Ignoring his banishment, Kent had disguised himself as a working man and was waiting, now, in the yard outside the King’s quarters at the Duke of Albany’s palace. The King and his knights were returning from their hunt and entering the yard. If he could assume a different accent as well, and so change his voice, he may just be able to pull off the scheme he’d disguised himself for. Well now, Kent, he told himself, if you can serve the one who’s condemned you it may happen that your master, whom you love, will find that you’re a loyal servant.
Two knights were helping the King to dismount. He stood, breathless for a moment, then barked at a servant: ‘Don’t keep me waiting a jot for dinner. Go and get it ready!’
The servant ran off and Lear began walking slowly to the door. Kent got in his way, standing right in front of him. Lear stopped.
‘Well now! Who are you?’ he said.
‘A man, sir.’ Kent sounded like the working man he appeared to be.
‘What are you claiming? What do you want from us?’
‘I claim to be nothing other than I appear to be,’ said Kent. ‘To serve any man loyally who’ll put his trust in me, to love him who is honest, to converse with him who is wise and says little, to fight when I have no alternative, and to eat no fish.’
‘What are you?’
‘An honest-hearted fellow, and as poor as the king.’
Lear laughed. ‘If you are as poor as a subject as he is as a king, that’s quite poor. What do you want?’
‘Do you know me, my man?’
‘No, sir, but there’s something about you that makes me want to call you master.’
Lear nodded. ‘What services can you offer?’
‘I can keep your secrets, ride, run, ruin a good joke in telling it, and deliver a plain message bluntly. I’m good at those things that ordinary men are fit for: and my best quality is diligence.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Not so young, sir, as to love a woman for singing, nor so old as to dote on her for anything. I’m forty-eight.’
Lear motioned him aside. ‘Follow me: you can be my servant. If I like you no less after dinner I won’t let you go yet. Hey! Dinner! Dinner! Where’s my page? My fool?’ He snapped his fingers at the page, who had come running to him. ‘Go and get my fool.’
The table was set and the knights were standing behind their chairs. Lear made his way to the top of the table. The steward, Oswald, who had been supervising the servants, was walking towards the door. Lear whistled.
‘Hey, you! You, sirrah. Where’s my daughter?’ He grabbed Oswald’s sleeve.
Oswald looked down his arm at the king’s hand. ‘If you don’t mind,’ he said. He pulled himself free and continued walking towards the door.
Lear watched him, open-mouthed. Then, ‘What did the fellow just say?’ He indicated a knight. ‘Call the clodpole back. ‘
The knight hurried after Oswald.
‘Where’s my fool huh?, said Lear. ‘ I think the world’s asleep.’ The knight who had gone after Oswald came back. ‘Well?’ demanded Lear. ‘Where’s that mongrel?’
‘He says, my lord, your daughter is not well.’
Lear’s face was red. ‘Why didn’t the slave come back to me when I called him?’
‘Sir,: said the knight, ‘he answered me in the rudest manner that he wouldn’t.’
‘My lord,’ said the knight, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but in my opinion your Highness isn’t being treated with the same respectful ceremony you’re used to. There’s a distinct cooling off among the servants as well as in the duke himself and your daughter.’
‘Ha! Is that so?’
‘I beg you to excuse me, my lord, if I’m mistaken. My duty won’t allow me to be silent when I think your Highness is being wronged.’
Lear shook his head. ‘You’re only confirming my own observation. I’ve seen a hint of neglect lately. I’ve put it down to my own sensitivity rather than an actual intention to be discourteous. I’ll carry on observing. But where’s my fool? I haven’t seen him for two days.’
‘Since my young lady went to France, sir, the fool has been pining away,’ said the knight.
‘Enough of that,’ said Lear. ‘I’m very aware of it.’ He called to an attendant. ‘Go and tell my daughter I want to talk to her.’ He snapped his fingers at another attendant. ‘You! Go and bring my fool here.’
The attendants left, more slowly than usual. Oswald appeared in the doorway.
‘Oh, you, sir,’ called Lear.
Oswald looked at him with his eyebrows raised.
‘You,’ said Lear. ‘Come here, sir!’
Oswald strolled over and stood facing him, his arms folded.
‘Who am I, sir?’ said Lear.
‘My lady’s father,’ said Oswald.
‘My lady’s father!’ Rage welled up in Lear. ‘My lord’s knave! You whoreson dog! You slave! You mongrel!’
