What is a Brazen-Faced Varlet?

In Act II Scene II, King Lear gives us some of the best Shakespearean insults. Clever, piercing, and humourous, Kent rips into Oswald for his personality. The two of them are at Gloucester’s castle waiting for Cornwall when Kent criticizes Oswald for the type of steward he is. Both of them are in the servant class, but there is a distinction made between their approaches. Kent believes that a servant’s advice should be in the best interest of the master, not simply what they want to hear. And even though he was banished from Lear’s kingdom, the counsel that Kent gave was productive for Lear. He pointed out his wrongs as a concerned aide, and was looking in the best interest of his leader.

However, Oswald demonstrates the opposite. He is a “yes man” who isn’t worried about what is morally correct but rather what the majority is thinking. He doesn’t need encouragement to go along with anything his superiors say, and will turn at a moment’s notice to blindly follow them. Shakespeare’s contrast of the two characters helps to display the theme of honor, because it prompts the audience to think about what they value as honorable themselves. It raises the question of whether individual thinking is necessary when people are indebted to the service of another person. When Kent tries and strike Oswald with his sword, he is antagonizing him again and testing his aggression. Oswald shows he has none and cries for help from Regan and Cornwall. It was obvious that they were going to side with Oswald, and Kent’s efforts are in vain. But who is really worse off?

On the one hand, Oswald is in a better position than Kent. He is still employed, favored by the kingdom, and isn’t bound by wooden restraints until the next sign of daylight. But his spineless following is not valuable to anyone, and he lacks the integrity to stand up for anything. At least Kent has the courage, and creativity, to call others out on their faults.

It’s interesting that honesty isn’t valued in the play King Lear, when it’s actually the only thing that prevents conflict. If the characters were as motivated to communicate with the same energy as their scheming, a lot of violence could have been spared.

“I’ll make a sop o’ the moonshine of you
Draw, you whoreson cullionly barber-monger, draw.” (II.ii.33-34)

Honestly, Kent has some of my favorite lines in the play. If nothing else was clear in the text, I was interested and wide awake when Kent started insulting Oswald. I felt the intensity of his hatred and the phrases he used were unimaginably specific. It helped to powerfully convey a feeling I was developing for Oswald as the play went on, but couldn’t get the words just right. Thanks, Kent!

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