Super-serviceable rogue

Kent's insulting description of Oswald as a ‘super-serviceable finical rogue’ (Act 2 Scene 2) suits him well. Goneril's servant will do anything, if he thinks it will lead to his own advancement:
  • Without hesitation he accepts Goneril's instructions to treat Lear insolently and carries out the orders in Act 1 Scene 4
  • In Act 4 Scene 5 Oswald delivers Goneril's letter to Regan and accepts an implied order to kill Gloucester 
  • Oswald also carries a letter from Goneril to Edmund
  • When, Act 5 Scene 6 he encounters Gloucester, he is pleased that:
      That eyeless head of thine was first framed flesh 
To raise my fortunes.
  • His dying breath is that Edgar himself should deliver his letter from Goneril to Edmund, thus demonstrating that he is indeed obsessively 'serviceable' and revealing to Edgar Goneril’s secret proposal that Edmund should murder Albany and marry her. 
Ironically Oswald’s dying desire to serve his mistress actually paves the way for her downfall in the final scene.
It is no surprise that the morally upright characters of King Lear should have no patience with Oswald. Kent is outraged at the servant’s treatment of the old King, initially tripping him up then driving him away. When Kent encounters Oswald again in Act 2 Scene 2, he subjects him to a long, inventive series of insults before beating him. Later Edgar kills him after he’d refused polite persuasion not to kill Edgar’s blinded, despairing father.

Social context

Oswald arouses the anger of Lear, Kent and Edgar not only because of his lack of moral scruples, but also owing to the steward's vain pretensions to the status of gentleman whilst only exhibiting servile cowardice (a similar aspiring servant is depicted in Hamlet in the person of Osric). 
One of Oswald's functions is to satirise the ambitious commoner of Shakespeare’s day who tries to climb into aristocratic social circles. In the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I members of the aristocracy were disturbed by the increasing influence of those with 'new' money, i.e. the gentry and the bourgeoisie who were acquiring wealth through land-management and trade. The aristocracy's insistence on traditional manners and values was a way of distancing themselves from the newly rich.
Oswald's social climbing can also be compared with Malvolio in Twelfth Night. The fact that Shakespeare makes such roles both ludicrous and repellent is sometimes seen as reflecting the playwright’s own conservative social instincts.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.