Oswald smiled. ‘I’m none of those things, my lord, if you don’t mind.’ He looked Lear straight in the eyes.
Lear advanced. ‘Are you bandying looks with me, you rascal?’ He struck the steward across the face with the back of his hand.
‘I won’t be struck, my lord,’ said Oswald.
Kent had been standing close to the king and he stretched out his foot and tripped Oswald up as he turned to go. ‘Or tripped either you unutterable oaf,’ he said, as Oswald fell to the floor.
‘I thank you, fellow,’ said Lear. ‘You can be my servant: I’ll look after you.’
‘Come on, sir, get up and go!’ said Kent. He took hold of Oswald’s wrist and pulled him to his feet. ‘I’ll show you what’s what! Off you go, off you go! If you want to be stretched out on your back again, stay. But go.’ Oswald stared at him. ‘Haven’t you got any sense?’ roared Kent. He raised his arm and Oswald took off. ‘That’s the way!’ Kent called after him.
‘Now, my friendly fellow,’ said Lear. ‘Thank you.’ He handed Kent a coin. ‘Here’s something for you.’
Lear’s fool, dressed in motley, was coming towards them. He had seen the whole thing.
‘Let me hire him too,’ he said. He took his jester’s cap off and offered it to Kent. ‘Here’s my coxcomb.’
‘Hello, my pretty knave,’ said Lear. ‘How are you?’
The fool ignored him. ‘Sir, you had better take my coxcomb,’ he told Kent.
‘Why? For taking the side of someone who’s out of favour. No, if you can’t go the way the wind is blowing you’ll catch a cold instead. So here: take my coxcomb.’ He indicated Lear with a movement of his head. ‘Why, this fellow has banished two of his daughters and unintentionally blessed the third. If you work for him you’ll need to wear my coxcomb. Hello Nuncle. I wish I had two coxcombs and two daughters.’
‘Why my boy?’ said Lear.
‘If I gave them everything I had I’d keep my coxcombs for myself. Here’s mine. Beg your daughters for another.’
Lear was only half joking when he responded: ‘Watch out, sirrah, the whip.’
‘The truth is a dog that’s sent to his kennel,’ said the fool. ‘He’s whipped. Whereas flattery, the mongrel bitch, is allowed to stand, stinking, in front of the fire.’
‘It’s unbearable,’ muttered Lear.
‘Sir, I’ll tell you something,’ said the fool.
‘Listen carefully, Nuncle:
Have more than you show,
Speak less than you know,
Lend less than you owe,
Ride more than you go,
Learn more than that you’re told,
Give less than you hold,
Give up drink and your whores
And stay more indoors,
And you will have more
Than two tens to a score.’
‘This is nothing, Fool,’ said Lear.
‘Then it’s like the worthless advice of an unpayed lawyer: you get it for nothing. Can’t you make use of nothing, Nuncle?’
‘Why no, boy. Nothing can be made out of nothing.’
The fool turned to Kent. ‘Please,’ he said. ‘Tell him. That’s how much his income amounts to. He won’t believe a fool.’
‘A bitter fool!’ exclaimed Lear.
‘Do you know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet one?’ said the fool.
‘No lad.’ Lear laughed indulgently. ‘You tell me.’
The fool bowed:
‘Whoever counselled thee
To give away your land
Come place him here by me
And you for him there stand:
The sweet and bitter fool
Will instantly appear,
The one in motley here,
The other standing there!’ He pointed at Lear.
‘Are you calling me a fool, boy?’ said Lear.
The fool nodded sadly. ‘You’ve given all your other titles away. You were born with that one.’
‘He’s not a complete fool, my lord,’ said Kent.
‘No, indeed,’ agreed the fool. ‘Lords and great men won’t let me be. If I had the monopoly on folly they would want their share of my profits. And ladies, too – they wouldn’t let me have all the folly for myself: they’d be snatching. Nuncle, give me an egg and I’ll give you two crowns.’
‘And what two crowns would they be?’ said Lear.
‘Well. After I’ve cut the egg in half and eaten the yolk, the two eggshells. When you chopped your crown in the middle and gave both halves away you carried your donkey over the mud on your back like in the saying. You had very little brain in your bald crown when you gave your golden one away. If I’m speaking like one with my title whip the man who discovers that.
Fools haven’t had it so bad in a year
Because wise men have turned foolish:
So they don’t know how their skills to wear
When wise men’s are so mulish.’
‘Since when have you been so full of songs, sirrah?’ said Lear.
