King Lear, Act 2



As before, I am interested in the shifts from prose to verse (and verse to prose), and why they occur when they do. The shift at l. 17 coincides with Edmund’s brief soliloquy — perhaps a reason for the shift — but continues for the rest of the scene.

I think you are right to note that Gloucester does not seem to notice that Edmund was been wounded, and this is a potentially comic — Edmund getting carried away with his performance, and it misfiring. A director could play it either way: either have Gloucester ignore Edmund, and even have Edmund react in some exasperation so that the audience sees it but Gloucester doesn’t; or have Gloucester react physically (but wordlessly) to the wound. Again, Edgar says almost nothing in this scene, which makes him seem weak, or somebody to be manipulated, at least passive.

By line 58 Edmund has said enough to get Gloucester enraged, but then at l. 66 he keeps going — it’s more than he needs to say.  Do we think him even more evil, or that he (comically?) overdoes it?

When Regan refers to Lear’s “riotous knights” Gloucester does not correct her. So maybe it’s true that they behave riotously.

2. 2

Kent certainly behaves riotously. His abuse of Oswald seems excessive indeed, comically excessive. Is he playing the part of The Railer who enjoys giving abuse? And doesn’t the audience enjoy it as a performance? (Compare Touchstone on seven ways of giving the lie — in Kent’s case it’s coarse Billingsgate abuse rather than sly courtier abuse). But what is the practical purpose as the kingdom falls into chaos? How does it advance Kent’s business, or Lear’s business?

Interesting that Kent shifts into verse at l. 73, confirming that the previous abuse was a calculated performance. And then changes his manner of speech, first at l. 107, where he parodies court speech, and then at l. 111, where he “goes out of his dialect.”

Your comments, in the 2009 essay, about putting Kent in the stocks, are very interesting and persuasive. Something more is going on here than plotting and counterplotting. Something emblematic, or allegorical.

But in some respects Kent’s punishment seems fittingly naturalistic/realistic. He was acting like a low rogue, and is here punished like one. (He had earlier behaved “inappropriately” to the courtier Oswald, tripping him up the way you might trip up a country clown.) And the characters on stage discuss whether or not it’s fitting.

It’s important, at the end of the scene, that the opposing forces are firming up their alliances: Gloucester aligns himself with Kent (and Kent with Cordelia), and all of them with Lear, as opposed to Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund. But some of the participants are not clearly aligned. Earlier Regan and Goneril seemed aligned with each other, but now there are hints of sister vs. sister. At this point Edgar is a still a freebooter, a victim and not yet a plotter/planner.

Kent’s soliloquy at the end of the scene changes the mood, as if we are invited to look at the “enormous state” of Lear’s world from 30,000 feet. Fortune seems to rule the world: Kent senses it first (unless the Fool has already been joking about it). Edgar will sense it later. And Lear himself.


Here are some thoughts about the long scene 2. 4, the one beginning “‘Tis strange that they should so depart from home,/ And not send back my messenger.”

The Fool comes in with Lear, and makes a few jokes, but Lear pays no attention to him. A director might choose to have the Fool stand aside, like a Chorus, commenting on the action. Later, when Lear leaves, Kent does engage with the Fool.

Lear is outraged by the stocking of Kent, but when Kent is released Lear pays no attention for 65 lines– he has already shifted his attention to his daughters. This suggests that his outrage had nothing to do with Kent, but with the fact that it was an offense to HIM: “who put MY man i’ th’ stocks?”

When questioned why he was put in the stocks, Kent does not tell the whole story. He omits the fact that he treated Oswald disrespectfully, tripping him up. Perhaps there is a kind of tit-for-tat justice in putting Kent in the stocks, i.e.,  in treating him disrespectfully.

When I read the scene this time I did not find Regan and Goneril unreasonable. It’s Lear who is out of line: rash, cursing his own child.  You could play R and G as the grown-ups in the room, reasoning calmly about how many knights Lear “needs” — 50, 25, 10, 1, none. Or you could play them as mean-spirited, stingy, sarcastic. It’s ironic that the talk of “need” is actually introduced by Lear, who play-acts the asking of forgiveness (which he in fact considers beneath him), kneeling and saying with grim irony that he doesn’t need anything: “Age is unnecessary” (154)  — cf. “Necessity’s sharp pinch” (210). Then the sisters pick up the idea of “need” and bandy it back and forth (237, 260, 262) until Lear break out “O reason not the need” (263).

Lear has been drawn back in to the “how much do you love me?” game from 1.1., declaring that if Goneril will allow him 50 knights, she loves him twice as much as Regan does, who will only allow him 25.

Later he sounds like a dotty and impotent old man: “I will have such revenges on you both . . . I will do such things — What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be/ The terrors of the earth.”

Interesting that just as he exits, he thinks of the Fool (whom he has ignored for 160 lines): “O Fool, I shall go mad!” (285).


I think Lear pays less and less attention to the Fool as this scene and the following ones unfold; the Fool’s “truth” has already been played out, that Lear was foolish in giving up his power, and he’s now little more than an old man who’s dependent on his daughters. And eventually, the Fool disappears, and Lear’s attention seems more taken by Edgar’s Poor Tom. But the Fool does continue to interest the audience. And his little joke about a man in the stocks wearing wooden — as opposed to woolen? — netherstocks raises Lear’s question about who’s responsible for the stocking (a pun? or almost a pun) of Kent.

When Lear exits, then returns with Gloucester, I sense a change, or maybe a change of direction, in him. Rather than kingly, he now seems more petulant, more like an angry old man who has been offended by his family. He seems to catch himself at l. 294 (or 102) and suggests, reasonably, that Cornwall may not be culpable. But then he sees Kent in the stocks and becomes angry again. I think G & R do seem plausibly reasonable, and to me it sounds like wonderful family discussion about curbing an old man’s unreasonable expectations. The back and forth about how many retainers Lear really needs does seem like a sensible (but insensitive?) family discussion. (This always reminds me of a family discussion about 50 years ago, when my father suggested to his brother, then in hospital and clearly dying, that he should sell his car; my uncle became upset and angry, which I recall puzzled my father.) At Regan’s “what need one? Lear’s anger does reach a point of insight (“Reason not the need . . . “) that doesn’t help him much, except that he comes to the realization that he is simply “a poor old man/ as full of grief as age, wretched in both.” Which is something like what the Fool has been saying. So maybe it seems right he should turn to the Fool with his fear of going mad. Yes, he does seem a dotty and impotent old man.

The conclusion of the scene, with Cornwall and the two sisters deciding that the old man should suffer what his foolishness has brought him to, may be the turning point at which we see what the divisions among the characters has led to: the cruelty of the doors being shut against Lear.

Now on to the heath.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell