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Click the character infographic to download. The big thing to know about Edmund is that, as Shakespeare repeatedly says, he's "a bastard. Not only was he born out of wedlock, but he also acts like a jerk from the beginning of the play to the end.
He's one of the first characters we meet, and his father Gloucester goes out of his way to let us know that Edmund is his illegitimate son. Imagine yourself at a party and your dad says: "Oh, here's my son, his mom was a hooker, but we had fun together, so here he is. Would it make you want to get even? How about if it happened again and again and again? The play makes it pretty clear that this is a standard conversation for Edmund and his dad. So the first image in this play is a father smiling and abusing his son, and the son smiles right back, just soaking it up.
When Gloucester insults his son, Shakespeare clues us in to the fact that Edmund is a jerk for a reason—as the illegitimate and second born son that's always the butt of his father's jokes, Edmund has been shafted his whole life.
Here's what Edmund has to say about it:. Wherefore 'base,' When my dimensions are as well compact, My mind as generous, and my shape as true As honest madam's issue? In the world of the play which is much like Shakespeare's England , primogeniture the rule by which eldest son inherits all his father's wealth, lands, and titles is the rule and it makes the lives of younger brothers pretty miserable.
This means that Edmund has got some serious motives for acting like, well, a "bastard. This is Shakespeare's little joke, not ours. So, no matter how bad Edmund behaves in the play, it's hard not to feel a little bit sorry for the guy. This is what distinguishes Edmund from the likes of some other Shakespearean villains. In Othello , for example, we're never really quite sure what motivates the evil Iago—it's quite possible that Iago has no real motives at all. But this is Shakespeare, and let's face it, Edmund's a villain, and he's proud of that fact.