"Unaccommodated man" and his discontents in King Lear: Edmund the Bastard and Interrogative Puns
Anthony Gilbert
Lancaster University

Gilbert, Anthony. "'Unaccommodated man' and his discontents in King Lear: Edmund the Bastard and Interrogative Puns." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 7.1-11 <URL:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess. To thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why 'bastard'? Wherefore 'base',
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With 'base', with 'baseness, bastardy--base, base'--
Who in the lusty stealth of nature take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth within a dull, stale, tired bed
Go to th'creating a whole tribe of fops
Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmond
As to th' legitimate. Fine word, 'legitimate'.
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmond the base
Shall to th'legitimate. I grow, I prosper.
Now gods, stand up for bastards!    King Lear, I. ii. 1-221 [1]

  1. Manipulative speakers who impose their own interests on language are a central feature of King Lear. We have only to recall the ambiguous praise of Lear by Goneril and Regan in the first scene, where elaborate empty hyperbole coexists with a deeply ironic meaning, half concealed in such phrases as Goneril's "A love that makes breath poor and speech unable," (I. i. 60), or Regan's "I find she names my very deed of love" (I. i. 71). It is in fact a "deed without a name," as the witches in Macbeth describe their evil rituals. The brutal calculation of Lear's two daughters cannot be named in conventional language, but only implied. The connection between signifier and signified is loosened and exposed as arbitrary, allowing for alternative interpretations of the sense. This prising apart of conventional meanings passes unnoticed by Lear, but the asides of Cordelia imply a scepticism that justifies such an interpretation by the audience. The unorthodox is concealed, but at the same time half revealed, in these utterances. Language no longer embodies stable social relations or traditional values. Goneril and Regan bring their own sense of relevance to bear on this public occasion, as they do later, explicitly, in their arguments with Lear over his train of knights (I. iv. 183-236, II. ii. 300-437). Lear too in moments of bleak lucidity exposes the arbitrariness of conventional meanings in his reflections on human needs (II. ii. 438-444), on the sin of adultery (IV. v. 109-115), and on justice (IV. v 153-164). The Fool also, "all-licensed" as he is, and so uncensored by conventional restraints, is eloquent in his exploitation of folktale parable, exposing the arbitrary politics of personal relations in the play (I. iv. 95-182; I. v; II. ii. 190-297; III. ii, etc). By contrast with other speakers, he is motivated by affection for Lear, and a humane concern for his welfare. Nevertheless the Fool, in his own way, interrogates a reliance on conventional meanings, and their social implications are generally placed under question in the wider context of the play. There is a sense of vertigo as so many social and linguistic signifiers are rendered unstable across the narrative. So it is not surprising that one of the most subversive and manipulative speakers, Edmund, should also engage in this pragmatic strategy in his own interests. Since he is the chief agent of the sub-plot, his language may be argued to offer a structural commentary on the main plot, rendering the action more explicit in both its language as well as in its analysis of human relations. In the soliloquy above he engages in a brilliant radical gloss on conventional thinking, through a series of interrogative puns, and abrasive appropriations of the conventional language of society. He prepares us, through this intimate address to the audience, for a naked demonstration (to the audience at least) of those deceptive practices we have already seen in the ambiguous language of Goneril and Regan.

  2. Edmund is often regarded as a speaker who does not pun. [2] Yet on his second appearance (King Lear, I. ii 1-22,), his whole speech revolves around a punning exploitation of various key words in his soliloquy. He refers at first to the law of primogeniture, and being deprived of any inheritance by being "some twelve or fourteen moonshines / Lag of a brother" (5-6, my emphasis). In the immediately following remark, "Why 'bastard'?," Edmund may also be half thinking for a moment of the Latin tardus, meaning "slow," or "lagging," and so making an indirect punning reference to what he has just said, as well as his illegitimacy. The word "base-tard" (cf. modern English 'blackbird') can have secondary stress in one style of pronunciation in Elizabethan English, and so can also be heard as a consequence of his previous thought. [3] This pronunciation is also supported by the scansion of the line. The secondary stress focuses the word in the line, which may then be scanned as follows, giving an irregular but forceful rhythm: [4]

              1        |  2   |      3              |      4         |       5
              Lâg of a bróther? Why bástârd? Whérefore báse?

