Once a Villain Always a Villain: Edmund’s “Reformation” in King Lear, 5.3.241-42

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Sadowski, Piotr
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The article examines possible motives behind the alleged change of heart shown by Edmund at the end of King Lear when, defeated by his brother Edgar, he decides to revoke his former order to execute Lear and Cordelia. Edmund’s decision has been almost unanimously interpreted by critics as a sign of genuine remorse and repentance in the face of death. However, I argue that far from denoting any moral reformation, Edmund’s delayed decision to call off the execution is coldly calculated in self-interest, both to play for time and to mollify his captors, Albany and Edgar. Interpreting Edmund’s show of pity as feigned rather than genuine helps preserve both the dramatic consistency of the scene, and the psychological unity of Shakespeare’s stage villain. Author keywords: Shakespeare, King Lear, Edmund, bastardy, tragedy, character analysis