The mistreated: the disposable acts of Kent and Edgar


Ronald W. Cooley in his essay entitled Kent and Primogeniture in „King Lear” asks the question: Why is Shakespeare’s Kent called Kent? His answer is explicit showing the symbolic connotations:

 It is a little surprising that the question has been so seldom asked, given that King Lear’s only precisely named location is in Kent: Dover, where both Lear and Gloucester flee to meet Cordelia and her French army. Names, however arbitrary and conventional, almost invariably evoke specific associations, particularly when they are also aristocratic titles (Kent is, after all, the Earl of Kent), laden with associations linked to the towns, counties, and regions from which those titles are derived. Ronald W. Cooley is Professor of English at the University of Saskatchewan. His current work on early modern Tunbridge Wells is part of a larger program of research on the literary and cultural history of Kent. Kent and King Lear the names of all King Lear’s male principals are „hieroglyphs of value, from which an entire system can be reconstructed.” Beyond linking Kent to the portion of Lear’s legacy that would have been Cordelia’s, however, Berry does little to identify the specific values his name might conjure up, or to work out the implications of those values for the play as a whole. We can begin to reconstruct those values by considering William Wordsworth’s 1803 sonnet invoking the stereotype of the proud and rugged „Men of Kent” as the „Vanguard of Liberty,” a stereotype that was already well established in Shakespeare’s day. It is a stereotype that seems, at first glance, entirely consistent with the character Shakespeare creates, the volatile yet supremely loyal counselor, who insists that it is his duty to be „unmannerly / When Lear is mad.”But Wordsworth, arriving late on the scene, and writing in a highly compressed form, tells only part of the story. When Wordsworth refers to „the charters that were [theirs] before,” he is referring to „gavelkind,” Kent’s distinctive system of land tenure, which dictated partible inheritance, rather than the prevailing English system of primogeniture. This detail is especially interesting in the context of Shakespeare’s King Lear. (…) Through the figure of Kent, Shakespeare evokes the distinctive Kentish character celebrated in Wordsworth’s sonnet, and in Shakespeare’s day, in works such as William Lambardes’ Perambulation of Kent (1576).

He explains that when Kent upbraids the king for his folly in dividing his estate, he seems to repudiate the inheritance practices for which his county was famous, „the charters that were [theirs] before,” which the men of Kent had preserved from Norman influence. Thus, Shakespeare’s Kent is at once the epitome and the antithesis of the stereotypical „man of Kent.”

As Michael Warren highlights, Kent is „associated with Cordelia as a spokesman for truth, fearless in his honesty and rashly brave.” This characterization is evident in the early scenes of both the Folio and Quarto versions of Shakespeare’s play. We shall note also that he, like Perillus, remains a faithful servant to his master after the king’s dispossession. However, in the Folio version of the play, Shakespeare makes a series of calculated alterations in the role, changes that focus attention on dynastic issues, and thus indirectly accentuate Kentish associations. Beyond the name change, Shakespeare alters the thrust of Perillus/Kent’s critique of the king’s action.

Being an advocate for Cordella, his defence of the young princess becomes a sign of political objection, in multiple senses, when „state” seems to imply both Lear’s royal dignity and the body part. Kent’s name and the plot of King Lear are linked to the archetypal character of the „Men of Kent,” to the popular reputation of the county. In a discussion, Terry Reilly draws on local detail to explore „the interplay of dramatic form and contemporary legal discourse” in the play. According to Reilly, „[b]oth the County and the Earl of Kent . . . provide for the ‘mingling’ of … oppositional features, thus serving as the chiastic nexus of both the plots and the characterizations.” Richard Halpern relies on William Harrison’s disapproving account of Kentish gavelkind in his 1587 Description of England, in order to suggest that „[t]he name of Shakespeare’s Kent . . . may well have been intended to evoke the one county in England where the practice of gavelkind continued.

As the particular Kentish virtues are braveness and diligence, honesty (prosperity, courage, and independence of spirit arise from the landholding and inheritance practises of the county: „in place of. . .. the custom of Gavelkind, prevailing everywhere, in manner every man is a freeholder, and hath some part of his own to live upon) It is not by chance that Shakespeare chose this name for the character who serves the king truly, even when he is mad and raging against him. Thus, he becomes the eyes of the king symbolically, whereas Cordelia his heart.

Cooley even exploits the original political aspect of the county of Kent, supposing it has a sound impact on Shakespeare’s choice:

Yet if Kent’s independent spirit links him to the Kentish yeomanry and peasantry, his dynastic priorities identify him with Kent and King Lear the Kentish aristocracy. In spite of Lambarde’s lofty testimonials to gavelkind and its shaping influence on the spirit of the men of Kent, Kentish landowners were, by the sixteenth century, increasingly embracing the dynastic logic of primogeniture, and seeking legal means to leave their estates intact to their eldest sons. But since gavelkind had the force of law in Kent, it could only be extinguished by statute. Hence, in the sixteenth century, „dozens of Kent gentry joined in promoting private acts of parliament to formally exempt their lands from the common custom of the county.” According to local historian C. W. Chalklin, „by the seventeenth century, primogeniture had displaced the custom of gavelkind among the Kentish gentry: most or all the land passed to the elder son, thus establishing his superior social and economic standing. „The county of Kent, then, was already ideologically divided on inheritance matters by Shakespeare’s time.

As Cooley calls it, King Lear is the play of affection and bonds, parental bonds, it suggests that it was a vision toward which Shakespeare would have inclined in the context of an emerging early modern debate about primogeniture. The playwright’s concern with matters of dynasty and property has to come into focus. Inheritance is also an additional core element of the plot of the play. 

