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King Lear: Broken Bonds

By Diana Major Spencer
From Midsummer Magazine, 1999

 

"Royal Lear, / Whom I have ever honored as my king, / Loved as my fahter, as my master followed" begins Kent’s chastisement of King Lear (1.1.141-43), thus both identifying and violating the Elizabethan concept of bond. Ideally, the relationships outlined are mutual obligations based on degrees of rank.

Between Kent and Lear, two of these bonds, king-subject and master-servant, are literal, while the third, father-child, is figurative, though it reminds us of the literal bond between Lear and Cordelia, Unfortunately, Lear neglects the reciprocity: he expects to receive the duties of the bond--unquestioning loyalty, even indulgence—without performing his responsibilities--providing for the well-being of his children, servants, and subjects. The first hundred lines of the play outline the broken bonds which produce the tragedy: Gloucester flaunts bond through his obvious enjoyment of illicit lust and bastard offspring; Cordelia loves Lear “according to [her] bond, no more nor less” (1.1.93); and Regan and Goneril “love” Lear, not according to bond, but according to greed. Lear prefers--as king, master, and father—the pretense to the reality.
Kent is banished before the next twenty lines are spoken, yet he remains the voice of bond throughout the play. The next time we see him, in act 1 scene 4, he returns to Lear in disguise and offers his service, seeking to restore his bonds of loyalty. He immediately demonstrates his dedication by seconding Lear’s attack on Oswald. Kent continually underscores Lear’s majesty with devotion to and reverence for the king. Lear’s behavior may be foolish, but Kent sees him always as every inch a king.”

He also helps develop our sympathy for Lear. Lear’s actions from the beginning provoke ambiguous responses. To Shakespeare’s audience, dividing a kingdom broke God’s laws, since king-ship and kingdom were divinely ordained. Further, Lear treated both Cordelia and Kent with cruelty and injustice; and he was a nuisance in Goneril’s home, no matter how much Goneril exaggerated. Lear never actually loses our sympathy, but our feelings for him overall result from the viciousness of Goneril and Regan themselves, from Lear’s remorse for his treatment of Cordelia, which grows steadily under the jibes of the Fool, and from the loyalty of the disguised Kent. So far, however, Goneril and Regan have behaved fairly reasonably; Lear can still justify his banishment of Cordelia; and the Fool does not loom large until the heath scenes. Thus, our sympathy for Lear, at this point, is wholly dependent upon Kent’s devotion.

Kent expresses our feeling toward Oswald and, in the act of tripping the steward, foreshadows the battle before Gloucester’s castle. His behavior at the castle is indeed “unmannerly,” but Kent is no more incensed than his audience at the apparent success of evil forces. He calls Oswald the names we would call him if we had Shakespeare’s vocabulary. During the argument, where our sympathies should lie is obvious: Oswald is odious, and Kent represents truth and bond, fearless to fight against impossible odds. The contrast between the two servants illustrates the contrast between the forces at work in the play.

Kent’s fight with Oswald gives Regan the excuse she needs to insult Lear and, subsequently, to forbid the entrance of his servant into her household. Kent’s punishment in the stocks provides Gloucester the opportunity to involve himself in Lear’s plight gradually by reinforcing Kent’s attitude while reserving for himself a chance to avoid commitment to Lear. Kent’s punishment, moreover, is a direct affront to the dignity of the king. Only commoners, not royal messengers, would be degraded so publicly. Still, the terms “king,” “royalty,” and “grace” are used eleven times in reference to Lear, six times by Kent. He never lets us for-get that Lear is a king, even when “majesty stoops to folly” (1.1.151). In his presence, even the forces of evil show greater respect for Lear, thus assuring us that kingship is ordained and reinforcing Lear’s mistake in abandoning it.

Finally, as Kent settles to sleep in the stocks, he produces a letter from Cordelia, performing a double function: He reminds us of Cordelia, just the sec-ond time her name has been mentioned since her banishment; the other was by Lear as he cursed Goneril (1.4.289). Kent also informs us that Cordelia is seeking to give/ Losses their remedies” (2.2.177).

Lear’s majesty is again reinforced when he arrives at Gloucester’s to find Kent in the stocks (2.4). “Ha?” he asks incredulously. “Mak’st thou this shame thy pastime?” (2.4.5-6). Kent’s insistence on the truth counters Lear’s refusal to face what it must mean to find his ser-vant thus. Throughout most of this scene, Kent is silent; but his stocking provokes the bitter argument which results in Lear’s flight to the heath. When the storm begins, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall think of nothing but their own protection. Kent keeps the story moving and Cordelia in our minds. His discussion with the Gentleman, is purely expository. The Gentleman discloses the first descrip-tion of Lear’s wandering, which cushions the direct encounter to follow. The rest of the scene unfolds the contents of Cordelia’s letter. Significantly, Lear, even in near-madness, is still called “the king.”

Lear’s only companions on the heath are a fool and a madman. During the storm scenes, the elements are “mad,” the Fool is “professionally mad,” Edgar pretends to be mad, Lear is mad, and Gloucester appears, confessing that he is almost mad and that grief for his son’s treachery has crazed his wits. Kent is too sane to establish any sort of rapport with the others; yet he is the only one who can really help the king. It is he who finally leads Lear to shelter after the pleas of the Fool have been ignored. Further, Kent alone has the necessary wit about him to pre-pare a litter for the sleeping king.

During the heath scenes Kent anchors the action in reality. Without his comments, few as they are, the dialogue would become hopelessly confused by riddies. Thereafter, he makes only three more appearances: another expository scene with the Gentleman (4.3), Lear’s awakening to find Cordelia (4.7), and the final scene. Lear’s recovery scene is significant with regard to Kent only because he fades to the background. Most of the mental fury of the play is now past, and the audience can survive without Kent’s commentary. Also, with the play two-thirds complete, little need remains for prophecy. Finally, Cordelia has returned, so Kent’s reminders are not needed, and she can now reinforce the king’s majesty.

Yet Kent returns in the final scene. With all the action and all the characters involved, Kent captures the final note. The king-subject and master-servant relationships are preserved to the very end. Upon entering the scene, Kent says simply, “I am come I To bid my king and master aye good night” (5.3.234-35). When Lear recognizes him, Kent responds, “The same, I Your servant Kent. (5.3.283). Kent is the one who sees Lear’s death as a release from a long life of folly and suffering. His final service to the master is to “vex not his ghost” (5.3.313), to let him die peacefully. His final words, ever faithful to his bond, are: “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go. / My master calls me, I must not say no (5.3.321-22).

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