Note: Many editions of
King Lear,including The Norton Shakespeare,divide Act 2 into four scenes. Other editions divide Act 2 into only two scenes.
In Gloucester’s castle, Gloucester’s servant Curan tells Edmund that he has informed Gloucester that the duke of Cornwall and his wife, Regan, are coming to the castle that very night. Curan also mentions vague rumors about trouble brewing between the duke of Cornwall and the duke of Albany.
Edmund is delighted to hear of Cornwall’s visit, realizing that he can make use of him in his scheme to get rid of Edgar. Edmund calls Edgar out of his hiding place and tells him that Cornwall is angry with him for being on Albany’s side of their disagreement. Edgar has no idea what Edmund is talking about. Edmund tells Edgar further that Gloucester has discovered his hiding place and that he ought to flee the house immediately under cover of night. When he hears Gloucester coming, Edmund draws his sword and pretends to fight with Edgar, while Edgar runs away. Edmund cuts his arm with his sword and lies to Gloucester, telling him that Edgar wanted him to join in a plot against Gloucester’s life and that Edgar tried to kill him for refusing. The unhappy Gloucester praises Edmund and vows to pursue Edgar, sending men out to search for him.
Cornwall and Regan arrive at Gloucester’s house. They believe Edmund’s lies about Edgar, and Regan asks if Edgar is one of the disorderly knights that attend Lear. Edmund replies that he is, and Regan speculates further that these knights put Edgar up to the idea of killing Gloucester in order to acquire Gloucester’s wealth. Regan then asks Gloucester for his advice in answering letters from Lear and Goneril.
Outside Gloucester’s castle, Kent, still in peasant disguise, meets Oswald, the chief steward of Goneril’s household. Oswald doesn’t recognize Kent from their scuffle in Act 1, scene 4. Kent roundly abuses Oswald, describing him as cowardly, vain, boastful, overdressed, servile, and groveling. Oswald still maintains that he doesn’t know Kent; Kent draws his sword and attacks him.
Oswald’s cries for help bring Cornwall, Regan, and Gloucester. Kent replies rudely to their calls for explanation, and Cornwall orders him to be punished in the stocks, a wooden device that shackles a person’s ankles and renders him immobile. Gloucester objects that this humiliating punishment of Lear’s messenger will be seen as disrespectful of Lear himself and that the former king will take offense. But Cornwall and Regan maintain that Kent deserves this treatment for assaulting Goneril’s servant, and they put him in the stocks.
After everyone leaves, Kent reads a letter that he has received from Cordelia in which she promises that she will find some way, from her current position in France, to help improve conditions in Britain. The unhappy and resigned Kent dozes off in the stocks.
Edmund’s clever scheming to get rid of Edgar shows his cunning and his immorality. His ability to manipulate people calls to mind arguably the greatest of Shakespeare’s villains, Iago, from Othello, who demonstrates a similar capacity for twisting others to serve his own ends. There is a great deal of irony in Edmund’s description to his father of the ways in which Edgar has allegedly schemed against Gloucester’s life. Edmund goes so far as to state that Edgar told him that no one would ever believe Edmund’s word against his because of Edmund’s illegitimate birth. With this remark, Edmund not only calls attention to his bastard status—which is clearly central to his resentful, ambitious approach to life—but proves crafty enough to use it to his advantage.
Gloucester’s rejection of Edgar parallels Lear’s rejection of Cordelia in Act 1, scene 1, and reminds us of the similarities between the two unhappy families: Edgar and Cordelia are good children of fathers who reject them in favor of children who do not love them. When Gloucester says, “I never got him”—that is, he never begot, or fathered, him—he seems to be denying that he is actually Edgar’s father, just as Lear has disowned Cordelia (2.1.79). On the other hand, when he praises Edmund as a “loyal and natural boy,” he seems to be acknowledging him as a true son (2.1.85).
It is somewhat difficult to know what to make of Kent’s attack on Oswald. Oswald’s eagerness to serve the treacherous Goneril in Act 1, scene 4, has established him as one of the play’s minor villains, but Kent’s barrage of insults and subsequent physical attack on Oswald are clearly unprovoked. Oswald’s failure to fight back may be interpreted as cowardice, but one can also interpret it as Oswald does: he says that he chooses not to attack Kent because of Kent’s “gray beard”—at nearly fifty, Kent is an old man and thus no longer suited for fighting (2.2.55). Kent’s attack seems to be rooted in his anger at Goneril’s treatment of Lear—“anger hath a privilege” is the excuse that he gives Cornwall and Regan—and his rage at the hypocrisy surrounding Lear’s betrayal by his daughters (2.2.62).
Cornwall’s and Regan’s decision to put Kent in the stocks reinforces what we have already seen of their disrespect for their father. The stocks were a punishment used on common criminals, and their use on Lear’s serving man could easily be interpreted as highly disrespectful to Lear’s royal status. Gloucester announces as much when he protests, “Your purposed low correction / Is such as basest and contemned’st wretches / . . . / Are punished with” (2.2.134–137). Regan, however, ignores his pleas; she almost seems to welcome the idea of inviting Lear’s anger.