King Lear : Act Two
The Story So Far: King Lear has resigned the office and powers of being king, splitting them between his two sons-in-law, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall. Having banished his youngest daughter, Cordelia, for refusing to suck up to him, he goes to stay with his eldest daughter, Goneril. They have a huge fight, mostly due to him being unreasonable and stubborn, and he storms off to stay with his second daughter, Regan.
Meanwhile, Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, is plotting to steal his legitimate older brother Edgar's inheritance...
Many of Shakespeare's greatest villains are fantastic actors, and Edmund is no exception. He's able to play the loyal son/loyal brother role so well that both Gloucester and Edgar are completely taken in by his ruse. The alternative explanation is, of course, that both Gloucester and Edgar are gullible idiots who are collectively as dumb as a post.
You will note, of course, the obvious parallels between Lear and Gloucester. Both are willfully short-sighted when it comes to their children, with Lear being irrationally angered by Cordelia's honesty and Gloucester all-too-ready to believe the worst of Edgar.
What I'm trying to get at is that they're both terrible parents and just about deserve what's coming to them.
Edmund is moving rapidly up in the world. He's gone from "bastard with no inheritance" to "bastard with inheritance serving one of the two most powerful men in the country". He's still a complete bastard, though.
Oswald gets beaten up again! If you're playing the Oswald Drinking Game, take a drink. In fact, take two drinks, as he gets beaten up while trying to deliver a letter.
In this scene Kent unleashes what is probably the most extensive insult in all of Shakespeare. Here it is in its entirety:
[Thou art] a knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.
Meanwhile Oswald, who doesn't recognize Kent as the fellow who beat him up back at Goneril's place, is just totally confused. Come on, you have to feel for Oswald.
Kent, meanwhile, acts like a complete idiot. Here is his thought process: "What the best thing to do in the midst of a volatile and fragile family disagreement? I know! I'll beat up some guy and then insult lots of people! Nothing will go wrong!"
He totally deserves those stocks.
Lear is a bit slow on the uptake.
This scene a bit oddly disjointed. In the text I'm working from (Modern Library's RSC edition, based exclusively on the Folio text), it is all one scene, but Edgar's sudden appearance while Kent is sleeping in the stocks is often spun off into its own scene.
Anyways, Edgar decides that the best way to avoid getting arrested by his father is to disguise himself as a lunatic madman. However, this isn't just a surface disguise. As we shall shortly see, Edgar gets really into it, to the point where you really start to worry about him.
The cracks in Lear's sanity have been showing up from time to time since the start of the play, but this is where things really start to crumble. He knows that he's losing control, but is utterly unable to prevent it from happening. Things are not helped by Regan, who, as we shall shortly see, is a really nasty piece of work.
Lear gets tag-teamed by his daughters here, and the full implications of his renouncing his powers of kingship are revealed. He thinks that resigning the crown means he gets to continue enjoying the status and privileges of being king without having to do any of the work, whereas his daughters think (rather more accurately) that it means he's now an old many relying on the charity of his family. Lear really didn't think through his whole retirement plan very well.
I love Lear's "I WILL DO SUCH THINGS.... what they are yet, I know not... BUT THEY SHALL BE THE TERRORS OF THE EARTH!" This is exactly like when someone insults you and you only think of the perfect comeback two hours later.
Anyways, Lear rushes off into the growing storm, followed by the Fool and Kent, and that's the end of Act 2. DRAMA.
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