    Edmund's opening remarks, then, announce and anticipate one of the central themes of his reflection, and his later exploitation of the rhetorical figure antanaclasis, [5] or the pun, in relation to the key words "bastard" and "legitimate."

  3. Edmund now speaks in an orderly way, as he resumes his commentary on his own illegitimacy, beginning with the first syllable of "bastard" : "Why 'bastard'? Wherefore 'base'?", (6) and then goes on to the second half of the word, "Why brand they us / With 'base', with 'baseness, bastardy --base, base'--" (9-10, my emphasis). He adds a syllable to "bastard," the sign of adnominatio or polyptoton, the same word in a different word class, here shifting from adjective to noun. [6] He is clearly recollecting the second half of the word in the sense that he implied before (with likely secondary stress here as well, allowing "tardy" as an obvious emergent possibility), and is again therefore playing on the idea of "tardiness," and his lagging behind his brother in terms of age. He suffers from a double disadvantage, for he is both younger than Edgar, and illegitimate. But his appearance and character, he argues, deny his baseness, and his conception, he implies, is a result of "the lusty stealth of nature," which has its advantages in terms of energy and strength, even if it is unconventional (ll. 7-9, 11-15). In sum, Edmund has established his natural equality, even superiority in comparison with orthodox society, and its prejudiced language.

  4. Edmund's reflections indicate that the word "bastard" can be emptied of social stigma in his view. And not only in his view. Henry VIII had an acknowledged bastard son by Elizabeth Blount, Henry Fitzroy, whom he created earl of Nottingham, and duke of Richmond and Somerset at an investiture on the feast of Corpus Christi, June 18, 1525. [7] And on various occasions Henry had declared the illegitimation of his daughters Mary and Elizabeth during notorious matrimonial difficulties. [8] No doubt these memorable events could be recalled by a contemporary audience, who recognised that bastardy for those related to the nobility was a flexible, quasi-legal notion. Local communities, however, punished ordinary persons convicted of bastardy severely, out of fear that bastards might become a financial burden on the parish. [9]

  5. Later in the same speech Edmund refers to "Fine word, legitimate" (18, my emphasis). We may suspect a pun here too. "Legitimate" is a word that defines, and so "confines" and restricts and narrows, and by implication in a punning sense it is a word that is both "preposterous," (in an ironic sense), "subtle" and "narrowing," [10] for it confines Edmund to his subordinate and illegitimate status. He stands back from the word "legitimate," citing it rather than using it, and begins to toy with its structure, rather than its normal sense, in what he goes on to say. He intends to empty the word of normal meaning in order to make it useful to himself. As he says later in the scene, "Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit. / All with me's meet that I can fashion fit" ( I. ii. 171-2, my emphasis).

  6. In line 19, Edmund refers to his natural brother Edgar in sarcastic colloquial terms, as "my legitimate," which must surely be a pun on the legal sense of the word as a noun, with some secondary stress derived by its adoption from medieval Latin legitimatus, "my legiti-mate," that is, "my 'legal' fellow, partner, equal," silently breaking yet another word up into its syllables. (And continuing the "tard"--"tardy" playing on word endings we have already seen.) Courtly speakers may use "mate" as a colloquial term, as Richard III does in his greeting to the murderers of Clarence: "How now, my hardy, stout, resolved mates!" (RIII, I. iii. 338). (The element of social condescension, and contempt, is again evident.) Edmund exploits in a reflective way the form of a word he has repeated four times in as many lines, using it first in its normal sense, (18), then deriding it, (18), and lastly examining it as a mere word form which he breaks up into a fanciful local signification (19). He is saying that since he and Edgar are equals in an informal sense, as natural sons of their father, he is, by consequence, an equal partner and so Edgar is "my legitimate," "a legally equal partner" in terms of natural law. He is attacking again, as in the preceding line, those artificial boundaries and divisions by which society defines his bastardy. Nature, not social convention, is his goddess, and he has already announced that "To thy law / My services are bound" (1-2, my emphasis). Natural law will allow him equal status, he argues. We might also argue that he attacks the patriarchal principle in referring not to his father, but to his mother, by implication in his comparison of himself with "honest madam's issue." All men, he implies, are equal in terms of their birth, if not in terms of their socially constructed legitimacy.

