Gloucester the Prophet and Edmund the Cynic in King Lear

In the second scene of the first act in Shakespeare’s King Lear, the entire plot is laid bare in a speech by the Earl of Gloucester who uses astrological signs to predict the fall of Lear’s kingdom.  While his interpretation of some of the predictions at the time are mistaken, the prophecy itself is completely accurate.  More perplexing still, despite Gloucester’s reliance on divination, his fears are brought about at least in part by his son Edmund’s willful treachery.

A point-by-point breakdown of Gloucester’s speech provides all the disastrous events over the course of the play.  After several lines of marveling at what the “late eclipses in the sun and moon / portend,” Gloucester supplies the first part of the prediction (I. ii. 109-110).

Love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide; in cities, mutinies;
in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and
the bond cracked ’twixt son and father. (I. ii. 112-115).

The first two words carry a surprising amount of weight; they sum up King Lear’s icy reaction to Cordelia’s honesty at the beginning of the story.  The subsequent fall-off in friendship is the loss of Lear’s allegiances to Burgundy and France over Cordelia’s lost dowry.  The divided brothers are Gloucester’s sons Edgar and Edmund since the older is betrayed by the younger.  The mutinous cities, discordant countries, and treasonous palaces are all the result of Goneril and Regan’s future defiance of Lear since chaos ensues from their schemes to ruin him.  The broken bond is clearly Gloucester and one of his sons.  While Gloucester has been led to believe the son in question is Edgar, it is Edmund standing before him at that moment.

If Gloucester displays unreserved faith in the eclipses’ warnings, Edmund could not be any more cynical.  The moment his father leaves the stage, he launches into a soliloquy about how humans are stupid for blaming the heavens for their own mistakes.  He says: “When we are sick in fortune…we make guilty of our disasters / the sun, the moon, and stars” (I. ii. 126-128).  This is a significant character moment for Edmund; not only does he seem to delight in his villainy, but he refuses to ascribe it to any ethereal cause.  His denial of astrology’s possible influence is the perfect testament to his ego, ending with the claim: I should / have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the / firmament twinkled on my bastardizing” (I. ii. 138-140).

In two consecutive speeches, Shakespeare has demonstrated the tone and direction of the story.  Gloucester first fearfully lays out the plot points according to his spherical readings.  Edmund then scoffs at his father’s supposed foppery, asserting that he and he alone is master of his will.  Ironically, even as Edmund attests to his own volition, his actions along with those of the play’s other characters bring about his father’s preordinance perfectly.  A paradox is thus present: the classic philosophical clash of predestination against free will.   With no straightforward resolution provided by the Bard, this existential tension makes the story seem all the more hopeless and tragic.

~Mich Walter

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