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King Lear | Act 2, Scene 2 | Summary
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Summary

Still in disguise, Kent arrives at Goneril's house. When Oswald greets him, Kent insults Oswald and then attacks him. Edmund, Goneril, Cornwall, and Gloucester rush onstage. Cornwall puts Kent in the stocks as punishment. Gloucester protests, arguing that the king will punish Kent for any misdeeds and might take offense if someone else does. Cornwall says he'll take responsibility. Everyone leaves except Gloucester, who stays with Kent (now in the stocks) long enough to apologize. Once Gloucester leaves, Kent takes out a letter from Cordelia, which says she promises to find a way to make things better.

Analysis

This scene is like a primer in medieval rights and hierarchy. Oswald has never done anything terribly wrong to Kent, but Kent responds to him with tremendous anger, calling him "a knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats," and other insulting names. Kent is profoundly angry because Oswald was rude to Lear and he is responding on Lear's behalf. When he warns that Lear is likely to want to punish Kent himself, Gloucester is also standing in for the king, speaking up for his concerns and rights. In staying behind to apologize, Gloucester shows he is loyal to the king. By contrast, Cornwall's decisions should set off warning bells for the audience. When he takes responsibility for Kent's punishment, he is essentially taking the king's place, as he is choosing to discipline the king's man.

The scene is also unexpectedly funny. When he first appears in King Lear, in Act 1, Scene 1, Kent is stiffly proper. To hear him rattle off line after line of inventive insults is amusing.

Finally, the audience will notice the key role of the letter. This one foreshadows Cordelia's eventual return. It is also bittersweet, because the letter promises to make things better, but the worst is yet to happen.

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