Meet Edgar, one of many tragic figures in what many say to be one of Shakespeares greatest plays, King Lear. Today we’re going to break down his speech that brings into the start of the second act after his illegitimate brother Edmund wrongly tells him he is being persecuted.
King Lear elderly and wanting to retire decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters; the two eldest, Goneril and Regan who flatter him and banishes Cordelia who loves him but doesn’t simply want to flatter him.This action by the king divides the kingdom, both figuratively and literally. Cordelia’s suitor, the Duke of Burgundy, rejects her once she is dowerless, but the King of France values her honesty and takes her as his wife. Lear’s kingdom is shared between Goneril and Regan and their suitors (the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, respectively). Lear plans to alternate living with each of them.
As we did in Act 1, we begin act 2 with Edmund who is determined to be recognised as a rightful son of Gloucester. So he persuades his father that his legitimate brother, Edgar, is plotting against Gloucester’s life. He then goes to tell Edgar that he is in grave danger, and so Edgar flees. Thinking himself to be hunted, he decides to disguise himself as a beggar…
I heard myself proclaimed,
And by the happy hollow of a tree
Escaped the hunt. No port is free, no place
That guard and most unusual vigilance
Does not attend my taking. Whiles I may scape
I will preserve myself, and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury in contempt of man
Brought near to beast. My face I’ll grime with filth,
Blanket my loins, elf all my hair in knots
And with presented nakedness outface
The winds and persecutions of the sky.
The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numbed and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheepcotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod, poor Tom,
That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am.
Proclaimed: Declared an outlaw
Bethought: Decided to
Penury: Extreme poverty
Base: Of low quality
Elf: Knot, Tangle
Bedlam: A scene of uproar and confusion
Sheepcote: Shelter for Sheep
Turlygod: This is a made up name. This word literally has no meaning. It’s nonsense.
I heard I was declared an outlaw.
I was lucky enough to hide from my pursuers in the trunk of a tree.
There are no safe ports or roads for me and everywhere I go I’m being watched.
I should survive as long as I can manage to not be captured and realised I should disguise myself as the most hated and looked down upon beggar.
I’ll cover my face in muck, wear nothing but a loincloth, tangle and knot my hair, and face the elements almost naked.
I’ve seen beggars in this country from asylums, shriek and shout and stab themselves with pins, woodens sticks, nails and sprigs of rosemary; and with this horrible spectacle, lowly farmers and villagers are forced to give the poor beggars alms.
“Poor Turlygod, poor Tom!”
That’s something I can be.
Because if I am Edgar, I am nothing.
Notes on Performance
This is a soliloquy, so keep in mind that it is a direct address to the audience. They’re who you’re talking to, and the whole point of this speech is to let them into the mind of the character. So as you tell them the story, the plan, make sure you’re working to affect them.
There’s a lot going on here with how high the stakes are for Edgar. As far as he knows his whole life is over. Keep the stakes high.
Remember the given circumstances. More importantly, remember that Edgar is being pursued and know how that will affect your performance and circumstances.
For more Male Shakespeare Monologues