Shakespeare's creation Edgar from King Lear and Elizabethan attitudes toward mental illness.

Essay by fenway82University, Bachelor'sA-, May 2003

download word file, 17 pages 3.7

Edgar, Poor Tom O'Bedlam, fiend, peasant, messenger, and avenging knight - just who is the character that assumes all these personas? Shakespeare often plays with the motif of madness and ambiguous roles, but no character dramatically embodies these ideas as extensively as Edgar in King Lear. It has often been said that Shakespeare understood human nature better than any man ever did. If that is the case, then we have to believe that his creation, Edgar, represents many different levels of the human condition. In fact, according to critic Harold Bloom, "on the title page in the first Quartro edition of King Lear, Shakespeare assigns a prominence to Edgar rarely afforded secondary characters in his plays":

"M. William Shak-speare: 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 humor of Tom of Bedlam...."

Bloom goes on to say that "'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." So we are led to believe by Shakespeare himself that Edgar, in his persona of Tom O'Bedlam, is indeed mad. But what about the other personalities attributed to Edgar throughout the play? To understand the complexity of the character we must examine all the aspects of his personality exhibited in the various roles he plays.

We can start by stating the obvious: Edgar is the legitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester and stands to inherit his father's title and estate. Edgar's status as the godson of King Lear gives him access to the main British court and all the prerogatives that come with it. Edgar...