“be Kent unmannerly, when Lear is mad” (1.1.145-146)

At the beginning of the play, Kent establishes himself as a man of virtue. His loyalty and subservience to King Lear conflicts with his honest disposition, seen in the offense Lear takes when Kent plainly reprimands him for disowning Cordelia. Kent’s bond to Lear is self-described as, “ … honored as my king, Loved as my father, as my master followed. And my great patron thought on in my prayers” (1.1.140-142). His obsessive love for the King has no influence on the King’s decision to banish Kent, an act that makes readers cringe like watching a dog being kicked by its owner. As their reliance on each other become more dynamic through out the play, it’s important to note the blatant inequality of their relationship.

Kent socially repositions himself lower than the denounced King, so he may appear “as poor as the king” (1.4.17). It’s through his new identity as Caius that we see a change in Kent’s character, more so, the way he treats others and the way others treat him as a commoner versus a noblemen. This confliction in character is seen in the oppositions Kent/Caius presents in the play:

In the first scene of the play, Kent calls out King Lear for swearing under Apollo’s name, pointing to Kent’s virtuous sensibility in noting the sacrilegious nature of pagan gods (1.1.160). But in act 2 scene 4, we see a hypocritical statement made by Kent, now disguised as Caius. When Kent tells Lear that it was Regan who put him in the stocks, banter of disbelief ensues. Kent ends it with “By Juno, I swear aye!” (2.4.21). Here we see a blasphemous calling of Roman gods, that same profanity that Kent previously reprimanded the king for.

Another disparity in Kent’s character could be seen in his treatment of Oswald, and ultimately the punishment he gets for acting “plainly”. He offends Oswald through long prose in the beginning of 2.2, calling him “a eater of broken meats” in reference to his lower class stature. Because of his honorable sense, Kent seems to be able to smell the treasonous intent of Oswald as Goneril’s servant/messenger; “That such a slave as this should wear a sword, who wears no honesty” (2.2. ) In his treatment of Oswald, we catch the irony of a “good man” abusing a servant. It seems Kent’s virtue is distanced from him as his plain/boldness escalates, or maybe it’s the working of his lower class disguise, that as a noblemen he would be considered “honest/true” and as a Caius he is “blunt/disrespectful”. He even makes a paradoxical criticism of Oswald stating, “You cowardly rascal, nature disclaims in thee: a tailor made thee”, explaining that a sculpture or a painter couldn’t have created him so poorly. But isn’t it a tailor that made Kent Caius? It seems that the honesty in the play works to point to social graces, and as King Lear sanity dwindles, Kent follows him with increasingly “unmannerly” conduct.

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One thought on ““be Kent unmannerly, when Lear is mad” (1.1.145-146)

  1. Cyrus Mulready

    A very nice post, Celina, calling attention to the interactions between two of the play's servants–though, importantly, one is only dressed that way. It's great that you call our attention to the sartorial metaphor employed by Kent, somewhat ironically, as you point out. I wonder if there is a distinction lurking here based on class. While it's true that "Caius" was "made" by a tailor, Kent himself, a man "made" by inheritance and property, might be trying to distinguish himself from the lower Oswald. One of the issues that we'll see in this play is whether there is something internal to a person that makes him (or her) noble. Kent may be making a case that there is–though we will see other divergent points of view in the play.

    Reply

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