King Lear – Highlight Reel II

Act II

One of my favorite parts.  Kent has been banished by Lear but remains loyal, takes up a disguise and stays in England.  He comes across Oswald (a steward of Goneril’s that treated Lear poorly) and pummels him verbally and physically.

On to the  insults:
Oswald: What dost thou use me for? I know thee not.
Kent: A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that would be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of  a knave, beggar, coward, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; one of whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deny’st the least syllable of thy addition.

These insults can be sub-divided into three main thrusts:

  1. You ugly because you poor.
  2. You ugly because you an affected toady.
  3. You ugly because <standard, timeless insults>

1. YOU POOR
Obviously, for a noble like Kent, what could be more condemning than being unlanded nongentry?

Eater of Broken Meats
Broken meats were the cast offs after the good bits have been taken up, which generally, superserviceable whoresons could not afford.  Wonder if there were broken meat stalls?  Wrens’ livers, etc etc.  So much of Shakespeare begs for a Python interpretation.

Three-suited
Folger glossary tells me that servants were given three suits a year, hence the three-suited slam.  Servitude is another strike against Oswald. He is ‘not-one-of-us’.  Of course, Kent can’t reveal that he’s one of the us that Oswald’s not one of.

Worsted-stocking
Worsted – i.e. he wears wool as opposed to the more elegant silk, another strike against the working man.  And a quick lookup in the OED tells me ‘worsted’ was also used in Shakespeare’s time to mean defeated.  Picture sad, sagging wool stockings.

One-trunk inheriting slave
The glossary says this means all he possesses could fit in one trunk.  I think this cuts a little deeper, indicating that all his parents could bequeath fit in a trunk.  Imagine, during the time of primogeniture what a heated subject inheritance must have been . He’s saying not only does Oswald have nothing he was left nothing… There’s probably a whole ‘yo mamma’ element here (and of course ‘yo papa’ element).

In Shakespeare’s will he infamously left Anne Hathaway his ‘second-best bed’.  I think the man who was concerned enough about status to buy himself a noble title, very likely thought about inheritance, and the implication behind what was left to heirs.

2. YOU AN AFFECTED TOADY

Proud, superserviceable, glass-gazing, finical rogue

Superserviceable meaning way too solicitous, and finical meaning – I like this OED description: ‘over-scrupulously finished’ – these words do a great job of conjuring up a smarmily obsequious servant, who devotes off hours to preening.  Oily is the word I keep thinking of, if not by sight by nature.

3. YOU  <STANDARD, TIMELESS INSULT>

coward, knave, son of a bitch, lily-livered, whoreson, hundred-pound etc

While maybe not as fun as ‘finical rogue’ there’s no denying the impact of a classic.  Then again, lily-livered, (which I tend to associate more with John Wayne than Shakespeare), was not a classic in Shakespeare’s time.  The OED attributes its first use in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’.   Instant classic, then.

Had to investigate – why ‘liver’?  Well, here’s why: the liver was considered the epicenter of passions and love – so a liver drained of blood – would indicate someone who was all around passive and milquetoast, and well, bloodless.  As a pretty gruesome aside, it’s not hard to imagine why they would think so, the liver has that deep red color, full of blood – if I didn’t know much about anatomy, that’s where I’d think the drama was happening.

And btw ‘bitch’ would have more of a connotation of a loose, lascivious woman, not the domineering, bossy connotation it has today.  So just expanding on the whoreson theme, in case anything was left unclear.

Okay, ‘knave’ may not qualify as timeless, but it was a classic in its day, and it’s surprising how many of these have a place in our culture, or something very close to it does – like that hundred-pound reference. ’98 pound weakling’ was used to sell body-building equipment back in the not-so-long-ago.  Body issues will always provide an easy target.

Anyway, after the onslaught,  Regan and Cornwall swoop in, stop Kent and demand to know Oswald’s getting such a dedicated thrashing.  Kent basically just shrugs and says: ‘eh, I don’t like his face’.

King Lear – Highlight Reel I

Okay, so as you may or may not know, I’m on a quest to read all of Shakespeare’s plays.  It’s a goal years in the avoiding (slow reading speed + 16th century English = procrasti…….nation.) But over the last few years have read the histories (recommend King John, played for farce with an imagined cast of the Pythons in drag), and now am going back and forth between comedy and tragedy.

I only knew the sketchiest of details about King Lear.  He howls at the weather.  He does Cordelia wrong.  It’s a tragedy.  But had never read it or seen the play, and so up to the last page was remaining hopeful, thinking ‘hey, this might not end so ba— oh.’

I remember a teacher discussing the symbolism in Lear.  The once powerful king relinquishing control and shortly after his sanity –  echoing aging man’s struggle with accepting mortality, and the loss of control (or at least conceding it was illusory to begin with).  And so out onto the rainswept moors they go to rail against fate and dwindling stamina and sodium restrictions.

But I confess I’m not much into symbolism – it might reach the level of ‘hey, that’s nifty’ excitement. The real joy for me is inferring what daily life was like from the text.   And the language.  The lost word, or the familiar word in a strange setting.  The visceral hit of a phrase.   Often in Shakespeare a line will grab me by the collar long before I’ve worked out the meaning.

So that’s what I’m going to do here, go over the phrases that stopped me in my tracks, and the random thoughts attached to them.  Because I have to think someone enjoys Shakespeare in the same, not-terribly-professorial way I do.  And more selfishly, it would be nice to remember what I’ve read.  The histories have already dissolved into a blur of contested reigns, swordfights, and gauntlets thrown.

ACT 1. Sc 1
… this knave came somewhat saucily into the world before he was sent for
Gloucester somewhat saucily introduces his illegitimate son.

ACT 1. Sc 2
Upon the gad
Meaning – to do something on impulse.  e.g. ‘I banished Kent upon the gad.  For his countenance pleased me not.’  A gad is a goad or spur –  nice visual metaphor.  This phrase sounded almost modern – subsititue ‘upon’ with ‘on’ and wouldn’t surprise me to overhear it on a London street.

ACT 1. Sc 5
If she must teem
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child
Wedding toast.   I kid, I kid…  Btw – the target of Lear’s vehemence is Goneril  – is that not a great name for a villainess?  Goneril.  Not only could the ‘Gon’ go in a completely different direction, the word is so flat – it has absolutely no lyrical quality.  Not like ‘Cordelia’.  Nice.

Like all good Shakespearean smack-downs, it provides embedded mini-insults.  Especially like ‘disnatured torment’.

ACT 1. Sc 5
Kibes
Explained in notes as ‘chilblains, sores resulting from exposure to cold’.  Really?  As in frostbite?  Very happy to live in a time where this occurs so rarely the words have left the vernacular.

Alrighty, onto Act 2 next time, when Kent lets loose with what has to be Shakespeare’s longest list of insults, including:  ‘an eater of broken meats’.

Oh no he di’int.

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