“Edmund is the older brother but was consumed before marriage.”

Here we are in the subplot (important enough to be considered a co-plot) of King Lear, with Edmund full of resentment for being denied his rights of primogeniture in the Gloucester family because of his parents’ tardy wedding.

I knew what my student meant, and I’m sure Edmund would have applauded her intention if not her utterance.

I don’t think it’s a mere wrong-word-choice or typo going on here. “Consumed” should have been “conceived,” of course. But, given her faith that the word in question did begin with “con,” she had plenty of words she might have chosen to write: he was “contrived” before marriage, perhaps; “constructed” before marriage; “conceded”; “consigned”; “confounded”? Why “consumed”?

At first I had quite an anti-choice-poster vision of Mrs. Earl of Gloucester feasting on a bloody fetus. I can think of a few playwrights contemporary with Shakespeare, or even Shakespeare himself back in his Titus Andronicus days, considering writing such a scene. The problem is that had that happened, it’s unlikely that the fetus would have been actually named Edmund, and pretty certain that it would never have been considered anybody’s older brother. Completely consumed, the fetus would be no more, Edgar later would have been raised a spoiled “only,” and Gloucester would have retained his eyeballs.

I don’t think my student was under the delusion that Edmund was consumed before his own marriage…consumed by fire, consumed by lust, consumed by some spidery bride. She knew something had happened before his birth, and also before his parents’ marriage.

Ultimately, I think my student’s subconscious mind offered up a nice little pun here. Edmund was conceived when Gloucester and his lady consummated their relationship (before there was an actual marriage to consummate). “Consume” and “consummate” may look a lot alike, but their etymologies differ—one meaning “to take or use up,” the other “to make perfect.” Actually, in the first Lear I ever saw, the actor playing Edmund was drop-dead gorgeous and Edgar was only so-so, and I’d be happy to consider that production’s Edmund the product of consummation. But, even though in my then-adolescent state I could have eaten him up, I couldn’t have considered doing so before his parents’ marriage (born or unborn, he wouldn’t yet have reached that state of perfection I’d observed); and the consumption would have been figurative, anyway.

I like my student’s error very much. The couple who conceived him while consummating their loving desire did marry, after all. He was conceived while they consummated: unintended consequences, a thoughtless moment that precipitated complex disaster. Kind of like the moment Yeats contemplates in “Leda and the Swan.”

I wouldn’t let the error stand, but I’m grateful for the intellectual adventure conceived from it.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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