Men Who Should Wear Capes and Funny Costumes
King Lear, a tragedy by William Shakespeare, is set in feudal England and tells the tale of Lear, an aging king, and his three daughters. However, beyond the story of Lear and his daughters is the story of Edmund and Edgar, the villain and hero of the play. Shakespeare breaks his mold for the hero of this play, diverging from his usual hero with a tragic flaw to create Edgar. Heroes in Shakespearean tragedies, such as Hamlet, always have a tragic flaw that causes their downfall. This is not evident in King Lear, where it is Lear himself with the tragic flaw and Edgar playing the part of the hero. Some characters created by DC Comics, namely, Batman and the villains he faces, parallel the hero and villain of King Lear. Edgar takes on the same role as Batman, while Edgar takes on the part of Batmanís many nemeses.
In King Lear, Edgar and Edmund are brothers, one legitimate and the other illegitimate. Edgar is the older, legitimate son, and will someday inherit his fatherís title. He is the godson of Lear and beloved by his father. Edgar is a kind-hearted man who cares about the happiness of others. Edmund, however, is the bastard younger son who stands to inherit nothing from his father. This makes him very jealous of his older brother and is the cause of his plotting to eliminate Edgar and later his father. Edmund teams up with Learís older daughters, Goneril and Regan, to eliminate the king and their husbands. Edmund is a treacherous, scheming man full of greed and cares little for others.
Edmund is a lying, jealous, backstabbing, murderous villain. In act one, scene two, he plots against his brother, intending to turn his father against him by penning a letter in his brotherís hand, speaking of betraying his father:
This policy and
reverence of age makes the world bitter to the best of our times, keeps our
fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them. I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of
aged tyranny, who sways not as it hath power but as it is suffered.
Come to me, that of this I may speak more.
If our father would sleep till I waked him, you should enjoy half his
revenue forever and live the beloved of your brother.
The preceding excerpt from the play is the letter Gloucester reads aloud to himself, supposedly penned by his older son, Edgar. The letter is actually the production of Edmund as part of his plot to discredit Edgar and become Gloucesterís heir. The passage illustrates Edmundís cunning nature and skill at lying, as well as forgery. As the scene goes on, Edmund lies through his teeth to his father concerning Edgar, and eventually pretends to be a sweet and caring brother, advising Edgar to flee from Gloucesterís castle before Gloucester brings his wrath to bear. Further proving that he is a liar and proving that he is disloyal is his engagement to both Regan and Goneril at the same time.
both these sisters have I sworn my love,
Each jealous of the other as the stung
Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?
Both? One? Or neither? Neither can be enjoyed
If both remain alive. To take the widow
Exasperates, makes mad her sister Goneril,
And hardly shall I carry out my side,
Her husband being aliveÖ. (5.1.63-70)
This excerpt shows that Edmund is actually playing the two princesses off each other. It also shows that he plots to kill Gonerilís husband, the Duke of Albany, who is marching off to battle at the opening of the scene. The ďherĒ in the quotation refers to Goneril, and it appears that he, or perhaps Goneril herself, intends to eliminate Regan. At the end of the play, Edmund orders the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, which he succeeds in causing. On his orders, soldiers hang Cordelia and Lear dies shortly thereafter, although the cause of his death remains unknown. Edmundís soliloquy in act one, scene two, speaks of his envy for his older brother who will inherit the family lands and title. His jealousy of his older brother, coupled with greed, is what leads him to become a villain.
Edgar, unlike his brother and his villainy, becomes a hero because of circumstances, not because of greed or another vice. Edgar is a caring, loyal man, as illustrated in his helping of Lear, Kent, and the Fool in act three, scene four, when they encounter him in his hovel pretending to be Poor Tom. Toward the end of the play, he realizes how truly evil his brother is and challenges him to a duel in this scene:
Whatís he that speaks for Edmund, Earl of Gloucester?
Himself. What sayest thou to him?
Edgar Draw thy sword,
That if my speech offend a noble heart,
Thy arm may do thee justice. Here is mine. (5.3.150-155)
Edgar goes on to call Edmund a villainous traitor, and deals him a mortal blow by line 179, thus redeeming himself and reclaiming the title rightfully his. The only reason Edgar fights is to make things right again. He saves his father from a suicide attempt after Edmund has indirectly caused the old manís blinding by means of a simple trick that causes Gloucester to believe he has fallen over the cliffs at Dover. At the end of the play, after Lear is dead, it becomes obvious that Edgar will ascend the throne, as Albany and Kent do not want the job.
ÖFriends of my soul, you twain
Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain.
I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
My master calls me. I must not say no.
