While King Lear houses many characters and motifs to delve into conveying some serious themes around identity, power, and family, one of the most notable moments of the play exists early on in the play during the fight between Oswald and Kent within Act 2 Scene 2.
While the fight itself serves as a fun and intense moment in the play as Kent curses Goneril’s servant in Shakespearean tongue, what makes the moment profound is the distinction between Kent and Oswald as characters throughout the play, and the overall question of what makes a good servant?
Upon Kent choosing to attack Oswald initially, the surrounding characters along with the audience are under the misconception that he is in the wrong for doing so, when in reality his aggression towards Oswald can be dissected far further. Kent, as seen in Act I, is a loyal subject of Lear. His servitude extends beyond simply doing what the King asks, as we see him challenging Lear banishing Cordelia, and harboring his best interests in mind. Upon being banished, Kent still chooses to serve the Lear in disguise in order to carry out his duties but also to try and help support his status as his power remains in limbo between him and his daughters. Finally, we see the greatest extent of Kent’s loyalty at the end of the play when upon Lear’s death, Kent takes his own life in a noble fashion, exclaiming that his journey as a subject of Lear is far from over and that his master calls upon him in the afterlife.
Oswald on the other hand represents a different type of servitude which conjures a conflict between the two characters. While, similar to Kent, Oswald is the right hand man of the Kings eldest daughter Goneril his servitude revolves around the ideology that by obeying every command given, he will later be able to position himself in a higher power. This type of “servitude” so to speak is seen upon Oswald attempting to end Gloucesters life in Act IV in hopes of being recognized for his loyalty and valeince in doing so.
Understanding these two personas of a servant helps to better contextualize the reason for Kent and Oswald brawling it out during the second act. Oswald willingly chooses to deceive the king by carrying out Goneril’s will, attempting to deliver letters that would be used against the king in order to gain himself a promotion. Kent’s response to this is taking on Oswald in order to maintain his morality and loyalty to the king. In the end, despite his short-coming in Act I serving a ‘tude to the King, Kent can be understood as the definition of pure servitude, with no other motives or outside interests than to serve Lear throughout the story, while Oswald can be perceived as a yes-man to most of the characters in the play, while in reality he uses his servitude as a tool for subliminally gaining power.