Lear, Linguistics, and Legality - Lessons from Shakespeare’s Bastard

For reference, this post’s object of study is Edmund’s soliloquy from Act I, Scene II of King Lear, offered below:

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 moon-shines
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 the 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 Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word, — legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

Edmund’s soliloquy is above all a profound meditation on the exploitability of written language and law. As a quick disclaimer, although I’m not quite using the terms “written language” and “law” interchangeably, I’m certainly conflating the two concepts, as law only expresses itself through written language. As Edmund begins the soliloquy, he says “Thou, nature, art my goddess: to thy law My services are bound.” The very first line tells us that law, which is expressed through written language, is what binds and controls Edmund. As he continues, he says “Why brand they us with base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base?” Edmund complains of being branded like a cattle with a hot iron and his frustrated repetition of the word “base” shows us that “base” is the mark he bears. Here, Edmund is expressing his contempt for the power that written language is capable of imposing on him. Because of the mark of the written word “base” branded upon him, Edmund is forbidden from becoming a legal inheritor of his father’s estate.

Edmund’s response to his frustration is even more impressive than his discovery that what oppresses him is written language. To gain his father’s favor and inheritance, Edmund crafts a letter filled with treacherous intent that he ascribes to his brother Edgar. He shows the letter to his father Gloucester to encourage him to disown Edgar and give him the inheritance. In order to overthrow the impositions of written language and law, Edmund perverts the function of written language to show that the very linguistic order that condemns him to “baseness” is itself exploitable, absurd, and unjust. What Edmund exploits here is the impersonality of the written form. Because written language lacks the immediacy of a speaker, it expresses itself as an impersonal alienated power, capable of being wielded by anyone who assumes authorship or assigns it to another. Returning to our earlier quote, when Edmund asks “Why brand they us with base?”, the question arises: Who is “they”? Who branded Edmund with the mark of the bastard? Edmund’s frustration comes from the fact that his oppression originates from an impersonal unknowable “they,” unrecognizable intangible forces that weigh upon him without a source of authority. He does not know who made him base and why baseness means he does not deserve to inherit Gloucester’s wealth.

Edmund finds his freedom through the same impersonal force of written language that oppresses him. By exploiting the letter’s distance from its author, Edmund successfully assigns authorship to Edgar and attains affirmation from the written linguistic order and this affirmation is legitimacy.“As to th’legitimate — fine word, ‘legitimate’- Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed And my invention thrive, Edmund the base Shall to th’legitimate.” By going from illegitimate to legitimate so easily through his simple ploy, Edmund mocks the validity of legitimacy and illegitimacy and reveals that the concept of legitimacy is in itself illegitimate. Because the law alienates itself from its authorizing origin (in Carl Schmitt’s terms, its nomos), the law is an empty power structure that can be occupied and obfuscates its occupant’s identity. To answer our earlier question of who “they” is is to identify the true beneficiaries of the legal order.

When the law exercises its will equally over an entire people without an explicit guarantor, it appears to create a society in which no one is above the law. However, in reality, all this does is obfuscate the location of power, making it impossible to indict anyone for exploiting the legal order for their personal gain. To borrow Walter Benjamin’s terminology, the legal order appears as “an order imposed by fate,” an objective structure that treats all equally without regard for anyone’s particular interests. Our critique here goes beyond the usual Kafkan critique of law where only a rarified class can interpret and understand the law. The law is still an exploitable power because its authors can exercise power through the law without being identified as its wielders and assuming responsibility for their power. To not question the law is to be oppressed by unidentifiable bearers of power, to allow our high notions of Justice degrade into nothing more than the ideological weapons of the privileged.

With the devastating rise of neoliberalism, the bastards of our bourgeois capitalist society are undoubtedly the proletarian class and the poor. Now more than ever is there a need to challenge our modern day “order imposed by fate”: capitalism and the institution of private property. Capitalist social relations only possess definition and form because of the legal order that supports and guarantees them. While legal codifications of violence, theft and ownership appear as objective guarantors of justice, their authors and beneficiaries are the capitalist class — the rich, the powerful, the 1%. Defeating neoliberalism begins when the proletariat challenges the bourgeois order that has defined them as bastards.

Thus, socialism’s rallying cry today is no different from Edmund’s: “Now, gods, stand up for the bastards!