  7. The echo of "tardy" in "bastardy" may indeed allow, and prepare for, this rapid punning exploitation of morphemes here; for although "legiti" is not a word, but a "half-word," a toying hypothesis in the moment of thought, and a coined quasi-adjective, it fits with his tendency to "stand back" from words and manipulate forms and meanings to his own ends. Perhaps by analogy with the compounds "schoolmate," "messmate," 'playmate', Edmund is treating the nominalised adjective as a compound noun, as he has treated "bastard" a few moments before.

  8. Some possible thematic justification for this rhetorical move can be found in the context of the previous lines, (apart from the citational repetition of the word itself) for he has just remarked, "Our father's love is to the bastard Edmond / As to th' legitimate" (17-18), drawing attention to the equal favour and therefore the claim to equal benefit from the paternal love they mutually share. (It is significant, for this analysis, that Edmund is already shifting word class in these lines from adjective to noun, and balancing "bastard" against "legitimate" as words of similar structure.) Gloucester has already remarked that Edgar is, in spite of his legitimacy, "no dearer in my account" (I. i. 18) than Edmund. Edmund intends, without any doubt, to break through social boundaries, those restricting limits which the "plague of custom" and the "curiosity of nations" have imposed on him. So he claims that "Edmond the base / Shall to th' legitimate" (20-21). He must mean that he will be equal to, and equivalent in status to, his brother, but only in his own meaning of "legitimate." He will cross over a vital legal boundary. There may be a covert reference also to the imagery of financial accounting, (which Gloucester has referred to before in the presence of Edmund, see above), and to its columns of division into debit and credit, analysed recently by Freeman. [11] This contextual sense then would sustain the chain of imagery from accounting found elsewhere by Freeman in the first scenes. [12]

  9. The forged letter may do the trick, and persuade Gloucester of Edmund's loyalty, and so "legitimise" his claim to "equality," and probably full inheritance. There may be an ironic contextual reference here to the letter of legitimation given by aristocrats to their illegitimate offspring, [13] and this may explain the remarks that follow. "I grow, I prosper" suggests such social advancement. He will rise in society and throw off his base origins. [14]

  10. Wider conclusions may be drawn from all this. Renaissance bastards are agents of distortion and evil, and these linguistic tricks are stylistic sign of such a character. [15] The speaker challenges conventional meaning, and substitutes another self-interested, punning sense. Edmund himself refers to his "invention," (20), meaning both the forged letter, and, as well, the contrived rhetorical process (a form of linguistic nominalism), he has just been engaged in, amassing his material and topics in a rather original way to "spur up his will." [16] Further, the whole role of "unaccommodated man," variously exchanged between Edmund and Edgar in the play, highlights implicitly, at a narrative level, the artificial distinction the play constructs and displays between "base" and "legitimate" (a distinction Edmund manipulates thoughtfully here by his punning), for orthodox society, and particularly its language, is the very source and construction of the evil bastard. [17]

  11. The scene that follows is, on analysis, an inversion structurally of the first scene. The letter is a forgery, but it convinces Gloucester of Edmund's loyalty and Edgar's treachery. This seems, at first, to set up a parallel with what has just happened in the previous scene. The letter is actually "nothing," a fake, but like the false and ambiguous praise of Lear by Goneril and Regan, there is something plausible about this nothing. "The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself," says Gloucester, (with a double irony clear to the audience, referring indirectly and unawares to both the empty praise of Goneril and Regan, and the actual forgery of the letter). The attempted concealment gives the letter a spurious veracity. But Cordelia, in the first scene, by contrast with this apparent structural parallel, does not wish to hide her inability to construct empty praise of her father, although her "nothing" is persuasive in a way contrary to her intentions. Her unorthodox private language is explicit and unacceptable in the public ritual of the court. So we have a striking contrast between an acceptable forgery here, and an unacceptable authenticity beforehand. Again, the interpretation of speakers and listeners is placed under question, and we encounter the disturbing truth, when we consider the contrastive connections between these scenes, that nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Social truths and meanings are a shared construction which becomes the joint accomplishment of participants in the dialogue (whether they intend it or not, as in the instance of Cordelia); these truths do not exist outside the moment of interaction. Relations in society are exposed as a matter of pragmatic consent, not governed by any external moral absolutes. The play traces, in Edmund's interrogative puns, and more generally in the text, the emergence of a reified system based on instrumental reason, as a socially produced but alien eruption into an already problematic world. [18]


1. All references to the text of King Lear are to the Folio text in the Oxford Shakespeare: William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, eds. S. Wells and G. Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1988).

