Lear: By Jupiter, I swear no!
Kent: By Juno, I swear ay.
In The Tragedy of King Lear, particularly in the first half of the play, Lear continually swears to the gods. He invokes them for mercies and begs them for destruction; he binds both his oaths and his curses with their names. The older characters—Lear and Gloucester—tend view their world as strictly within the moral framework of the pagan religion. As Lear expresses it, the central core of his religion lies in the idea of earthly justice. In II.4.14-15, Lear expresses his disbelief that Regan and Albany would have put the disguised Kent, his messenger, in stocks. He at first attempts to deny the rather obvious fact in front of him, objecting “No” twice before swearing it. By the time Lear invokes the king of the pagan gods, his refusal to believe has become willful and almost absurd. Kent replies, not without sarcasm, by affixing the name of the queen of the gods to a contradictory statement. The formula is turned into nonsense by its repetition. In contradicting Lear’s oath as well as the assertion with which it is coupled, Kent is subtly challenging Lear’s conception of the universe as controlled by just gods. He is also and perhaps more importantly, challenging Lear’s relationship with the gods. It is Kent who most lucidly and repeatedly opposes the ideas put forth by Lear; his actions as well as his statements undermine Lear’s hypotheses about divine order. Lear does not find his foil in youth but in middle age; not in the opposite excess of his own—Edmund’s calculation, say—but in Kent’s comparative moderation. Likewise the viable alternative to his relationship to divine justice is not shown by Edmund with his ...
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...wo of them as “God’s spies” (Lear, V.3.17). This is the first time that Lear refers to God rather than a god or gods. In this metaphor, he and Cordelia are God’s employees and dependents rather than a necessary part of a natural order. He does not form his divine reference as an oath; he neither commands nor supplicates. It is a sweet vision and a sharp contrast to Lear’s earlier invocations of the gods. Were there some divine preceptor bent on teaching Lear an earthly lesson, he could safely say that it was learnt. But the play, of course, continues. What is important, finally, is not that Lear learns, but that we the audience learn. One of the most important aspects of this learning is anticipated by Kent, who first points out that any invocation of Jupiter can be countered by an opposite invocation of Juno to the same effect, which is to say none at all.
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