In the play King Lear, Kent is a servant of King Lear. He is banished from the kingdom when he points out that King Lear is making a bad decision in Act 1. However, he takes on a different persona, goes by the name “Caius,” and rejoins King Lear’s entourage of men. He follows Lear everywhere making sure to protect him from the treacherous whether and trying to reunite him with his daughter Cordelia. At the end of the play when Lear dies, Kent is offered the kingdom to rule but Kent responds with “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; / My master calls me. I must not say no (V.III.390-391).” This can be interpreted in many ways but I see it as he leaves to kill himself because his master, Lear, has died. Through this character I have wondered what Shakespeare meant to say about loyalty — admirable or stupid?
When answering this question, I think it is best to look at the two most loyal servants in the play — Kent, servant of Lear and Oswald, servant of Goneril. Oswald and Kent are both very loyal, defending their masters and both even die because of their loyalty to their masters.
However, there lies a key difference between the nature of Oswald’s and Kent’s servitude. Unlike Oswald, Kent seems to have his masters best interest at heart. Kent is kicked out of the kingdom because he told King Lear the truth, that he is making the wrong choice of disowning Cordelia because she actually loves him the most. Kent knew that Lear was making a bad decision that would hurt him later and acted upon Lear’s best interest. He then proceeds to help King Lear in the storm and throughout the whole play, showing that his loyalty rides deep and can’t be broken by his master even kicking him out. On the other hand, Oswald blindly follows Goneril’s orders never questioning anything she tells him to do. His loyalty also seems to stem from his self-seeking characteristic. For example, in act 4 he is more than willing to take Reagans orders to kill Gloucester; “That eyeless head of thine was first framed flesh/ To raise my fortunes”(IV.VI.254-255). He implies that he is getting a reward for his loyalty which doesn’t feel like loyalty because it could be broken easily.
Ultimately, I think Shakespeare is saying that true loyalty is very admirable and is a virtuous trait to have. Yet, I think it is important to note that it is Kent’s loyalty that is admirable, not Oswalds.
4 thoughts on “Loyalty — Admirable or Just Plain Stupid?”
I really like this post, I think Kent is the exact type of person you need by your side to run a kingdom, someone who is honest and doesn’t speak to you differently just because of your stature, someone you can rely on like a best friend or like a brother. On the other hand, I think Oswald is just a good servant period. He is not loyal to one single person like Kent, but he does his job whenever asked by whoever asks him to do it. Kent is the type of person you would call a ride or die, he would never serve anyone except Lear, and as you said makes it sound like he will kill himself after Lear’s death to join him, this is how Lear should have known that Kent only spoke in the King’s best interest, and if he hadn’t gone mad maybe he would have seen this. On the other hand, it is clear that Oswald would be willing to serve anyone as long as he has a position.
This was an interesting dynamic throughout the novel. I would place Edgar in a similar bracket because of how he stuck with his father, Gloucester, through everything. He was also an example of fidelity, especially because as Gloucester lays dying, aware of Edmund’s plots, he contends that Edgar was the one wronged after all. As such, I do think Shakespeare valued loyalty, and did want to portray it as something more than a blind following.
I agree that Kent is an ideal servant while Oswald is not. I think that it’s interesting to compare Kent and Oswald specifically since they affected each other in the play, but there are other servants who could also be considered. Someone like the fool who, through his confusing verses and rhymes, actually told Lear what he needed to hear. Like Kent, he told Lear the truth, warning him of the tragedy to come.
I really enjoyed reading your point of view on Kent’s character not only as a servant but also as a person. I think that Kent is a very loyal servant and reminds me a lot of the fool. They both tell Lear what he needs to hear rather than what he wants to hear. I think in the case of Goneril and her servant Oswald, he simply followed Goneril wherever she went. Although he blindly supported Goneril, it does show a testament to the character Oswald is if he was willing to die for Goneril. While I would want a servant who would come at my beck and call and only tell me what I wanted to hear, having a servant like Kent would ultimately give me what I needed.