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Gloucester believes that human destiny is dictated by the stars; Edmund believes that people choose their own destinies, limited only by chance. Which... |

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As 21st Century scholars, we probably go along with Edmund's idea of free-will, although he is ironic about this, and seems to blame or excuse his evil nature on a destiny equally beyond his control:

I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing. (1,ii,128-30)

The point is that Edmund and Gloucester are 16th Century characters, the writings of Machiavelli had entered the (educated) public consciousness, and Edmund is debating a notion that was relatively radical. The idea that human destiny was divinely or supernaturally ordered had been a fundamental principle which until the Renaissance had gone more or less unchallenged. In this play, the old order and the acceptance of it by individuals is challenged: centrally we have the destruction of a king, and thus of 'kingship' (remember that in Shakespeare's time, a king was appointed by God) and the proper order of things as evinced by obedient children, and eldest sons, who inherited power, and their younger siblings, bastards or not, who didn't.

Viewed in one way, you can arrange the play's characters in terms of 'traditionalists': Kent, Cordelia, Gloucester, Edgar, et al, who support Lear and the old order, and the 'radicals': Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, who argue the entitlement to persue their own ambitions for power and gain. For them, and Edmund especially, success will rest on intelligence and self-determination:

Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit...(I,ii,180)

For the traditionalists, the misfortunes that befall them is beyond their control, predestined, and constantly reiterated:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/They kill us for their sport. (Gloucester to Edgar, IV,i,36-37)


It is the stars,/ The stars above us, govern our conditions (Kent, IV,iii,31-32)

and range from the notion of 'the gods' as irrationally cruel, to an idea of providential justice, to both of which Man must respond with Stoical acceptance. For Edmund (and Goneril and Regan) this resignation is unacceptable, and their individualistic agenda are underscored by their rejection of this passivity. For us, the individualist view is probably more sympathetic, regardless of the 'evil' intent of Edmund (who is more concerned with ambition than actual willful destruction). For the play's first audiences, however, these ideas would have been radical and probably disturbing.


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