Edgar is Gloucester's legitimate son. His half-brother Edmund, frustrated with his social status as a bastard son, frames Edgar of plotting to kill their father. Edgar is forced into exile in order to avoid the rage of his father and his own imprisonment. At the end of the following speech he adopts the disguise of "Poor Tom," a mad Bedlam. This personae carries him through the majority of the remaining action of the play.
I heard myself proclaim'd;
And by the happy hollow of a tree
Escaped the hunt. No port is free; no place,
That guard, and most unusual vigilance,
Does not attend my taking. Whiles I may 'scape,
I will preserve myself: and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast: my face I'll grime with filth;
Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;
And with presented nakedness out-face
The winds and persecutions of the sky.
The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb'd and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!
That's something yet: Edgar I nothing am.
“Edgar I nothing am.” – This line cements the casting off of Edgar’s self as he deconstructs himself into the personae of Poor Tom. What does it mean to be ‘nothing’? Perhaps it is the abandonment of self for a time. Perhaps he is a shell of his former state; or contrary to that belief, perhaps he is liberated to be more than himself. In this the actor has to play multiple characters, layered on top of each other in the fabric of the dialog.
I found the topic fascinating as Fernie described Poor Tom as being “more alive than Edgar.” He is possessed – someone or something speaks through him – and this possession allows him to speak in “communal voices”. His feigned madness allows Edgar to speak truths he may have otherwise stifled.
From an acting perspective, I was also struck by Fernie’s questions to his listeners: Does the actor possess the character; or does the character possess the actor? Is human identity threatened by acting? Is there an inherent risk of possession in acting?
He says, perhaps even Shakespeare was aware of possession as a necessary condition.