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne the most; we that are young
Shall never see so much or live so long. (5.3.387-395)
Also in this scene, Edgar illustrates a sort of wisdom that the reader sees in him throughout the play. Even as Poor Tom, he demonstrates an insight rare among those his age in the play. He seems to understand the intricacies of the madness Lear suffers, deduces his fatherís intentions toward suicide and saves him by way of a quick and clever trick, and finally realizes his brotherís treachery and puts an end to it, and him. Albany recognizes Edgarís virtues, and in the above scene asks him to rule the kingdom in conjunction with Kent. Because Kent has refused this offer, Edgar will presumably rule alone. The qualities of kindness, legitimacy, determination, and the desire to do what is right make Edgar the hero of King Lear.
Edgar, however, is different from the heroes in most Shakespearean tragedies as he actually survives the play. In most Shakespearean tragedies, the hero has a fatal flaw that causes their downfall in the end. An example of this is Hamletís indecision in Hamlet. Throughout the play, Hamlet cannot seem to make a decision about whether or not to kill his murderous uncle Claudius on the word of his ghostly father. This is what causes his death in the end: he has waited too long, and dies by a poisoned blade. Edgar has no such problem; in fact, it is Lear with the fatal flaw in King Lear, leaving Edgar to survive all contrivances against him. In King Lear, there is a split between the hero and the flawed individual. Due to this, one cannot compare Edgar to other heroes in Shakespearean tragedies. Therefore, one must find others to whom one can compare Edgar.
Poet W.H. Auden once said, ďChildren should acquire their heroes and villains from fiction.Ē In this day and age, many children do, from such sources as comic books, television shows, and movies. One of the most enduring heroes of the twentieth century is Batman, created by DC Comics in 1939. For over six decades, Batman has been the hero of several generations of children and adults. The villains he fights to keep the streets of Gotham City safe are many and varied, not the least of these villains begin the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Two Face, Mister Freeze, and Bane. Some of these villains, such as Penguin, Catwoman, and Mister Freeze prove to be redeemable. Some are absolutely insane, like the Riddler. Others are more of a mystery.
In terms of twentieth century heroes, Edgar is Batman. In terms of villains, Edmund is a combination of several of the Batmanís nemeses. Bruce Wayne, alias Batman, lost his parents as a child when the Joker murdered them. Edgar loses his father for a time due to the treachery of his brother. Batman fights crime and evil on the streets of Gotham, motivated to do so by a desire to prevent more children suffering what he has. Edgar fights betrayal in the former kingdom of King Lear to stop his brother from seizing total control. Edgar parallels Batmanís determination as they both fight for justice. Both men became heroes because circumstances dictated that they must in order to achieve what they wished to achieve. Edmund, likewise, is similar to the villains Batman fights, especially the irredeemable ones such as the Joker. These creatures of greed and evil will do anything at any cost to get what they want. Edmund wants the kingdom, and he plots, schemes, and lies to get it. All of Batmanís nemeses cheat, lie, scheme, or steal at one point or another. Edmund has people killed. The Joker, Two Face, Poison Ivy, Penguin, Mister Freeze, Bane, and the Riddler all murder people in their efforts to get what they want, or have their underlings murder them, as Edmund did. As these death tolls rise, further parallels between Edgar and Batman become apparent. Each becomes more determined to stop their nemesis as things get worse and worse. In the end, things turn out the same: Good triumphs over evil, the villain gets killed or thrown in jail, the hero gets to go home, put his feet up, and enjoy his victory.
Being so different from other Shakespearean heroes, one cannot compare Edgar to them, and thus cannot compare his nemesis to other villains. Edgar is, however, comparable to the twentieth century fictional creation known as the Batman, and thus his brother is comparable to the villains created by DC Comics to antagonize Batman. Edgar and Edmund, brothers through sharing a father, find themselves at odds with each other due to the greed and hate-filled younger brother. Batman finds himself as the Black Knight of Gotham City because his parents died at the hands of the Joker. Driven by a desire to set things right, both Edgar and Batman succeed in stopping evil where it stands and putting things back into some sort of order. Yes, years ago Auden said heroes and villains should be defined by fiction, and through both King Lear and DC Comicsí Batman franchise, it is possible today.
Batman.† Screenplay by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren. Dir. Tim Burton. Perf. Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basigner. Warner Brothers, 1989.
Batman Forever.† Screenplay by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman.† Dir. Joel Shumacher.† Pref. Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris OíDonnell.† Warner Brothers, 1995.
Batman Returns. Screenplay by Daniel Waters. Dir. Tim Burton. Pref. Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer. Warner Brothers, 1992.
Batman and Robin. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman. Dir. Joel Shumacher. Pref. Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Chris OíDonnell, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone. Warner Brothers, 1997.
Daintith, John (ed), et al. The Macmillian Dictionary of Quotations. Edison: Macmillan, 1989.
DC Comics. DC Comics. February 24, 2001. <http://www.batman.com>.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Toronto: Simon, 1992.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Toronto: Simon, 1993.