Kent’s speech (I.i.161) in which he steps forward and openly protests Lear’s rash decisions represents some of Shakespeare’s most eloquent prose about loyalty, honesty and standing up for what’s right. Prior to this passage Kent is attempting to be gracious in his criticisms of Lear. When Lear asks him to be direct Kent shifts his tone, and does not hold back his opinion.
The bow is bent and drawn. Make from the shaft.
Let if fall rather, though the fork invade
The region of my heart.
Shakespeare continues an extended metaphor here. Lear asks Kent to be direct by getting out of the way of the “arrow” or the opinion he intends to express. By beginning with this Kent expresses his discontent in sharing Lear’s ignorance with him. He realizes the arrow must “fall” or the truth must be unleashed but saying it still hurts him greatly. There also seems to be another implied meaning in this exchange. Lear insists that Kent must get out of the way of the arrow, implying that Kent is shielding Lear from something he knows he does not want to hear. With close reading, we begin to understand the extent of Kent’s loyalty. It’s difficult for him to express his concerns to Lear because he wishes to protect him from his own ignorance. Kent decides that when Lear is mad or crazy he must disregard his manners. He continues:
What wouldst thou do, old man?
Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honor’s
When majesty falls to folly.
The tone and audience shift here, causing the actor or reader to imagine Kent raising his voice and confronting Lear for his foolishness. He began this passage speaking to himself but switches to Lear addressing him bluntly and rudely by calling him old man. Perhaps trying to help him realize how his power is diminished in age. From there Kent speaks his words of wisdom, advising Lear not to fall to flattery an foolishness. He compares two situations with a rhetorical question, hoping Lear will see his own error. He begs him to see that the binds of both his and his daughter’s duties will not be held if his power bows to flattery. The “dread” of duty is not so looming if Lear’s subjects recognize he is easily swayed by sugary words. He justifies his blunt words in the next line. It is written in the same form or syntax as the line before implying a parallel there. When power falls to flattery or folly, duty weakens and plainness is required to remedy the situation. Kent both speaks his mind and justifies speaking his mind in a play on words.
Kent continues, begging Lear to control his rash decisions and to save his state/kingdom in doing so. He affirms his intentions and his virtuous nature. Even though Lear has already warned him about criticizing his decision, he does so anyway, hoping that Lear will not destroy his own blessings. At Kent’s own risk he makes these observations out of loyalty and love to the person he serves. He is a model of good servitude. His wisdom continues onto another observation, where Shakespeare masterfully employs foreshadowing.
Answer my life my judgement,
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds
Reverb no hollowness
Kent continues by swearing on his life the words he is about to speak are true, reinforcing his intelligence and loyalty yet again. He begins his observation plainly, insisting that Cordelia does not love him less than his other daughters, but it is the final line of Kent’s speech that is most moving an thought-provoking. He draws up a metaphor, where a vessel or object like a vase represents a human being. His proverb implies a few things. Completely empty or “heartless” vessels make the loudest or most full noise, because there is nothing to interrupt their “reverb”. He is clearly referencing both Regan and Goneril, pointing out they have the loudest “reverb” or they proclaimed their love the loudest and most passionately. Following this interpretation we come to understand that Kent is implying Goneril and Regan can profess their love so exuberantly because they really have no love for their father at all. They are empty. The other portion of this metaphor implies Cordelia can not proclaim her love because her vessel or her heart is full. Because Cordelia truly loves her dad she can not flatter him with untrue or over dramatic proclamations of her feelings. Cordelia has no reverb and therefore she is full. Through this metaphor Kent shrewdly points out that Cordelia does not love him least, or even equal to her sisters. She loves him the most.
This passage reveals much about the themes of the play and the characters of Kent, Cordelia, Lear, Regan and Goneril. It establishes Kent’s unwavering loyalty, as he stands by his words until banishment. It recognizes Cordelia’s genuine love and brave stance as well as her sister’s contrasting low morals and fake feelings. Perhaps most importantly, it uses Kent’s wisdom to establish a crucial theme of the play: love can not be measured in flattery or words, it is measured in actions and what you hold in your heart. Failure to recognize this can be disastrous.