David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scenes 2-3

— 2.2 —

The disguised Kent and Oswald, Goneril’s steward, met in front of the Earl of Gloucester’s castle. The time was a little before dawn.

Oswald said, “Good dawning to you, friend. Are you a servant in this castle?”

The disguised Kent replied, “Yes.”

This was a lie. He recognized Oswald, whom he had tripped in the Duke of Albany’s castle because Oswald had treated King Lear badly, and he wanted to start a fight with him. Oswald did not recognize Kent.

“Where may we stable our horses?” Oswald asked.

“In the mud and mire,” the disguised Kent replied.

“Please, if you respect me, tell me.”

“If you respect me” meant “if you would be so kind,” but the disguised Kent deliberately mistook it as being literal.

“I don’t respect you.”

“Why, then, I don’t care for you,” an angry Oswald replied.

“If I had you in Lipsbury pinfold, I would make you care for me.”

A pinfold is a pen for stray cattle, and “Lipsbury” has the meaning of “Lipstown.” The disguised Kent was saying that if he had Oswald in his power — between his teeth — he would make him care for — be wary of — him.

“Why are you talking to and treating me this way?” Oswald complained. “I don’t know you.”

“Fellow, I know you,” the disguised Kent said.

“Who do you think I am?”

“You are a knave. You are a rascal. You are a servant who dines on broken foods — leftovers. You are a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, lightweight, filthy, worsted-stocking knave. You have only the three suits of clothing given annually to servants, and you wear the low-value worsted stockings that a servant wears rather than the silk stockings of an upper-class person. You are a lily-livered, legal-action-taking knave who is too cowardly to fight and so prefers to file a lawsuit. You are a whoreson, mirror-gazing and vain, super-serviceable and over-officious as well as finical and fussy rogue. You are a one-trunk-inheriting slave — all you inherited will fit into one trunk. You are a person who will be a bawd by way of providing good service to your master. You are nothing but the compound of a knave, beggar, coward, and panderer. You are the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; not only are you a son of a mongrel bitch, but you also inherited all the qualities of the mongrel bitch. You are a person whom I will beat into clamorous whining if you deny even the smallest syllable of the names that I have called you.”

Oswald complained, “Why, what a monstrous fellow you are, thus to rail against a person whom you do not know and who does not know you!”

“What a brazen-faced varlet you are to deny that you know me!” the disguised Kent said. “Is it two days since I tripped up your heels, and beat you in front of the King? Draw your sword, you rogue, for although it is night, yet the Moon shines. I’ll make a sop of the moonlight out of you: I will fill you full of holes that soak up the moonlight. Draw your sword, you whoreson, despicable barber-monger, draw.”

Kent was a master of invective. A whoremonger is a person who drums up business for whores. Kent was calling Oswald a barber-monger, a person who drummed up business for barbers. In other words, he was saying that Oswald made himself useful to men who were very concerned about their appearance.

Kent drew his sword.

Oswald said, “Stay away from me! I have nothing to do with you.”

“Draw, you rascal. You have come with letters against the King, and you take the part of Vanity the Puppet — Goneril — against the royalty of her father. Draw, you rogue, or I’ll slice your shanks. Draw your sword, you rascal, and fight me!”

Oswald shouted, “Help! Murder! Help!”

“Fight, you slave! Stand up and fight, rogue! Stand! You fancy slave, fight!”

The disguised Kent used the flat of his sword to hit Oswald.

Oswald shouted again, “Help! Murder! Help!”

Edmund, who had drawn his rapier, arrived on the scene, as did Regan, the Earl of Gloucester, and some servants.

Edmund asked, “What’s the matter?”

The disguised Kent replied, “Let us fight, impudent boy, if you please. Come, I’ll wound your flesh and initiate you into the world of adults. Come on, young master.”

The Earl of Gloucester said, “Weapons! Arms! What’s the matter here?”

The Duke of Cornwall ordered, “Stop fighting. Keep the peace. Your lives depend upon it. Whoever strikes again with his weapon will die. What is the matter?”

Regan said, “These are the messengers from our sister and from the King.”

“What is your argument about?” the Duke of Cornwall asked. “Speak!”

“I am out of breath, my lord,” Oswald replied.

“That is not a surprise since you have ‘fought’ so ‘courageously,’” the disguised Kent said sarcastically to him. “You cowardly rascal, Nature refuses to admit that you are natural. In fact, a tailor made you.”

“You are a strange fellow,” the Duke of Cornwall said. “Can a tailor make a man?”

“Yes, a tailor did, sir,” the disguised Kent said. “A stone-cutter or painter could not have made him so badly, even if he had been only two hours at the job. The man the tailor made is not a man; he is a tailor’s dummy.”

“Speak,” the Duke of Cornwall ordered Oswald. “How did your quarrel begin?”

“This ancient ruffian, sir, whose life I have spared because of his gray beard —”

Insulted, the disguised Kent said. “You whoreson zed! You unnecessary letter!”

The letter Z did not appear in dictionaries of the time. People felt that the letter Z was unnecessary because it could be replaced by the letter S and because Latin did not have a letter Z.

