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King Lear, as both head of state and paterfamilias, has multiple claims to power, and to obedience. His spectacle of dividing the kingdom between his daughters confuses their obligations to him as subjects with their filial obligations, duties which are not necessarily equivalent. Cordelia cannot play both roles at once; she favors her role as daughter over her duty to her father as a subject in his kingdom. The duty that Lear expects can only be acquitted by speaking. Cordelia damns herself by being unable to speak what is expected. Kent, an alternate model of loyalty in the play, incurs Lear’s wrath by speaking too plainly. Kent’s loyalty – which distinguishes itself from obedience – demonstrates the suspicious attitude the play has of speech. He departs from the forms of affection that attempt to measure loyalty in terms of simple, spoken complaisance.
A corollary of Kent’s distrust of rhetoric seems to be his attention to physical presence, his dependence on optical proof. This model of knowledge allows Kent to seem nearly prescient in recognizing the deception of Lear’s elder daughters. It also contributes to an important part of his service to the King; looking past the words, spoken in madness, by Lear, he can tend to his Lear’s body, like a doctor. Kent subjection is dramatized, he “did [Lear] service/ Improper for a slave” (5.3.219-20), but this service is not servility. Kent’s loyalty to Lear is not founded on the hierarchical implications of the feudal state, but rather persists because Kent measures an equivalence between his body and his King’s.
Kent’s model of loyalty is a foil to Cordelia’s; similar in kind, but more difficult to explain because it is not blood-based. Kent’s manner of sustaining his allegiance to the King is a neat paradox. It is enacted as a pantomime – a subversive act of disobedience. Only by giving up his name and identity, thus any pre-existing expectations or debts, can he fulfill his duty to Lear. Thus, when Kent, in disguise as Caius, he must “raze” his identity. Kent takes special care to modify his language: “If but as well I other accents borrow,/ That can my speech defuse, my good intent/ May carry” (1.4.1-3). One of the attributes he assigns himself is that he can “deliver a plain message bluntly” (1.4.30). This care to modify language is intimated in Edgar’s relation to his father, which parallels Kent’s pantomime to Lear: as Tom O’Bedlam, he can offer solace, but he must take care to cut his language from coarser cloth. The location of truth in rough language reflects the puzzle of the sense found in Lear’s rants – “O, matter and impertinency mixed!/ Reason in madness!” Edgar exclaims, hearing the former king speak (4.6.168-9).
In giving up his claims to nobility, however, Kent emphasizes his masculinity. Femininity, throughout King Lear, is linked to treason, madness, and inconstancy. Cordelia is the exception that proves the rule: hearing of her father’s condition, she is moved, but “not to a rage”(4.3.15). She is primarily reasonable. Kent’s insistence on his manhood, over any refinement, is a benchmark of his steadiness. When Lear asks him to identify himself, he is simply, “A man, sir” (1.4.10) and “That which/ Ordinary men are fit for, I am qualified in” (1.4.30-1). The values that he attributes to himself are the stoic opposite of the effusive, effeminate language and action of the courtiers. He is an aggressive, soldierly fellow. He, thus, cannot help but assault the foppish Oswald: “Having more man than wit about me, [I] drew [my sword]” (2.4.41).
“Wit”, mental lability, would permit him to countenance insubordination, under the guise of diplomacy. It is important to note that Kent is not naturally impetuous, like Hotspur, but can also assume the courtier’s role, different modes of address. His allegiance is not to courtly forms, however, but to the overall good of the state, that is, the King. In the first scene of the drama – Kent addresses the king, “Good my liege -” (1.1.120) but before he can begin, is interrupted by Lear’s rash oath of resolution to reward the kingship to Albany and Cornwall. Kent, resuming his address to the king, speaks in the same sort of language that Lear seems to want, the language of obligation and deference: “Royal Lear,/ Whom I have ever honored as my king,/ Loved as my father, as my master followed,/ As my great patron thought on in my prayers -” (1.1.139-142). King, father, master, patron – note that each title contains its own independent set of demands and obligations.
At this point Lear interrupts him: “The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft” (1.1.143). Lear urges Kent to get to the point; he expresses impatience with the same language, the same deferential mode of address he demanded from his daughters. This dismissive gesture is worth noting – it proves that Lear is not merely a fool for pretty language, but relishes the power he has to demand it. Kent’s words also prefigure his later address to Cornwall, which is a parody of courtier’s language (2.2.97-99).