‘I’ve become used to it, Nuncle, ever since you made your daughters your mothers: when you gave them a cane and pulled down your own trousers.
Then they for sudden joy did weep,
And I for sorrow sung,
That such a king should play bo-peep,
And go the fools among.
Please, Nuncle, employ a schoolmaster to teach your fool how to lie. I’d like to learn how to lie.’
‘If you lie, sirrah, we’ll have you whipped!’
‘I’m amazed that you and your daughters are related,’ said the fool. ‘They’ll have me whipped for speaking the truth – you’d have me whipped for lying, and sometimes I’m whipped for holding my tongue. I’d rather be anything than a fool. And yet I wouldn’t want to be you, Nuncle. You have pared your brain on both sides and left nothing in the middle. Here comes one of the parings,’ he said as Goneril approached.
‘Hello daughter,’ said Lear. ‘What’s that expression for? You’ve been frowning too much lately.’
The fool got between them. ‘You were a fortunate fellow when you didn’t have to care about her frowning. Now you’re a zero without a number. I’m superior to you now: I’m a fool: you are nothing.’
Goneril was giving the fool dark looks, her frown deepening.
‘Yes, indeed,’ he said. ‘I’ll hold my tongue: that’s what your face is telling me to do, although you’re not saying it.
He that keeps nor crust nor crumb
Weary of all, shall want some’
He pointed to Lear. ‘He’s a shelled pea-pod.’ Seeing Goneril’s face becoming even darker he placed his finger across his lips and ran and hid behind his master.
Goneril drew herself up and faced her father square on. ‘It’s not only, sir, your outspoken fool, but others among your insolent retinue, who are quarreling and bickering all the time, and breaking out into grotesque and intolerable rioting. Sir, I had thought that by drawing your attention to it we would be able to sort it out, but now I’m beginning to fear that, by what you yourself have been saying and doing, you are allowing this behaviour and even encouraging it. If that’s so you couldn’t expect to escape censure: nor would repercussions be slow in coming, in the interests us all. That would be embarrassing in other circumstances , but they would have to come.’
The fool peeped out from behind Lear. ‘Because you know, Nuncle:
The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long
That it had its head bit off by its young.
So out went the candle and we were in darkness.’
Lear glared at Goneril. ‘Are you our daughter?’ he said.
Goneril tossed her head. ‘I wish you would use your common sense, which I know you have, and that you’d abandon these temperamental moods which have begun to change your personality.’
The fool came out from behind Lear and crouched between father and daughter. ‘Perhaps a fool can tell when the cart draws the horse,’ he said. ‘Gee-up, Jug, I love you!’
Lear looked around desperately at the silent assembly. ‘Does anyone here know me?’ he said. ‘This isn’t Lear. Does Lear walk like this? Speak like this? Where are his eyes? Either he’s losing his mind or his senses are dulled. What? Awake? It can’t be. Is there anyone here who can tell me who I am?’
The fool put his hand up. ‘Lear’s shadow,’ he said.
‘I want to know,’ said Lear, ignoring the fool. ‘Because on the evidence of my sanity, knowledge and reason I would swear I had daughters.’
‘Who are determined to make an obedient father of you,’ said the fool.
Lear bowed his head to Goneril in mock courtesy. ‘Your name, fair gentlewoman?’ he said.
Goneril wasn’t amused, merely irritated. ‘These histrionics, sir, are very much like your other new antics,’ she said. ‘I would like you to understand me clearly. You are old and respected so you should be wise. You’re retaining a hundred knights and squires here: such disorderly men, so debauched and disrespectful, that this court resembles a rowdy inn because of their behaviour: their eating, drinking and whoring makes it more like a tavern or a brothel than a respectable palace. It’s shameful and requires an immediate solution. So allow yourself to be requested by one who will otherwise just take the thing she requests – to reduce the size of your following a little and keep, as your remaining following, men more suited to your age, who can behave better and make sure that you do too.’
Lear couldn’t contain himself. ‘Hell and devils!’ he exclaimed. ‘Saddle my horses! ‘Get my troop together!’ He turned back to Goneril. ‘You degenerate bastard!’ he said. ‘I won’t trouble you. I still have another daughter left.’
‘You hit my people,’ said Goneril, ‘and your disorderly rabble make servants of their betters.’
The Duke of Albany came in and walked towards them.
