Act 2 scene 2

Synopsis of Act 2 Scene 2

Outside Gloucester's Castle, Oswald, bringing messages from Goneril, runs into ‘Gaius’ (Kent in disguise), who attacks Oswald verbally and physically as Edmund, Cornwall, Regan and Gloucester appear. Asked to explain his behaviour, Kent declares that Oswald is a hypocrite. However, Cornwall places Kent in the stocks, despite the fact that any messenger of the King should be protected against such indignity and in spite of Gloucester’s protests. Once alone, Kent is consoled by a letter from Cordelia who has learned of Lear’s humiliation and intends to help him.

Commentary on Act 2 Scene 2

  • Kent represents old-fashioned virtues in a world that is threatened by insanity and selfishness. His attack on Oswald demonstrates his loyalty to Lear as a man and to all that kingship symbolises
  • In supporting Oswald and putting Kent in the stocks, Cornwall reveals his true nature. Regan's malevolence is also demonstrated when she doubles Kent's punishment
  • The letter from Cordelia tells the audience that she knows about Kent's disguise and is planning to remedy the losses experienced by him and (presumably) her father.

What dost thou know me for? Kent's verbal attack on Oswald begins with his objection that Oswald is merely a serving man who is behaving above his station in life. An important theme in the play concerns social order and the way in which 'natural' hierarchies are upset. We see this at its most extreme in Lear himself who falls from being King to being a naked madman - in other words, from the top to the bottom of society.

three-suited ... worsted stocking: Kent is referring to the clothes worn by people of the servant class. Servants were given three suits of clothes each year and their stockings were made from worsted (a woollen material). Gentlemen wore silk stockings.

take Vanity the puppet's part against the royalty of her father: Kent is loyal to Lear's true royalty, whereas he thinks of Goneril as a mere upstart - rather like a puppet representing Vanity in a Morality play. Such plays were dramatisations of moral issues in which the characters were labelled personifications of abstract ideas, such as Vanity (an embodiment of self-obsession and moral emptiness), Pride, Gluttony etc.

oft bite the holy cords atwain: This is a very philosophical speech from someone who is pretending to be merely a serving-man. Indeed, Cornwall thinks Kent must be mad to say such things. The cords to which Kent refers are the ties which bind husband and wife together (as referred to in the marriage ceremony, when the priest joins a couple’s hands and often wraps a stole or cord around them, as s/he declares: ‘Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.’) Servants who threaten this union (as Edmund will later do) are likened to rats that gnaw through rope. 

Bring oil to fire: The servant who wishes to flatter his superior makes the flames of his master's passions burn more fiercely - and similarly he 'brings snow to their colder moods' - that is, encourages his master's melancholy, if that is the mood he is in.

Plan of Old SarumSarum Plain ... Camelot: Old Sarum is an iron age hill fort in Wiltshire. Camelot was the name of King Arthur's capital. These names remind the audience that the play is set in an ancient and legendary past.

Under the allowance of your great aspect etc.: Kent is mocking Cornwall by adopting his high-flown style of speech. The words 'aspect' and 'influence' are words associated with astrology (aspect = the position of a heavenly body in relation to other heavenly bodies; influence = the power a heavenly body is supposed to exercise over events on the earth. See Astronomy and Astrology). By using this language Kent is sarcastically suggesting that Cornwall is like a heavenly body himself.

upon his misconstruction: Oswald is telling a series of lies. He says that he did not treat the King disrespectfully and that he suffered from Kent encouraging the King to be displeased with him. He also pretends that he took no action when the King hit him.

None of these rogues and cowards / But Ajax is their fool: Ajax appears both in Homer's Odyssey and in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. He is both a highly accomplished soldier and someone who boasts about his achievements. Kent implies that rogues and cowards (like Oswald) think that, compared to them, even Ajax is a 'fool'.

Fetch forth the stocks: The stocks were a form of punishment consisting of a wooden device which fastened around the ankles of a wrong-doer, thus ensuring that s/he had to endure whatever humiliating treatment passers-by would deliver.

Whose disposition ... will not be rubbed nor stopped: The word 'rubbed' means 'thwarted' here and is taken from the game of bowls. A bowling ball is said to 'rub' when it meets an obstacle which sends it off in another direction. Shakespeare used this idea in several plays, most famously in Hamlet ('Ay, there's the rub.')

Good king, thou must approve the common saw: Kent fears that Lear is inevitably moving from good fortune to a period of intense suffering. The letter from Cordelia suggests that she has a more-than-human understanding of what is happening in the kingdom. She knows about the injustices that have been committed and she says that she is preparing to remedy them. Kent's eyes are weary and his meaning is unclear, but presumably the letter suggests that the King of France is planning to invade.

Take vantage, heavy eyes, not to behold / This shameful lodging: Kent sees sleep as a way of shutting out the painful truth of the stocks. His words are another reminder of the idea that truth exists whether or not human eyes see it. Neither Lear nor Kent can see the truths which are staring them in the face.

Lady Fortune spinning her wheelFortune, good night ... turn thy wheel: Fortune was commonly depicted as a goddess who had a wheel on which all humans were bound. One day a person could be at the top of Fortune's wheel; the next day the wheel could turn and they would find themselves at the bottom.

Investigating Act 2 Scene 2...

  • What is the dramatic function of the discord between Kent and Oswald?
  • How does Kent show that he is able to ‘see’ things to which others are blind?
  • When Cornwall and Regan punish Kent what social rules are they breaking?
  • What purpose does Cordelia's letter to Kent serve?
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