2. See, for example, M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen, 1957), 167. Successive editors of the play have almost overlooked the technique of Edmund's puns. H. H. Furness, (ed.), A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, King Lear (New York: Dover, 1880, repr. 1963), notes at I. ii. 6: [Can we not infer from this line and line 10 that the pronunciation in Shakespeare's time was base-tard?] (The square brackets indicate editor's notes.) But he goes no further. In the Arden First Series, W. J. Craig , ed., King Lear (London: Methuen, 1901), 3rd. ed., 1921, notes in the same place that "base son" is an interpretation of "bastard," which has no etymological connection with the adjective "base." In Arden Second Series, still widely used and in print, K. Muir, ed., King Lear (London: Routledge, 1972, repr. 1991 etc), repeats Craig, as does R. Weis, ed., King Lear, A Parallel Text Edition (London and New York: Longman, 1993). J. L. Halio, ed., The Tragedy of King Lear (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992), at I. ii. 6 makes a clear literary analysis : "In the following lines [Edmund] wrings from the terms 'bastard' and 'base' and their derivatives (the two terms are not, however, etymologically related), as much of their meaning as he can, both through the figure of repetition and through what seems to him logical questioning." The slyness of Edmund's concealed pun on Latin tardus in "lag of a brother" escapes most editors' vigilance in a text of extraordinary complexity. In the Third Arden Series edition, edited by R. A. Foakes (London: Nelson, 1997, repr. 2000), at I. ii. 10, we find a much sharper attention to Edmund's manipulative techniques in his own interests: "Edmund harps on base, baseness, bastard as if to bring out, and reject in relation to himself, the various senses that express an aristocratic society's contempt for the low-born: vile, despicable, illegitimate, spurious, inferior; meanness and cowardice." This commentary brings out very well the dynamic strategy of the speaker, but only in literary terms. But what is the pragmatic linguistic, and rhetorical basis, for this strategy?

3. In the Middle English Dictionary, eds. H. Kurath and S. Kuhn et al., (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Michigan UP, 1954 onwards), s.v., the headword "bastard" (OF) is recorded with variable length marks on the second syllable, showing that secondary stress existed in one pronunciation of the word in late Middle English. "Basterd" is another recorded spelling, indicating the emergent modern pronunciation. The modern personal name "Bastard" is usually pronounced "base-tard," with secondary stress, (from my personal knowledge), and this too shows the survival, as often happens, of variant ME forms in personal names. Some people will have changed their names by deed pole in the modern period, but it is relevant to note that the name did not always have a social stigma attached to it in the past. William the Conqueror often signed state documents as "William the Bastard"; see A Dictionary of British Surnames, ed. P. H. Reaney, 2nd. rev. ed., by R. M. Wilson (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976, s.v). There is no reference to the modern pronunciation of the surname "Bastard" in Reaney or in other dictionaries of names I have consulted. According to the internet site of British Telecom, there are twelve "Bastards" in British phonebooks. There are probably more elsewhere, ex-directory, or without phones, but it is in any case difficult to ring strangers up to find out how they pronounce their names. At least one name with ME style pronunciation is known to me. In the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989 s.v.), "bastard" is given the etymology "fils de bast," "i.e. pack-saddle child,' from OF, with the pejorative suffix "-ard." It has nothing to do with Edmund's socially-motivated analysis of "base" and "tard(y)," but then he is speaking extemporary and in a way that expresses his resentments. His analysis depends on the sounds of the words, not on their etymologies, even if Shakespeare knew of them. Some proposed Shakespearean puns appear plausible in print, but might not work on the stage in the context of the spoken language. Here, at least, there is ample evidence of Edmund's careful reflection on the spoken form of this word, as well as "legitimate" (see below).