‘God help him who repents too late,’ Lear was saying. He saw Albany. ‘Oh sir,’ he said. ‘So you’re here, are you? Is this your doing? Tell me, sir?’ Tears streamed down his cheeks. ‘Prepare my horses,’ he instructed his servants. ‘Oh, ingratitude! You marble-hearted fiend! More hideous when you show yourself in a child than in any sea monster!’
Albany was confused and concerned. He took Lear’s arm. ‘Really, sir,’ he said, ‘calm down.’
Lear shook himself free. He turned on Goneril. ‘Horrible vulture, you’re lying! My followers are men of great distinction, who know their duty well and jealously guard their reputation. Oh how such a small defect showed itself so hugely in Cordelia! It wrenched my whole being apart as though it had been on a rack, drew all the love from my heart and replaced it with bitterness.’ He pounded his head with his fist. ‘Oh Lear, Lear, Lear! Beat at this gate that let your folly in and your judgment out.’ He turned and faced the watching knights. ‘Go, go, my people.’
Albany put his hand up to stop them as they began to leave. ‘My lord,’ he said, ‘I am as innocent as I am ignorant of what has upset you.’
‘That may be true, my lord,’ said Lear. He turned back to Goneril. ‘Hear, Nature, hear!’ he exclaimed. ‘Dear goddess, hear! Change you mind if you had intended to make this creature fruitful. Make her sterile! Dry up her womb and never let a baby spring from her hateful body to honour her. If she must spawn, make her child malicious so that it will live to be a nasty and cruel torment to her. Let it stamp wrinkles in her young brow, cut channels in her cheeks with constant tears and turn all her maternal concern and care into mockery and contempt, so that she may feel how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child! Let’s go!’ he called to his followers as he rushed out of the room, tears flowing profusely.
‘Now, by the gods we worship,’ said Albany, ‘what started this?’
‘Don’t bother yourself to find out about it,’ said Goneril. ‘Just let his old age follow the course that dotage sets.’
Lear stormed in again. ‘What?’ he shouted. ‘Fifty of my followers at a stroke! Within a fortnight!’
‘What do you mean, sir?’ said Albany.
Not taking his eyes of Goneril he said: ‘I’ll tell you. Life and death, I’m ashamed that you have the power to shake my manly dignity like this, as if these hot tears that burst from me could make you worthy of causing them. Storms and fogs upon you! May the raw wounds of a father’s curse pierce all your senses! Foolish old eyes, if you don’t stop this weeping I’ll pluck you out and cast you with all those tears into the mud. Has it come to this? Ha! So be it. I have another daughter who, I am sure, is kind and comforting. When she hears about this she’ll scratch your wolfish face with her nails. You’ll find that I’ll resume the role that you think I’ve cast off forever!’ He staggered out again.
‘Did you hear that?’ said Goneril.
‘For all the great love I have for you, Goneril, I can’t take your side…’ began Albany.
‘Stop,’ interrupted Goneril. ‘Oswald! Come here! You, sir,’ she said to the fool, ‘more villain than fool, get going, after your master.’
The fool pretended to be terrified. ‘Nuncle Lear! Nuncle Lear! Wait. Take the fool with you!
A fox, when one has caught her,
And such a daughter,
Should surely go for slaughter,
If my cap would buy a halter.
So the Fool chases after…’
He ran off after Lear.
‘This man has been well advised,’ said Goneril. ‘A hundred knights! What a good idea, and how safe, to let him keep a hundred armed knights! Oh yes, so that on every dream, each rumour, every fantasy, each complaint: for anything he doesn’t like, he can support his senility with their power and put our lives in danger. Oswald! I say!’
‘Well you may be worrying about nothing,’ said Albany.
‘Safer not to be too trusting,’ she said. ‘I prefer to eliminate the dangers that concern me than live continually in their shadow. I know him well. I’ve written to my sister, telling her what he said. If she supports him and his hundred knights after I’ve explained the unsuitability … Oh, Oswald. Have you written that letter to my sister?’
‘Take some of your staff and ride to her. Give her a full account of my special fear. Add some reasons of your own to make it more convincing. Go on now, and come back as fast as you can.’
When he had gone she turned back to her unconvinced husband. ‘No, no, my lord,’ she said. ‘This milky attitude and behaviour of yours, although I don’t condemn it, yet, – forgive me – you are much more criticized for your naïvety than praised for your dangerous tolerance.’
‘I don’t know to what extent you’re right,’ he said. ‘Sometimes, when we try to make things better we make them worse.’
She shrugged. ‘Alright, then…’
‘Well,’ he said. ‘We’ll see how it turns out.’