Shakespeare's Characters: Kent and Edgar (King Lear)
From King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1911.
If the best grace and happiness of life consist, as this play makes us feel that they do, in a forgetting of self and a living for others, Kent and Edgar are those of Shakespeare's men whom one should most wish to resemble. Strikingly similar in virtues and situation, these two are notwithstanding widely different in character. Brothers in magnanimity and in misfortune; equally invincible in fidelity, the one to his king, the other to his father; both driven to disguise themselves, and in their disguise both serving where they stand condemned; Kent, too generous to control himself, is always
quick, fiery, and impetuous; Edgar, controlling himself even because of his generosity, is always calm, collected, and deliberate. For, if Edgar be the more judicious and prudent,
Kent is the more unselfish of the two: the former disguising himself for his own safety, and then turning his disguise into an opportunity of service; the latter disguising himself merely in order to serve, and then perilling his life in the same course whereby the other seeks to preserve it. Nor is Edgar so lost to himself and absorbed in others but that he can and does survive them; whereas Kent's life is so bound up with others, that their death plucks him after. Nevertheless it is hard saying whether one would rather be the subject or the author of Edgar's tale:
Whilst I was big in clamour, came there a man,
Who, having seen me in my worst estate,
Shunn'd my abhorr'd society ; but then, finding
Who 'twas that so endur'd, with his strong arms
He fasten'd on my neck, and bellow'd out
As he 'd burst heaven ; threw him on my father;
Told the most piteous tale of Lear and him
That ever ear receiv'd ; which in recounting
His grief grew puissant, and the strings of life
Began to crack. Twice then the trumpets sounded,
And there I left him tranc'd.
ALBANY. But who was this?
EDGAR. Kent, sir, the banish'd Kent; who in disguise
Follow'd his enemy king, and did him service
Improper for a slave. [V, iii, 208-221.]
It is rather curious to note how the characteristic traits of these two men are preserved even when they are acting most out of character; so that, to us who are in the secret of their course, they are themselves and not themselves at the same time. For example, in Kent's obstreperous railing at the Steward, and his saucy bluntness to Cornwall and Regan,
we have a strong relish of the same impulsive and outspoken boldness with which he beards the old king when the latter is storming out his paroxysm against Cordelia, and meets his
threats by daring him to the worst: "Do; kill thy physician, and the fee bestow upon the foul disease." Of course, in those transports of abusive speech and of reckless retort,
he is but affecting the bully as a part of his disguise; he wants to embroil Lear with his two daughters, and thereby draw the latter into a speedy disclosure of what he knows to
be in their hearts. His big, manly soul is still on fire at the wrong Lear has done to Cordelia, and he would fain hasten that repentance which he knows must sooner or later come; still it is plain enough to us that his tumultuous conduct is but an exaggerated outcome of his native disposition; or, in other words, that he is truly himself all the while, only a good deal more so; a hiding of his character in a sort of overdone caricature. So, too, the imitative limberness and versatility which
carry Edgar smoothly through so many abrupt shiftings of his masquerade are in perfect keeping with the cool considerateness which enables him to hold himself so firmly in hand
when he goes to assume the style of a wandering Bedlamite. He acts several widely different parts, but the same conscious self-mastery and the same high-souled rectitude of purpose, which form the backbone of his character, are apparent
in them all.
In Kent and Oswald we have one of those effective contrasts with which Shakespeare often deepens the harmony of his greater efforts. As Kent is the soul of goodness clothed in the assembled nobilities of manhood, Oswald is the very extract and embodiment of meanness.