Kent is Lear’s subject – a position that we will learn to regard with suspicion throughout the play, where being a servant, being in agreement, is treacherous. It is a nice paradox – when obeisance seems most complete, it is most unlikely. It is almost as though the severance of political allegiance – as with the severance of Cordelia’s filial obligations – is necessary to elicit a demonstration of true loyalty. Thus even Kent’s honorific figures of address, however earnest, will do nothing to mediate the content of the message, and thus are extraneous. Kent notices this, and he seizes upon the language of the arrow and target that Lear introduces. “Let it [the arrowhead] fall, though the fork invade/ The region of my heart” (1.1.144-5), he implores, and later, “Let me still remain/ The true blank of thine eye” (1.1.158-9). This language is apposite. Kent, whose life is staked on the king, finds this martial metaphor suitable to the sacrifice to truth and for Lear that he must undergo. It is almost as if, certain that he cannot assuage Lear’s wrath, he must deflect it. Lear’s utterance in (1.1.143) could also reflect that, just as an arrow, about to be fired, will inevitably be unleashed upon its course with “hideous rashness” (1.1.151), so he cannot reverse the judgement on Cordelia he has already given. Kent picks up this sense – thus his entreaties, which he must suspect shall be bootless.
In his attempted deflection, his attempt at reversal, he dramatizes the “untender” fault of Cordelia: “Be Kent unmannerly,/ When Lear is mad” (1.1.146). Kent means that Lear’s foolish actions demand a rude chastisement, uncloaked by courtly circumlocutions. But in the parallel that Kent draws between his stance and Lear’s behavior, Kent presages what will be a clear result: Lear’s madness. This madness, which has something hysterical, unmanly about it, demands the “unmannerliness” – which in its aural similarity to “unmanliness” clearly references emasculation – of Kent to counter its effects. In the close relation between manner and manhood, Kent must take the strictest measures in his treatment of Lear.
Lear’s “madness” shall eventually render him powerless; his rashness is the motive of his elder daughters for seizure of the state. Consequently, as Lear is the source of their authority, his dethroning strips his retainers of their proprietary power. Thus, Kent addresses Lear according to his new state, according to how his unfaithful daughters and sons will see him, “What wilt thou do, old man?” (1.1.146). He is an equal, a mortal, but in this admission, there is the possibility of tenderness.
Perhaps the most apposite description Kent’s bond with Lear is the one that springs from this new equivalence of state: the relationship between physician and patient. This is a complicated relationship. Though the physician is in the employ of the patient, the patient must obey the physician. “Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow/ Upon thy foul disease” (1.1.164-5). But there is more to this metaphor than the shifting base of power it implies. Kent also seems to acquire many of the methods and attributes of a physician in his treatment of Lear.
Kent emphasizes physical fact as the root of truth, in much the same way that a doctor relies on empirical data to draw diagnoses. “I do profess to be no less than I seem” (1.4.12). Likewise, the reason he gives for wanting to join Lear’s retinue is visual: “You have that in your countenance which I/ would fain call master?Authority” (1.4.24-5, 27). Authority, then, is something intrinsic, something that cannot be obliterated by removal of title. Following this principle, Oswald’s offense can be described: “His countenance likes me not” (2.2.82). There is something intrinsic to Oswald’s aspect that is disagreeable to Kent. It is in the mutability of it, (2.2.64-77), that its ability change, “with every gale and vary of their masters,/ Knowing nought, like dogs, but following” (2.2.71-71). His “blind” obedience has no stable ground, no determinable characteristics.
Remember also that Kent becomes a member of Lear’s retinue. Lear’s men are an extension of himself, as they are the only remnant of his authority that he has retained. However, as such, they are purely vestigial, and become a source of weakness, in the possibility of their removal. When Goneril and Regan start curtailing his retinue – they are not only doing away with a creature comfort but also, in a truly malicious sense, chopping at his own body. It is a physical trespass to curtail his retinue – and limiting it thrusts him literally into the cold.
