seems to be an interesting foreshadowing of Edgar’s 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 the reason 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 around him 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 the role 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 his soliloquy:

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 Keeshin The 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 is later the sentiment echoed to Gloucester and as an aside when he thinks he has reached the lowest of human existence. He has realized so far from his act as Poor Tom, that when one has nothing, 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 who is the worst, he has nothing to fear, and this lends him a sense of empowerment. This comfort that he gives himself is also put the way of Gloucester. Edgar sees the blinded Gloucester and is terrified: “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 deals in both extremes. Edgar, even in this dire time, preserves hope. Edgar’s character has been able to adapt and persevere through disguise. He comes to a crossroads on whether or not to help Gloucester. “I cannot daub it further,” he tells the audience (4.1.60). This is important, because now even as Poor Tom, he regains some of his identity as Edgar, son of Gloucester. It is in this way that the sifting through other characters helps him to find himself. He wants to help Gloucester; 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 not ready 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, joy and grief, / Burst smilingly” (5.3.232-235). Poor Tom is about soothing, reassuring, and consoling. Edgar’s Poor Tom is the white lie personified. The white lie is told to benefit both the liar and receiver by euphemizing the message. Poor Tom to Gloucester is a lie, but one that

Jeremy Keeshin Edgar thinks will ultimately benefit them both. Edgar says in an aside, “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it” (4.6.42-43). This means that this excessive work that is being done to deceive Gloucester has underlying good intentions. Poor Tom and his lies are all for Gloucester’s benefit. Revealing his true persona would most likely shock Gloucester. Edgar lies about the hill, and the verge, and the cliff, but all to save Gloucester from suicide. It would be a cruel joke if it was known what measures Edgar was going to deceive and save Gloucester. However, it is the fact that these measures are unknown; this is an instance where Edgar’s ends justify the means. Gloucester is perceptive of a change in his aide: “Methinks thy voice is altered” (4.6.10). This is important because this is the first time that Edgar falters on his disguise, he is usually so eager to play the role, but now his grieving father is causing him to waver. When Gloucester is about to die, Edgar says, “Give me your hand” (4.6.31). This is most clearly a sign of comfort in its literal and metaphorical interpretation. He is trying to lend him a hand and also trying to reassure him, which is the ultimate purpose of Poor Tom. Edgar uses his alter egos as couriers to deliver messages or information that cannot be given directly, or if it can, is most effective given sideways. This is the case when Edgar transforms himself into a peasant after he has tricked Gloucester. Each of Edgar’s characters has some purpose to achieve. Poor Tom’s purpose was comfort; the peasant’s purpose is rejuvenation. This is evident right away when he says to Gloucester, “Thy life’s a miracle” (4.6.69) and “Think that the clearest gods, who make them honors / Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee” (4.6.90-92). Edgar caters to Gloucester’s solace in superstition to renew strength in his father. Whether or not he believes the things he says is inconsequential (most likely he does not believe them, he makes outrageous claims as Poor Tom), what matters is that when he speaks to each character while in disguise, each sentence tries to elicit a desired

Jeremy Keeshin outcome. Later in this scene, Edgar becomes a countryman before he fights Oswald and defends Gloucester. His new dialect, “An ‘chud ha’ bin zwaggered,” (4.6.267) is completely different than Poor Tom and the peasant. This may have the result of Gloucester thinking that three different people have been caring for him, when in reality it was only one. This ploy by Edgar is cunning to instill hope in Gloucester. This signals a major change from his passivity in Act 1. Edgar’s characters deliver one more message in a sideways manner. As a peasant, Edgar approaches Albany and gives him a letter with vague instructions. Why so unclear and indirect? Time and again, Edgar does not approach the matter head on. He deceives all of those around him, but ultimately to their benefit. It is in this great irony that Edgar works: He tricks to help. Ironically, Edgar’s transformation through all of these pseudo-selves leads to a transformation in his true self and increased perceptiveness. Ultimately, Edgar’s testing of alternate identities of peasant, beggar, and countryman lead him to find his noble self. In the climactic Act 5, Scene 3, Edgar’s newfound and well-deservéd self-empowerment is evident. He says to Edmund before he challenges him to battle:

Despite thy victor sword and fire-new fortune, Thy valour and thy heart, thou art a traitor; False to thy gods, thy brother, and thy father; Conspirant 'gainst this high-illustrious prince; And, from the extremest upward of thy head To the descent and dust below thy foot, A most toad-spotted traitor. (5.3.160-166)

Jeremy Keeshin The effect of this speech by Edgar is stark in contrast to his dialogue with Edmund at the start of the play. First he was passive and naïve, now he is active and accusatory. This change was caused by his movement through alternate identities. By testing out others’ selves he found himself. This invigorated Edgar now shows immense acuity. He says, “This would have seemed a period / To such as love not sorrow; but another” (5.3.242-243) and “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” (5.3.393). Edgar demonstrates a magnificent change in these lines. He shows he has gotten in touch with his emotions and is capable now of expressing them. Edgar’s character is one of much complexity, as it entails five distinct personas. He was Edgar the passive noble, Poor Tom the beggar, the peasant, the countryman, and Edgar the renewed noble. His goal in his disguise was to shy away from truth, but in the end, it led him to it. His other characters became the means by which he was able to interact with a society that he was wrongfully cast out of. His assumption of characters was very opportunistic; he could have easily sat on the side and been of no effect in this play, but his role was very important. His mechanisms of deception were very discreet, but allowed him an open avenue into change. Edgar’s change from reflexive to proactive is epitomized by Edmunds line in the crucial moment of the play: “The wheel is come full circle” (5.3.208). Edgar’s dramatic effect on the play was due to his ability to tap into the minds of each character, and this ultimately helped him rediscover himself.

