I’m blogging in defense of Oswald, whom I consider to be the most undervalued, underrated, ignored, misrepresented character in the entire play. Goneril, Regan, Edmund — they’re rightfully condemned by readers and audiences. Sure, in some adaptations they’re more human or understandable than others, but they are undeniably the villains of the play. For some reason, though, Oswald is always lumped in with them. And I want to correct that once and for all.
I like to think of Oswald as Goneril’s Kent; he’s just as unwaveringly loyal as Lear’s servant, just as devoted to servitude and just as in love with his employer. He just happens to be employed by the “bad guy.” In another life, Oswald could just as easily been serving the King or Cordelia. His only fault I can find, the only one supported by the text any way, is cowardice; in Act II Scene II, he runs away from Kent’s challenge, screaming “Help, ho! murder! help!” And when Cornwall, Regan and Gloucester come to his rescue, he puts on a facade of heroism, claiming that “This ancient ruffian, sir, whose life I have spared at suit of his gray beard” attacked him without provocation. Oswald was exaggerating the life sparing, certainly, but he wasn’t lying when he accused Kent of attacking him without reason. Kent’s argument for attacking Oswald? “His countenance likes me not.”
In Act I Scene IV, Kent trips Oswald to win the King’s favors, calling the undeserving servant a “base football player.” Here, Kent is acting like a playground bully toward Oswald, who was simply following his mistress’ orders by ignoring the King. The only differences between Kent and Oswald is luck and physical strength; in terms of loyalty, the trait by which servitude is judged, Oswald is equally, if not more devoted to his employer.
So I’d like to briefly examine where Oswald came from. As detailed in my Sources page, King Lear was, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, an adaptation. It wasn’t a completely original story about a king and his three daughters; this was a story that audiences were very familiar with, especially with the anonymous 1605 play, The True Chronicle of King Leir. There wasn’t an Oswald in this version of the story, but there was someone whom many have considered to be a precursor to Shakespeare’s character. His name was Skalliger.
Skalliger disappears from the play after a while, but he’s incredibly important in the first few scenes. In fact, it’s he who plants the love test idea in Lear’s head. Then, establishing himself as a selfish, corrupt antagonist, he warns Goneril and Regan of the plan, giving them the chance to prepare their speeches of love. Later, Goneril complains to her new servant about her father’s unmannerliness. Skalliger advises her to cut the King’s train in half; Goneril takes his advice even further and decides to dissolve her father’s train entirely. In his final lines, Skalliger displays a moment of regret, a recognition of his mistakes:
“Go, viperous woman, shame to all thy sex:
The heavens, no doubt, will punish thee for this:
And me a villain, that to curry favor, … [9.40]
Have given the daughter counsel ‘gainst the father.
But us the world doth this experience give,
That he that cannot flatter, cannot live. “
And then, in a rather Fool-like fashion, Skalliger disappears from the play. There’s a lot to consider when comparing the two versions of Lear (check out a great blog post recommended to me by our very own Oswald actor, a comparison of Skalliger, Oswald and the Fool) but here’s what I take away from all of it: no matter which version you prefer, this character is not just some slimy, simpering brown-noser. He, like every other character in the play, is more complex than that. Depending on an actor’s interpretation, he can be any or all of the following: Cruel, cowardly, devoted, lustful, selfish, selfless, regretful, uncaring, stupid, silly. After all, the actor has to explain Oswald’s strange, dying moments:
Oswald: Slave, thou hast slain me: villain, take my purse:/ If ever thou wilt thrive, bury my body; And give the letters which thou find’st about me/ To Edmund earl of Gloucester; seek him out/ Upon the British party: O, untimely death!
Where does this moment of apparent morality come from? Why does he decide to, in his last breaths, hand Poor Tom his letters? In the end, I think Edgar’s response sums up Oswald just perfectly:
Edgar: I know thee well: a serviceable villain;/ As duteous to the vices of thy mistress/ As badness would desire.
Oswald brings up a whole crop of questions about servitude, loyalty, and what makes a person “good.”