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>

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.

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 – 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.


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.


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’.


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