Matthew Wolfs (Winner of the First Year Category)
Edgar as a Christ-like Figure, from William Shakespeare’s King Lear
In William Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar follows the trajectory of Christ’s messianic arrival, waiting, and second coming by being plotted against, disguised, returning in glory, and establishing a new kingdom. The play opens with King Lear and Gloucester, being deceived by their elder, evil children; Goneril and Regan flatter King Lear to give them his kingdom, and Edmund, the bastard son, plots to steal Edgar’s inheritance from him. The play’s tension rises as King Lear’s daughters increasingly disrespect him, and Edmund increasingly manipulates Gloucester and Edgar forcing Edgar into hiding as Poor Tom. The children’s evilness increases as King Lear is driven insane, and Edmund convinces Cornwall to betray and tear out Gloucester’s eyes. Edgar takes compassion on Lear and blind Gloucester, and Albany swears revenge as he learns of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund’s evils. Oswald finds Gloucester with Edgar and attempts to kill Gloucester, but Edgar kills Oswald and finds out that Edmund was behind it all; so, Edgar finds Albany, who is fighting with Cordelia and France, and tells him to sound the trumpet, and if he wins, a champion will testify that Edmund is a traitor. As King Lear tragically concludes, Edgar defeats the treasonous Edmund and is assumed to restore the kingdom, but at the heavy cost of many, many lives. Edgar’s journey through his trials of being plotted against but returning as the triumphant warrior, is reminiscent of Christ’s journey of being plotted against and returning during the second coming where he restores the new Kingdom.
Edgar, a Persecuted Messiah
Edgar’s messianic journey begins the same as Jesus’ ministry; they are persecuted by their hometown. Edmund leads the persecution by convincing Gloucester and his servants to banish Edgar from the Kingdom like how some religious leaders convinced the Jews that Jesus was a heretic and should be crucified. In act one scene two, during Edmund’s soliloquy, Edmund is vengeful that his “bastard” status deprives him of his rights (Shakespeare 1.2.6), so he devises a plan to overthrow Edgar: “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land” (Shakespeare 1.2.16). Edmund succeeds in throwing Edgar out by convincing Gloucester and his servants to “Pursue him, ho! Go after”, and Edgar flees (Shakespeare 2.1.44). Like Edgar, Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth did not like Jesus’ special treatment, they jeered, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (New International Version, Luke 4.22). As Jesus’ status as the Son of God is made known, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.21), the people reject him and try to throw him off a cliff, forcing Jesus to leave Nazareth. Jesus states, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown”, connecting himself and Edgar as prophets (Luke 4.24). Edgar’s continued actions point further to his likeness towards Jesus. Beauregard senses that “Gloucester gains in spiritual insight” when his eyes are plucked out and comes to realize that Edgar “has been his good son” (209). Similarly, Gloucester’s revelation through blindness is notable similar to Saul’s revelation through blindness on the road to Damascus where Jesus appears before him in a glorious light, which temporarily blinds him, but allows Saul to recognize his sins and follow Jesus (Acts 9.3-9). The first of Edgar’s similarities to Christ comes from their shared beginnings into ministry; They are both persecuted by their hometown.
The Plot Against the Messiah
Inseparable from Edgar and Jesus being persecuted by their hometown, is that Edgar and Jesus are plotted against by a close friend. For Jesus, it was Judas who sold Jesus to the chief priests (Matt. 26.14-16); for Edgar, it was Edmund who plotted to take Edgar’s inheritance from him and drive him into exile (Shakespeare 1.2.1-22). What deepens the connection between Edgar and Christ beyond being plotted against, is that Edgar and Christ are innocent of the accusations applied to them. Christ is perfectly innocent: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2.22). Like Christ, Edgar is innocent of Edmund’s vengefulness because Edgar had no part in Edmund being a bastard. Gloucester recognizes Edgar’s innocence when his is blinded: “Then Edgar was abus’d” (Shakespeare 3. 7. 91). It is important for Edgar to be innocent and plotted against because then he can take on the crimes of the kingdom like Christ who is the faultless lamb that takes on the sins of the world. By taking on the sins and crimes of the kingdom, Edgar can expose the play’s villains and deliver their final justice. Edgar and Christ are similar because they were plotted against, but through that, they are able to rectify the kingdom.
Edgar the Messiah, Disguised from the Kingdom
Edgar continues to be like Christ during the middle “poor Tom” section of King Lear, act two scene three until act five scene three line 175. This “poor Tom” section of King Lear can be attributed to the period between Jesus’ time on earth to the time of the second coming. During this time, Christ is unseen by society, yet undoubtably at work in the kingdom, “preparing a place” for all (John 14.2). Edgar is like Christ in this way in that when he is disguised as poor Tom, Edgar’s disguise allows him to gather information on the evils of the kingdom and help Lear and Gloucester. Cordelia expertly predicts exposing the kingdom’s evils: “Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides” (Shakespeare 1. 1. 282). Edgar prepares the kingdom by use of “art and disguises to restore at least partial justice and order, as well as his own rights” (Peck 222). Edgar is only able to restore justice to the kingdom because he was hated and plotted against by Edmund because that allowed Edgar to “see appearances for what they are” (Peck 222). Through Edgar’s disguises, he learns about and takes compassion on “human nature and human suffering” (Peck 225):
EDGAR. When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship.
