Edmund of King Lear as Nietzsche's Free Spirit
In King Lear, Shakespeare creates a brilliant tragedy whose plot is driven primarily by its villains. Of these, Edmund stands alone as a man who makes his fortune, surrounded by those who seize fortune only when it is handed to them. Shakespeare's ability to create a vivid, living character in the space of a few lines of speech triumphs in Edmund, who embodies a totally different moral system than that of Shakespeare's era. Three centuries later, Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy of the Free Spirit would respect these values.
Like Edmund, Nietzsche's unorthodox views have been deemed villainous ever since the time they were written. The Free Spirit is defined not by his attack on society's defined values, but the rejection of them. Unconstrained by the values of a society he did not chose, the Free Spirit makes his own path in the world, defining morality for himself and acting in a way which is truly free.
In Act I, Scene II, Edmund's character reveals itself. In his first soliloquy he clearly shows his knowledge of his situation, but at the same time questions its validity.
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? (I.2.1-6)
This reveals the fundamental makeup of Edmund's character - why should society name him anything for events over which he had no control? Why should he be deprived of anything simply because he was born a year too late?
Neitzsche's Free Spirit must constantly question the values of the world around him, but know himself. In Edmund, these characteristics are obvious - he questions the world created by men, but at the same time reflects that he is bound to Nature. Nietzsche likewise saw the rigid values of Christianity as false ones, clumsily laid over man's true, changing nature. "The hierarchy of the good, however, is not fixed and identical at all times. If someone prefers revenge to justice, he is moral by the standard of an earlier culture, yet by the standard of the present culture he is immoral."1
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? (I.2.7-15)
Edmund continues by expressing his outrage at the labeling of a man who is just as rightly made up as another, but is forced into a second-rate status by a society...