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.Read a translation of Act 2, scene 1 →
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.