How light and portable my pain seems now,
When that which makes me bend makes the king bow;
He childed as I father’d! (Shakespeare 3. 6. 103-05).
Peck continues to connect Christ and Edgar in that Peck sees Edgar as more than a good son, but a son whose “obedience, compassion, and suffering for the love of men surpasses that of ordinary men” (Peck 226). Sandra Hole also sees that poor Tom is more than just a good son. When Edgar reveals himself to Gloucester in act five scene two, Edgar’s compassion and forgiveness on his father is “enough to deny the disorder of a world governed by gods like wanton boys” (Hole 227). The poor Tom section of King Lear establishes Edgar as Christ disguised from the world, yet at work revealing evil. Peck summarizes: “He has learned on his pilgrimage that patience and humility, that endurance and unselfish charity are the precedents required by divine justice” (234).
The Return of the King
Edgar, disguised as poor Tom, works through the kingdom revealing evil. The climax of the play is when Edgar unveils his disguise and defeats the Edmund in battle, like how Christ will come a second time where He will abolish all evil. Edgar’s plan to abolish the evils in the kingdom starts with him (still disguised as poor Tom) giving a letter to Albany vouching that Edmund is evil (Shakespeare 5. 1. 42-48). Empowered by the mysterious letter, Albany charges Edmund of treason and sounds the trumpet that will call forth the warrior to defeat Edmund (Shakespeare 5. 3. 82-120). The second coming follows Edgar’s plans to abolish evil; in second Peter 3.10, Peter prophesizes that the “Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed”. Edgar’s reveal is not as dramatic as the Lord’s second coming, but the same principals apply; Jesus and Edgar expose what has been done to the kingdom. By exposing the evils of the kingdom, Edgar is able to act as a “spiritual physician” resembling the actions of Christ who “healed the breach in nature caused by the old Adam” (Peck 227). Edgar’s final appearance is like Christ’s second coming because they reveal themselves secretly; like how Matthew prophesizes that no one will know “neither the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25.13). In addition to Edgar suddenly appearing, Edgar also delivers the final judgement on Edmund, like how Christ will deliver the final judgement at the end of time (1 Cor. 4. 5). Edgar delivers Edmund’s justice by slaying him in combat (Shakespeare 5. 3. 154). The return of Christ and Edgar to their glorious state is shown by Christ descending on a cloud, and Edgar arriving as a glorious warrior. During the return of Christ and Edgar, they enact the final judgement over the kingdom.
The Restoration of the Kingdom
The battle between Edgar and Edmund, as well as Christ and Evil, are the climaxes of the Edgar’s and Christ’s messianic journeys. Following the climatic second coming, God restores earth as the New Jerusalem. The radical change of the kingdom is described in Revelation 21.5, “Behold, I am making all things new”. Even though it is not explicitly stated in King Lear, it can be assumed the Edgar accepts kingship from Albany. Edgar’s closing words points to the racial changes Edgar makes to the kingdom. The opening scene of King Lear tells of Lear immaturely asking his daughters to flatter him, where Edgar’s ending lines show the mature solemness of Edgar as he says,
EDGAR. The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long (Shakespeare 5. 3. 334-37).
Edgar has learned much about the kingdom and delivered it from evil. He leaves the stage and the audience with a solemn funeral march, yet with the kingdom restored.
Shakespeare’s’ King Lear shows Edgar as a messianic figure. Edgar’s journey through his trials of being plotted against but returning as the triumphant warrior, is reminiscent of Christ’s journey of being plotted against and returning during the second coming where He restores the new Kingdom. Like Christ, Edgar begins as a persecuted figure who is plotted against by Edmund. This betrayal of innocence marks Edgar as a pure lamb. Edgar is forced to disguise himself as poor Tom, but that does not stop him from being present in the kingdom like how Christ, between his time on earth and the second coming, is not physically here, but he is present and working on earth. While Edgar is disguised, he gathers evidence of the evils in the kingdom; when he reveals himself as a glorious warrior, like Christ’s second coming, he defeats evil and establishes the new kingdom. It is important to show the relationship between Christ and Edgar because it establishes Edgar as the hero of the story and shows what ultimate triumph is in face of the evils of the kingdom.
Beauregard, David N. “Human Malevolence and Providence in King Lear”. Vol 60, issue 3, Renascence, 2008, https://eds.s.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=24&sid=7bc83ea8-6fe7-487d-97c3-58fe6dbf5538%40redis
Hole, Sandra. “The Background of Divine Action in King Lear.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 8, no. 2, 1968, pp. 217–33. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/449656. Accessed 2 Mar. 2023.
New International Version, https://www.biblegateway.com/
Peck, Russell A. “Edgar’s Pilgrimage: High Comedy in King Lear.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 7, no. 2, 1967, pp. 219–37. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/449372. Accessed 2 Mar. 2023.
Shakespeare, William. No Fear Shakespeare: King Lear. Edited by John Crowther, SparkNotes, 2003.