Kent identifies himself with this bodily extension of the King. When he comes to Lear in disguise, he claims he is “as poor as the king” (1.4.17). His state is directly dependent upon that of the king, his authority derives directly from it. So, any act taken against Kent becomes one against Lear. In protesting being put in stocks by Cornwall, “I serve the king;?You shall?show too bold malice/ Against the grace and person of my master,/ Stocking his messenger” (2.2.120-4). This is a clear violation – to Lear it is almost beyond belief (2.4.14-21). But it is the confirmation of Regan, as well as Goneril’s betrayal. He has almost succeeded in convincing himself that Regan and Cornwall are indeed indisposed, when he lays his eyes on Kent in the stocks. “This act persuades me/ That this remonition of the duke and her/ Is practice only” (2.4.107-9).
Kent, exquisitely aware of the continuity of his self with the king’s, pays an exceptional amount of care to Lear’s bodily comforts. When Kent initially identified himself as a physician, he meant, metaphorically, a physician to the health of the state. However, Lear’s body is coterminal with the state, in the sense that the King is the embodiment of the state. Kent’s solicitousness for the King’s body is also a representation and literalization of the oath he has made – to give his life for the king. Like Cordelia, Kent constitutes his obligation to Lear as fundamental to his being, inseparable from his life.
Kent, unable to address the injustice done to the King’s unsettled mind, tends to its outward correspondence, the king’s health. Kent, wise to rhetoric, can see through the deception behind Lear’s office: “They told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie, I am not/ Ague-proof” (4.6.102-3). Flattery, the prize of power, cannot shield the body from mortal facts. Throughout 3.4 he directs Lear to shelter, to warmth, tries to create comfort for him in exile. Lear makes a speech directed towards the “great gods”, as though any imprecation to them can stop the rain from falling (3.2.47-58). Kent’s response? “Alack, bare-headed?” (3.2.58) and tries to shield him from the storm. “Will you lie down and rest upon the cushions?” (3.6.30). He is tender. His care is directed towards the age of the body of the king; his attention is nearly parental towards the “child-changed king.” This tenderness is perhaps influenced by his recognition that: “Nothing almost sees miracles/ But misery” (2.2.157-8). Otherwise, there would be the threat of falling into the same sort of despair as Lear.
In the same way that Kent puts his body at the king’s disposal, so he puts his heart. “Wil’t break my heart?” the king says, almost apropos of nothing, entering shelter. “I had rather break mine own” (3.4.5-6), Kent responds. The cruel limitation here is, of course, that Kent cannot transfer his body, or his relative youth, to the king. The king’s fear of death, his resistance to mortality, cannot be assuaged by others putting their bodies at his disposal. He is physically affected by Lear’s tragedy: “his grief grew puissant, and the strings of life/ Began to crack” (5.3.215-6) as he retells, and relives, the story. Later, at Lear’s death, “break, heart; I prithee, break!” (5.3.311) he cries to himself, but death is not responsive to human fiats. Finally, the only avenue left to Kent is to guard Lear’s passing ghost, an insubstantial role: “Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass! He hates him much/ that would upon the rack of this tough world/ stretch him longer.” (5.3.312-4).
Lear’s madness repeats the effects of its cause – it prevents him from discriminating between friend and foe. Lear’s acknowlegement of Kent at the end is one in madness. “[Lear] knows not what he says” (5.3.293) and cannot give thanks, or express gratitude. That would be unnecessary, though. Duty is precisely the thing that cannot be conveyed in terms of reciprocal value. It is non-fungible. To try to transfer it to other terms transforms it into something different – a mere exchange, economic. Thus, when Cordelia thanks Kent for his service to her father, he assures her that he shall be given exactly the amount of thanks that he needs – that the deed itself fulfills its own cost. “To be acknowledged, madam, is o’erpaid./ All my reports go with the modest truth;/ No more clipped, but so.” (4.7.4-6). Acknowledgement would create a debt, and that image of perpetual repayment, of perpetually being in debt, is contrary to both filial duty, and to the duty in humanity that Kent exercises towards Lear.
Perhaps this is an explanation for Kent’s enigmatic refusal of the throne at the end. His parting words speak of obedience: “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;/ My master calls me, I must not say no” (5.3.320-1). Who his master is here is unclear. Most likely, Kent means that he shall even follow Lear into death, that his journey is to the next life. However, the double negative, “I must not say no,” reflects the manner of his compliance throughout the play – it is not a mere assent, but allows for modification. Thus it could mean a less morbid continuation of service, a tending to the exigencies of mortal life, a way of life not available to those in the position of ultimate power.
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