4. The notation is that of G. L. Trager and H. L. Smith, An Outline of English Structure, Studies in Linguistics: Occasional Papers no. 3 (Washington DC.: American Council of Learned Societies, Seventh Printing, 1957), where ´ indicates primary stress and ˆ secondary stress. See further P. Hobsbaum, Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form (London: Routledge, 1996), 10-21.

5. See L. A. Sonnino, A Handbook of Sixteenth-Century Rhetoric (London: Routledge, 1968), 193-4. Since Edmund also breaks up these words into their constituent parts, completely or by pronunciation in the case of 'legitimate' (see below), we may also consider the possibility of the figure allusio here, for the alteration of words in this way, for change of sense in speech, is a scheme noted by Thomas Wilson, (cited in Sonnino, ibid, 26), "When we take a letter, or a syllable from some word, or else add a letter, or syllable to a word," and by Scaliger (ibid), "Words which are similar in sound but which through slight alteration differ in meaning." (My italics.) See further, the other examples, Sonnino, ibid, 27. (Although they are not exactly what Edmund does here.) Edmund may be said to reinforce allusio by antanaclasis (in the word syllables "base" and "mate") by his development of punning contextual meanings. Modern stylistics would probably identify this strategy as "foregrounding." Halio, op. cit., (see note 3 above), remarks on the figure of repetitio in the passage, which is another rhetorical device here; see Sonnino, op. cit., p. 160. All these figures of speech are much more evident in performance onstage than when read.

6. See L. A. Sonnino, op. cit., 24-5. Allusio and antanaclasis (see previous note) are distinctly different from adnominatio, or polyptoton, which merely varies the form or class of words without variation of sense.

7. See H. Miller, Henry VIII and the English Nobility (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 20.

8. See H. A. Kelly, The Matrimonial Trials of Henry VIII (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1976), 219, 244, 247, 282-3.

9. See P. Williams, The Later Tudors: England 1547-1603 (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1995), 216-7, 514-5, and further references there.

10. A punning sense of "fine": see OED, op. cit., s.v., adj., senses 11, 12c.

11. Recently explored by D. C. Freeman, "'According to my bond': King Lear and re-cognition," Language and Literature 2 (1993), 1-18.

12. Malcolm Pittock has noticed the implausibility of ignoring the readings of both Q1 and F1 which support the reading "to th'legitimate"; see "Top the legitimate?," Notes and Queries 31 (1984), 208-10. For Edmund does not wish to overturn the existing order of society, ('top the legitimate', as many editors emend), but force his way into it, and replace Edgar as the legal inheritor; and in fact he does, as Pittock notes. Thomas Clayton, "Disemending King Lear in Favour of Shakespeare: 'Edmund the base shall to th'legitimate', I. ii. 21," ibid, 207-8 adds further discussion.

13. See OED, op. cit., s.v "legitimation," sense 1. Clayton, art. cit., 208, also notes a possible reference to letters patent here, an official document entitling a person to title, deeds, or land. But Edmund is preocuppied with his illegitimacy, and is a consummate ironist. Further, his letter is a cunning forgery which may legitimise him, without having the authority to give him land or title directly. (The editors mentioned above in note 2 have nothing to say about the letter.)

14. A sexual connotation, referring to tumescence, as some commentators have suggested, (for instance, R. B. Heilman, This Great Stage (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1948), 314), seems rather remote, and perhaps a desperate attempt at a contrived solution. But we know rather little about the "tricks of custom" on the Elizabethan stage, and Edmund is sexually predatory and easily aroused. The prospect of power may excite him in a sexual way.

15. See further, Alison Findlay, Illegitimate Power: Bastards in Renaissance Drama (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1994).

16. See Sonnino, op. cit., 243.

17. See Findlay, ibid., 69-72.

18. I paraphrase here a remark by H. Grady, Shakespeare's Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1996), 136-7. The whole of Chapter 4, "What comes of Nothing: Reification and the Plebeian in King Lear," 137-80, and particularly the section titled "Edmund, Ideology, and Essentialism," 156-9, have been important influences on the argument in my discussion of Edmund's language.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)