King Lear Act II, Scenes 2 and 3: Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act II, Scenes 2 and 3: Summary and Analysis

Oswald appears at Gloucester’s castle, and Kent, Lear’s courier, promptly recognizes him as Goneril’s steward whom he had “tripp’d up by the heels” and beaten for his insolent behavior to the King only a few days before. Feigning innocence, Oswald pretends he has never seen Kent. Kent rebukes him harshly and then draws his sword, challenging Oswald to do the same. Edmund enters in response to Oswald’s cries for help. Edmund’s sword is drawn and Kent turns on him, but Cornwall, who has just appeared, orders them to “keep peace.” Regan and Gloucester, following closely behind Cornwall, are appalled at the sight of weapons. Cornwall demands to hear an account of their differences. Continuing to rail at Oswald, Kent calls him a “cowardly rascal” whom “Nature disclaims,” and who must, therefore, have been made by a tailor. Oswald defends his cowardice, telling Cornwall he has spared Kent’s life because he was a “grey beard.” Enraged by Oswald’s outright lie and his patronizing attitude toward him, Kent rants on with irreverent expletives about this rogue “who wears no honesty.”

Cornwall takes the part of Oswald, however, and calls for Kent to be put in the stocks. Kent reminds Cornwall that he serves the King, and this move will surely create ill feelings. Troubled by the effect it will have on the King, Gloucester too pleads with Cornwall to rescind his decision. Cornwall remains stoic, however, and Regan is determined to put her sister’s feelings above her father’s.

Left alone, Kent is optimistic about his time in the stocks. He will catch up on some much-needed sleep and the remainder of the time he will spend whistling. Before he sleeps, he finds comfort in reading a letter from Cordelia.

Edgar’s soliloquy in Scene 3 portrays him as “poor Tom,” a Bedlam beggar. He will disguise himself by griming his face with filth, tying his hair in knots, and covering his nakedness with only a blanket. Fleeing from the law, he has escaped capture by hiding in the hollow of a tree.

On the surface, it would seem that Kent’s scurrilous treatment of Oswald in the beginning of the scene is excessive and unjustified. Greeting Kent with courtesy and decorum, Oswald seems undeserving of his verbal abuse. Kent immediately recognizes him as Goneril’s insolent steward, however, who behaved badly to the King only a few days earlier. Kent also realizes that Oswald comes with letters against the King taking “Vanity the puppet’s part.” The implication is that Vanity, a character in ancient morality plays, is, in this case, personified by Goneril. Oswald repeatedly denies knowing Kent, but later he relates to Cornwall the details of his recent experience with Kent and the King. It is this pretense that Kent, who is characteristically blunt and honest, cannot tolerate. For his inability to engage in flattery, Kent is now awarded time in the stocks just as it had brought him banishment earlier. In this sense, Kent’s experience is analogous to Cordelia’s. Disorder flourishes in the world of the play where the honest characters are castigated and the deceitful ones rewarded.

As was true in previous scenes, lack of respect for old people is a recurring theme in the play. Cornwall refers to Kent as a “stubborn ancient knave” whom he intends to teach a lesson by putting him in the stocks. Kent’s satiric retort, “Sir, I am too old to learn,” lends humor to the idea...

(The entire section is 908 words.)