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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.
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