Edgar’s “sullen” humour

The title page of the first Quarto edition in King Lear contains the following: “His True Chronicle Historie of the Life and Death of King Lear and his three Daughters. With the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humour of Tom of Bedlam…” ”Sullen ” in Shakespeare has the strong meaning of melancholia or depression, a variety of madness assumed by Edgar in his disguise as Tom of Bedlam. Harold Bloom asks: “Why does Edgar assume the lowest possible disguise?” His answer is as follows:

There is something so profoundly disproportionate in Edgar’s self-abnegation throughout the play that we have to presume in him a recalcitrance akin to Cordelia’s, but far in excess of hers. (…) The recognition encounter, which kills Gloucester, is one of Shakespeare’s great unwritten scenes, being confined as it is to Edgar’s narrative account, delivered to Albany after Edmund has received his death wound. (…) If we speak of a poetic rather than dramatic centre to the tragedy, we might choose the meeting between the mad King Lear and the blind Gloucester in Act 4 Sc6, l: 80-185.

The symbol of charity, Edgar as Poor Tom, guides his father. This seems to be the highest “emotional topic in the drama, the theme of charity in human relations: the desperate need which human beings have for each other, and their paradoxical inability to satisfy that need,” –as Sears Jayne characterises this piece.

It is Richard C. McCoy, who pins Edgar’s recognition to analysis, reminding us the Christian emblems of the play mentioned at the beginning of the chapter:

In King Lear, recognition of Edgar ‘‘as a real person and a real son’’ is complicated by Edgar’s own relentless moralising. Edgar is an exemplary but problematic figure. As Janet Adelman says, the ‘‘absolute goodness and nobility of Edgar . . . has been assumed in much of the criticism of the twentieth century . . . at the price of overlooking certain questions raised by his behaviour.’’ Edgar’s predilection for smug sententiousness constitutes one of his most questionable characteristics. Maynard Mack sees him as a Morality figure whose pronouncements provide ‘‘the ‘meaning’ before we are given the event,’’ and Mack treats Lear as a tragedy ‘‘that is as much homiletic as it is dramatic, and sometimes more the former than the latter.’’Edgar’s aphorisms about the uses of adversity and the comforts of compassion can be edifying, and his own experience confirms that, in suffering, ‘‘the mind much sufferance doth o’erskip, / When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship’’ (3.6.104–5). At the same time, his maxims are often frequently disrupted and denied by the play’s escalating sequence of shocks and horrors, and the dramatic undercuts homiletic assurances. Confident that his suffering may prove a redemptive blessing in disguise, he asserts that ‘‘The lamentable change is from the best; / The worst returns to laughter.’’

All these lead us to the conclusion that Edgar seems to be a morality figure, just like in the old morality plays, whose main significance lies in telling the truth, questioning the hardness in life, punishing himself for his deficiencies, yet uplifting the mood of his father, being a good loyal son, not letting him despair in pain over the loss of his son and that of his eyesight. Edgar’s linguistic elements vary from the Fool’s vocabulary to the philosophical dimensions, the orator here is an individual taking responsibilities in life, caring for the old Gloucester, showing emotions.

The last act brings the death of his father and the defeat of Lear, but Edgar is unbowed. Putting aside the rags of Poor Tom, he marches forth in the armour of a knight whose ‘‘name is lost’’ (5.3.120) to challenge his wicked stepbrother to formal combat. In this new guise, he appears as the chivalric embodiment of heroic virtue, resembling those celestial forces invoked by Albany who fears chaos if ‘‘the heavens do not their visible spirits / Send quickly down to tame these vilde offences’’ (4.2.46–47). In this encounter, virtue proves initially victorious, winning the battle but not the war. We soon realise, along with the characters, that the stirring heroics of this scene have distracted us from the mortal plight of Lear and Cordelia. The horrific shock caused by that ‘‘Great thing of us forgot!’’ (5.3.235) ultimately shatters all hope of triumph, but not before the pleasures of moralising complacency are given free play. After defeating his villainous brother, Edgar magnanimously proposes to ‘‘exchange charity’’ (5.3.165) and discloses his identity. His account of their father’s blinding is remarkably harsh, combining smug sanctimony with misogynistic insult to his brother’s bastard origins: “The Gods are just, and of our pleasant vices Make instruments to plague us; The dark and vicious place where thee he got Cost him his eyes. (5.3.169–71)”

The heroic virtue embodied in Edgar at the end however seems to be undermined by the fact that he delays in revealing himself, thus causing suffering to his father who believes Edgar had been lost. Stanley Cavell sees the loss of eyesight as metaphor and consequence of Edgar’s behaviour: “Edgar’s avoidance of Gloucester’s recognition precisely deprives Gloucester of his eyes again.’’


  1.  Ronald W. Cooley,  Kent and Primogeniture in „King Lear” in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 , Spring, 2008, Vol. 48, No. 2, Tudor and Stuart Drama (Spring, 2008), pp. 327-348 Published by: Rice University Stable URL: pp. 327-328.
  2.  Harold Bloom, King Lear in The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998): 480-481.
  3.  Sears Jayne, Charity in King in Lear Shakespeare Quarterly , Spring, 1964, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Spring, 1964), pp. 277-288 Published by: Oxford University Press Stable URL: p. 277.
  4.   Richard C. McCoy,  „Look upon me, Sir”: Relationships in King Lear in Representations , Vol. 81, No. 1 (Winter 2003), pp. 46-60 Published by: University of California Press Stable URL: p. 47.
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