ACT II – Scene.ii
(Outside Gloucester’s castle)
Both Kent, in disguise, and Oswald have letters for Regan.
The two argue and Kent draws his sword and beats Oswald with it. He is still angry at the steward’s disrespectful attitude towards the King.
The commotion attracts the attention of Edmund and the others and they come
to make the peace. Regan quickly deduces that the pair are messengers from Goneril and her father.
Cornwall asks them to explain their behavior and the blunt Kent condemns Oswald. Oswald defends himself and Cornwall sides with him, and Kent is ordered to be placed in the stocks, much to Regan’s satisfaction. Gloucester tries to intervene on Kent’s behalf but is unsuccessful. Philosophically, Kent accepts his sentence, but finds comfort in reading a letter from Cordelia who is concerned regarding her father’s plight.
It is important to appreciate the significance of this event. Couriers
were very important.
They represented their masters and the fact that Kent is placed in the stocks is tantamount to King Lear being placed in the stocks. Although Lear is not aware of the situation at this stage, it represents the greatest insult he has faced. This fact will not be lost on the Shakespearean audience as using couriers was the main method of relaying information. We note Regan’s delight at this turn of events. No doubt she thinks and hopes that the reaction from her father will be intense.
We also see the lack of influence Gloucester has over this turn of events.
The older characters in this story are impotent and the younger generations are taking over. A new order is being introduced – a natural order, and as the old order is melting away, with it goes law and respect.
We are now getting a better picture regarding the character of Cornwall,
especially when he confronts Kent. We will see that Cornwall is a habitual liar, and he cannot recognize Kent as being honest and, therefore, assumes that he must be lying too.
Had we not witnessed Kent’s performance in the early part of the play, we
might mistake him for a thug by the way he treats Oswald. Kent, one of the old school, is trying to hold on to the principles of the past, and Oswald who is merely a tool of Goneril, is pulling these values
down quickly. Through frustration the hot-headed Kent loses control and starts to thrash Oswald.
Shakespeare is clearly whetting the appetite of the audience who cannot wait
to see Lear’s reaction to Kent being placed in the stocks. This is in fact an act of treason, thus showing how little influence and power Lear has left.
The modern audience will note the flaw in the story where Kent has received
a letter from Cordelia. She is already aware of her father’s plight, but there has not been enough time for such messages to travel to France and back, but Shakespeare is not concerned about this, and neither
was his audience. This is purely a dramatic device in order to maintain the tempo of the play.