The disguised Kent said to the Duke of Cornwall, “My lord, if you will give me leave, I will tread this unbolted villain into mortar, and daub the wall of a privy with him. Spare my gray beard, you wagtail?”

The disguised Kent’s insults continued. “Unbolted” had the meaning of “unsifted”; Kent would have to step continually on Oswald in order to get the lumps out of the mortar. Of course, if Oswald were unbolted, he was not locked up in a jail. Also, if Oswald were “unbolted,” he lacked a man’s “bolt.” In addition, a wagtail is a bird that bobs its tail up and down. Kent was suggesting that Oswald was an obsequious courtier who was constantly bowing. He may also have meant that Oswald was excitedly hopping and unable to keep still.

The Duke of Cornwall ordered, “Shut up, sirrah! You beastly knave, know you no reverence and respect?”

“Yes, sir, I do, but anger has a privilege,” the disguised Kent said.

“Why are you angry?” the Duke of Cornwall asked.

“I am angry that such a slave as this should wear a sword, which is a privilege given to gentlemen, not to a man such as this who has no honesty and no virtue. Such smiling rogues as this Oswald, like rats, often bite the holy cords of marriage in two that are too intricately and closely knotted to be untied.”

The disguised Kent was making a major insinuation that Oswald was helping his boss, Goneril, sin against her husband, the Duke of Cornwall. Previously, he had called Oswald a panderer — a go-between between two illicit lovers.

He added, “Such smiling rogues smooth the path of their lords’ passions that rebel against reason — they help their lords satisfy their unreasonable desires. They bring oil to fire, and they bring snow to their masters’ colder moods.

“They deny, affirm, and turn their halcyon beaks with every varying gale of their masters. They say no when their masters want to hear no, and they say yes when their masters want to hear yes. They are like a dead kingfisher that has been hung up by its neck; whichever way the wind blows the dead kingfisher will turn so that its beak acts like a weathervane.

“They know nothing, like dogs, except how to follow their masters.”

Seeing Oswald looking with contempt at him, the disguised Kent shouted at him, “A plague upon your epileptic visage! Are you smiling at what I have to say, as if I were a fool? Goose, if I had you upon Salisbury plain, I would drive you cackling home to Camelot.”

“What? Are you insane, old fellow?” the Duke of Cornwall asked.

“How did you two fall out?” the Earl of Gloucester asked. “Why did you two grow angry at each other? Tell us that.”

“No two opposites hate each other more than I and this knave,” the disguised Kent said.

“Why do you call him a knave? What’s his offense?” the Duke of Cornwall asked.

“His face does not please me.”

“And, perhaps, neither does mine, nor the Earl of Gloucester’s, nor my Duchess’.”

“Sir, it is my particular pastime to be plain,” the disguised Kent said. “I have seen better faces in my time than stand on any shoulders that I see before me at this instant.”

The Duke of Cornwall said, “This is some fellow who, having been praised for bluntness, puts on a saucy roughness, and forces plain-speaking away from its true nature. He uses it not for honest candor but for crafty trickery. This man cannot flatter — not he! He has an honest and plain mind — he must speak the truth! If they will endure his talk, he has won a victory over them; if they will not, he says that he is plain-spoken. These kinds of knaves I know; in this plain-spokenness they hide more craft and trickery and corrupter ends than twenty silly ducking attendants who constantly make silly and obsequious bows.”

The disguised Kent mocked the Duke of Cornwall by using elevated, not plain, language: “Sir, in good sooth, in sincere verity, under the allowance of your great aspect, whose influence, like the wreath of radiant fire on flickering Phoebus Apollo’s forehead —”

The Duke of Cornwall asked, “What do you mean by this?”

“I mean to go out of my usual style of speaking, which you criticize so much. I know, sir, that I am no flatterer: Whoever he was who deceived you with plain talk was a plain knave, which for my part I will not be, even though I may be so plain-spoken that you think that I am a plain knave.”

The Duke of Cornwall said to Oswald, “What was the offense you committed against him?”

“I never did him any offense,” Oswald replied. “It pleased the King his master very recently to strike at me because he misunderstood something. At that time, this man, in league with and wanting to encourage the King in his displeasure, tripped me from behind. Once I was down on the floor, he insulted me and railed against me. He acted in such a macho manner that the King thought that he was a hero and praised him although all he had done was to attack someone who was willing to walk away from a fight. Because of his success in attacking a man who would not fight back, he drew his sword against me here and attacked me again.”

The disguised Kent said, “None of these rogues and cowards but Ajax is their Fool.”

This meant: Rogues and cowards surround me, and Ajax is their Fool. Not surprisingly, this was another major insult. Great Ajax was a warrior hero in Homer’s Iliad, but later his reputation declined and he gained a reputation for great stupidity. Kent was saying that among these rogues and cowards, Ajax would be the Fool. As shown by King Lear’s Fool, Fools are not foolish although fools are foolish. In fact, Fools are often wise. Kent was saying that Ajax, as foolish as he was, would be the wise man in this groupof people around him.

Instantly angry, the Duke of Cornwall ordered, “Bring the stocks here!”