Jeremy Keeshin


At first Edgar’s character of Poor Tom is a resort to safety and an attempt to distance himself from his family. Edgar’s character of Poor Tom and his other disguises provide himself and those around him a sense of comfort in not having to deal directly with truth. Edgar uses his alter egos as couriers to deliver messages or information that cannot be given directly, or if it can, is most effective given sideways. Ironically, Edgar’s transformation through all of these pseudo-selves leads to a transformation in his true self and increased perceptiveness.

why does he disguise confusion safety

function safety messeger

what is its effect empowerment

Jeremy Keeshin

3 alternate personas in 4.6 poor tom peasant countryman 5.1 ordinary peasatn to deliver message

edgar uses his alter egos as messengers ***

messengers to deliver messages or information that cannot be given directly or if it can be given directly it is most effective when given in a sideways manner

effectively, edgar's Poor Tom is the personified white lie. often the most effective way to deliver a message is sideways when edgar is formally blocked from speaking with gloucester it is useless for him to give info as "edgar"

like at the end lear is hesitant to believe that kent is who he says he is, because when we have set perceptions about people it is difficult to disrupt them

Jeremy Keeshin

first he leaves out of shame, necessity

passive initially active at the end

goes through a transformation of his real self by moving through alternate selves ****

he lives... what does this say the people who adapt live

function and effect

a disguise, last resort to save his life 2.3 preserve himself but why poor tom why a begger ... he is noble so now feels he needs to test the other side

37 Tom o Bedlam --- poor tom 39 "SOme villain hath done me wrong" -- suspicious, but unsure, too unsure to take action "Armed? " question mark, unsurenes, but edmund has the upper hand.. why 75 Edgar is "sure" now that he has done nothing wrong, why is he so submissive to Edgar what is he thinking at this point, it is most likely confusion

Jeremy Keeshin we (the reader or viewer) realize edmund's trickery here, why does Edgar not realize it 96-97 he decides to disguise... why is this the course of action how does it naturally follow that if one is noble he should disguise as a beggar. why, it does naturally follow because he is trying to make himself the opposite of what he thinks he is ironiclaly he calls himself poor tom here as he was called by Edmund on his first appearance on 37 "Edgar I nohting am" as Edgar I am nothing. why does he think that. it must be brainwashing from his brother 139 here he enters as Poor Tom for the first time.. "the foul fiend follows me" clearly this shows how he is possesed, but i think it oculd show more. could Edgar by now have already realized Edmunds trickery and think that Edmund is on his case. it is possible and could be a subtle message when he talks about this "Foul fiend" who the reader knows from the rest of the reading is a rather close description of edmund.

why does he pretend to be devil obsessed, i can see he wants to be a beggar but why this 153 five wits... twice said 157 big speech by Edgar him relating to lear, being kicked out by family maybe he is Poor Tom the possessed because he doesn't know how to relate to people 171 interesting lines about hte best and the worst -solilouquy saying that, you know why it's the best to be the worst? because anything is an

Jeremy Keeshin improvement. this here could be insight ot his disguise . now I have nothign to fear, like i did before he does seem to feel empowered by his disguise as poor tom *** next page he's all like "is this the worst" no, its not becaue as long as you can talk its not the worst 173 now hes conflicted on how to help gloucester 175 "i cannot daub it further" these last pages he keeps wanting to tell. but he doesnt whyyy 195 the while lie of Poor Tom gives the white lie of the hill. why do we tell white lies? - for comfort Poor Tom can comfort gloucester now while Edgar cannot. Gloucester has not fully gotten over the fact that edmund has wronged him (maybe he has he realized in 3.7) but this white lie is easy and comfortable for both edgar and glucoester. it would be difficult to say who he is 195 He comes off of his game, let's up a little on his disguise for the fist time noticeably. this is important he is usually so eager to be poor tom, but now his grieving and aid to his father is making him forget his role 197 assumes a new character each character of his has a role and a goal to fulfill poor tom -crazy and leasd

Jeremy Keeshin new guy- consoling 213 calls him father casually and 215 fight with oswald and killls him now a new voice from the country is that 3 characers for edgar? 231 a peasant disguise to deliver a message to albany 245 "know my name is lost" he has been so many differnt people by now now hes empowered and active , newfound sense of strength these other people help him find himself--- interestingly he fights and kills Edmund before telling who he is... why. becuase its not who he is, what he dreses and says, it is what he does. 249 5.3 the unmkasign scnece, edgar unmaks self and kent. tells a story about gloucester and how he unmaksetd to him... 261 final speech "what we feel not what we ought to say" unfortunalely too many too the latter, say what tehy think they should say

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