Last week’s meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, as always, inspired me: I saw old friends and met new ones, and saw and heard much that will fuel my thinking and teaching for some time to come. In particular, two stimulating talks on the weight of greetings in Shakespeare, by Lynne Magnusson and David Hillman, have made me want to revisit the very beginning of King Lear, and the way Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, is introduced to us in the play. He enters with Gloucester and Kent, but we don’t know how he might be related to either of the two men until Kent hazards, “Is not this your son, my lord?” (1.1.7). A perfect opening for an introduction and a greeting – and yet Gloucester completely fails to take it, instead forcing Edmund to stand by while he makes bawdy jokes about Edmund’s conception and illegitimacy. Kent tries again to get the script back on track with an awkward return to Edmund’s actual presence – “I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper” (1.1.16-17) – but Gloucester again dodges his social responsibility, talking instead about his elder (and legitimate) son Edgar, then cracking yet more jokes about Edmund, until finally arriving at the tactless segue, “…and the whoreson must be acknowledged. Do you know this noble gentleman, Edmund?” (1.1.22-24). (Really, I shudder to think what Gloucester would be like at parties.)
The brief interaction between the three men, even after such unpromising beginnings, is perfectly decorous, but also revealing:
EDMUND No, my lord.
GLOUCESTER My lord of Kent: remember him hereafter, as my honourable friend.
EDMUND My services to your lordship.
KENT I must love you, and sue to know you better.
EDMUND Sir, I shall study deserving. (1.1.25-30)
The modal verb in Kent’s gracious reply (“I must love you, and sue to know you better”) speaks eloquently – as the rest of the scene, with Lear’s love test, will go on to do – of the ways in which love is a social obligation: not just a fickle, fleeting passion, but part of the bedrock of interaction. Love is a duty, not a mere feeling – a concept that might be foreign to many of us raised on the idea that love should always be based in individual, private feeling. We should love because we want to, not because we have to.  But this exchange of compliments attempts, at least, to create a different kind of love – one that will bring Edmund in out of the cold and into the community’s fold, as Kent tries to solidify Edmund’s status as Gloucester’s son, however inappropriately he might have come into the world.
That moment of community, however, is all too brief, as Gloucester dismisses Edmund as perfunctorily as he introduced him, telling Kent, “He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again” (1.1.31-2). Edmund is by no means one of my favorite Shakespeare characters, or even my favorite of Gloucester’s two sons (my heart belongs to Edgar, thanks to that stunning soliloquy of his), but that sentence still reads to me like a slap in the face, every time. Gloucester seems not even to care where Edmund has been, or where he’ll return to, sparing only the vaguest words “out” and “away” with which to dispose of his son. And in introducing him only to send him away again, he denies even the possibility that Edmund might be able to build sustained, long-term connections with his father’s friends, men like Kent.
A tiny detail later in the play constructs exactly the opposite picture of Gloucester’s legitimate son Edgar. As Edmund schemes to convince Gloucester and the court to believe that Edgar had designs to kill his father and inherit his lands, Lear’s daughter Regan exclaims in shock, “What, did my father’s godson seek your life? / He whom my father named, your Edgar?” (2.1.91-2). In those two lines, we realize that Edgar has been closely knit into this society from birth, that his ties of kinship are far-ranging – that whereas Edmund is all but unknown to his father’s friends and barely even given a proper greeting before being packed off, Edgar’s name – that is, his greeting into the world, and his introduction ever after – was given to him by the king himself. Which must make the wrench of Edgar’s sudden and undeserved severing from that world even more shocking for him – but I hope to have more to say about that in a future post.
Text: King Lear, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997).
This is not the place, perhaps, for a lengthy defense of Cordelia’s actions during the love test – though I have one – but I think it is worth noting that when she describes her love for her father, her language is perfectly in keeping with this language of love as social obligation:
Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honor you. (1.1.95-98)
This is not an alien tongue in the world of King Lear, even if Lear refuses to understand it for what it is, and how much it matters.