He wanted to punish the disguised Kent by putting him in the stocks, which would restrain his legs so that he could not move. The stocks were used to punish lower-class people who had committed misdemeanors.

The Duke of Cornwall said to the disguised Kent, “You stubborn old knave, you reverend braggart, we’ll teach you —”

The disguised Kent, as plain-spoken as ever, interrupted, “Sir, I am too old to learn. Call not your stocks for me. I serve the King, on whose employment I was sent to you. You shall do small respect and show too bold malice against the grace and person of my master if you stock his messenger.”

The disguised Kent was correct. Because he served King Lear, he ought to be respected because of the King. If the Duke of Cornwall were to put him in the stocks, he would be gravely insulting Lear both as a King and as a man.

The Duke of Cornwall ordered, “Bring the stocks here! As I have life and honor, there shall he sit until noon.”

Regan said, “Until noon? Until night, my lord — and all night, too!”

“Why, madam, even if I were your father’s dog, you should not treat me so.”

“Sir, you are my father’s knave, and so I will treat you so.”

The Duke of Cornwall said, “This is a fellow who matches the description of the people our sister-in-law Goneril warned us against. Come, bring the stocks!”

The stocks were brought out.

The Earl of Gloucester said, “Let me beg your grace not to do this. His fault is great, and the good King his master will rebuke him for it. Your purposed low correction — the stocks — is such as is used to punish the basest and most contemptible wretches for such things as small thefts and other common crimes. The King must take it ill that he’s so slightly valued that his messenger is thus restrained.”

“I’ll answer that,” the Duke of Cornwall said. “I’ll take responsibility for this.”

Regan said, “My sister may take it much more worse to have her gentleman — Oswald — abused and assaulted for following her orders. Put his legs in the stocks.”

The disguised Kent was put in the stocks.

Regan said, “Come, my good lord, let’s leave.”

Everyone left except the Earl of Gloucester and the disguised Earl of Kent, who was undergoing a humiliating punishment that ought never to be inflicted on an Earl.

“I am sorry for you, friend,” the Earl of Gloucester said. “This is the Duke’s pleasure, whose disposition, all the world well knows, will not be hindered or stopped. I’ll entreat him to release you.”

“Please do not, sir,” the disguised Kent said. “I have been awake a long time and travelled hard; some of the time I spend in the stocks I shall sleep, and the rest of the time I’ll whistle. A good man’s fortune may poke out at heels.”

A good man’s fortune may wear away until it becomes bad fortune, just like a good stocking becomes a bad stocking when it wears out and one’s heel pokes out of it.

The disguised Kent then said, “May God give you a good morrow!”

“The Duke’s to blame in this; it will be ill taken,” the Earl of Gloucester said, and then he exited.

Kent said to himself, “Good King Lear, you must prove this common proverb to be true: You out of Heaven’s benediction come to the warm Sun, aka a place of no shelter! Yes, you must go from better to worse, from a place like Heaven to a place that is this Earth. You have been King, but here you will not be treated like a King. When you arrive here, bad things will happen.”

He took out a letter and said softly, “Approach, you beacon — the Sun — to this under globe — the Earth — so that by your comfortable beams I may read this letter! Nothing almost sees miracles but misery; in other words, no one but the truly miserable almost sees miracles. When one is truly miserable, one hopes for a miracle!

“I know this letter is from Cordelia, who has most fortunately been informed of my obscured course of action — of what I am doing while I am in disguise.

“Cordelia is in France, away from this enormous and broken state of affairs, and she is finding time to seek a way to give losses their remedies. She wishes to right all these wrongs.

“My eyes are completely weary from being awake too long, so take advantage, heavy eyes, of this opportunity to sleep and not look at these stocks — this shameful lodging.

“Fortune, good night. Smile once more on me, and turn your wheel! Right now, I am at the bottom of the Wheel of Fortune, and a turn of the wheel will bring me higher.”

He slept.

— 2.3 —

Edgar thought out loud in a wooded area: “I heard myself proclaimed to be an outlaw, and I waslucky and happy to find and hide in a hollow of a tree and so escape the hunt.

“No seaport is free and open to me; everyplace has guards who watch with very unusual vigilance and hope to capture me. As long as I can escape capture, I will preserve myself. I have formed the plan to take the basest and poorest shape that ever poverty, in contempt of man, has brought a man closest to being a beast.

“I’ll grime my face with filth, cover only my loins and leave the rest naked, neglect my hair until it is matted and knotted, and exposed and naked I will confront the winds and persecutions of the sky.

“The countryside gives me examples and precedents of Bedlam beggars — former inmates of the Bethlehem Hospital for the insane who, released and with a license to beg, with roaring voices, stick in their numbed and pain-insensitive bare arms pins, wooden skewers, nails, and sprigs of rosemary, and with this horrible spectacle, they force people from humble farms, poor and paltry villages, sheep-cotes, and mills, sometimes with the use of lunatic curses, sometimes with prayers, to give them charity.”

Edgar practiced the cries of a Bedlam beggar: “Poor Turlygod! Poor Tom!”

He then said, “There is some good in this for me. I will look nothing like Edgar.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved




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