The setting is just outside Gloucester's castle. Kent and Oswald arrive separately to deliver letters to Regan. Oswald does not immediately recognize Kent. The steward is confused when Kent denounces him and condemns his lack of integrity. When Oswald denies knowing him, Kent draws his sword and begins to beat the steward.
Oswald's cries for help draw the attention of the castle's occupants, who come to his rescue. In answer to Cornwall's query about the encounter, Kent attacks Oswald's personality, his lack of honesty, and even his appearance. Cornwall defends Oswald and orders that Kent be placed in stocks. Gloucester intervenes, reminding Regan and Cornwall that the king will consider their action against his messenger as an indignity, but Regan suggests that insulting Goneril's steward is a more grievous offense. All exit but Gloucester, who apologizes to Kent for his mistreatment. When he is left alone, Kent reads a letter from Cordelia, which promises that she will somehow intervene on her father's behalf.
Initially, Oswald appears to be the wronged party, while Kent is a rude thug, just looking to start a fight. This misconception illustrates the purpose of Kent's presence in Act I, where the audience is permitted to view the real Kent, honest and loyal. In both the play's opening scene and later, in his defense of Cordelia, Kent defines himself with integrity; thus, the audience recognizes that Kent's abusive behavior has a meaning beyond the obvious. In reality, Kent is a loyal lord to his king, but in this instance, it is important that he remain in disguise. However, Kent knows that Oswald is carrying letters that will be used against the king, and whether in disguise or not, Kent will not lie. Thus, Kent's attack on Oswald is a reaction to the steward's dishonesty and to his purpose in fulfilling Goneril's orders. Oswald's character is evil, and Kent's reaction, while seemingly unwarranted, is in keeping with his own highly developed sense of morality.
Oswald, on the other hand, is Goneril's toady, and he is willingly rude to the king. Accordingly, the audience knows that, while appearing pleasant enough, the steward is a henchman without honor. Oswald adds to this negative perception when he fails to defend himself against Kent's attack. When his cries for help attract Cornwall, Oswald then lies that he has spared his attacker's life because Kent is an old man. All of these events portray Oswald as weak and dishonest. Oswald is, as Kent suggests, a parasite who thrives off Goneril's evil machinations and who makes her deceit easier to maintain.
The confrontation between Kent and Cornwall gives the audience a clearer idea of Cornwall's true character. Cornwall's mistrust of Kent's honest speech assumes that, by saying what he means, Kent must be lying. This response to Kent's plain and truthful declarations indicates that Cornwall, who uses artifice as a substitute for honesty in his own speech, cannot recognize truth when he hears it. Cornwall assumes that, because he is willing to lie and often does so, that all other men must do the same.
Placing Kent in the stocks is a serious affront to the king, akin to administering the same punishment to the king himself. This blatant act of treason perfectly illustrates how Lear's control over his subjects is crumbling. Traditionally, the king's emissary is the king in loco, and is accorded every respect and honor given the king, were he present. So, Kent must be treated as the king, since when the king is not present, his emissary represents him and deserves the same treatment that Lear would receive. Placing Kent in the stocks is the same as placing Lear in the stocks. This action is a serious insult to the king.
In this instance, Kent's public humiliation also demeans and insults the king. The imprisonment is an offense against nature, because the king should be accorded the respect of his subjects, just as the father is to be accorded the respect of his children, and just as the aged should be afforded the respect of the younger members of society. Cornwall's actions reflect the upheaval occurring in nature, where the old are no longer revered and the king is no longer honored. Lear is, indeed, in grave danger from Cornwall.
The scene ends with Kent reading a letter from Cordelia, but how Cordelia has learned of Lear's difficulty in this short span of time is not evident. The audience is expected to simply accept the incongruity of the letter's existence.
cullionly low, contemptible.
carbonado to cut gashes in; slash; hack.
flesh to begin; activate.
jakes an outdoor toilet; privy.