Oswald — the hinge on which the action turns

Enter Goneril and her steward Oswald

Did my father strike my gentleman for chiding of his fool?
Ay, madam.
"Ay" is the hinge or pivot point of the play. In most plays there is a major point where the action turns direction and one might assume that King Lear also hinges on a major point. But that is not so. It hinges on a triviality completely unrelated to the big issues.

Prior to Oswald saying "Ay", Goneril had done nothing more than look after Lear in accordance with what he had required of her when he gave her her realm. In other words, she had been passive and unconcerned about Lear. Indeed, so unconcerned that when told Lear had struck her gentleman she had doubts and sort Oswald to confirm or deny. Only after Oswald's "Ay" does she becomes active.
"Ay" is the first word Oswald utters in the play. Is it the truth or is it a lie? At this stage, we know nothing about Oswald. He might be the most honest person you could ever wish to meet, or he might be an out an out liar. We ought not assume either way but let future events and an analysis of past events guide us in judging his veracity. Goneril doesn't bother with this approach but automatically assumes Oswald is telling the truth. Sad to say, some of the world's greatest authors, academics and scholars who have written articles, study notes and in-depth analyses have, without exception and with no jutification, whatsoever, assumed Oswald spoke the truth. No surprise, then, that they agree with Goneril's negative comments about Lear and his knights and, by and large, justify her actions.


Oswald's plan to get rid of Lear

Because of the presence of Lear and his knights, Oswald and his staff are overworked. They have to prepare an EXTRA 10,000 meals for the month. And then there all the other hundreds of things they have to do to look after the knights.Some members of Oswald's staff are likely to have complained to him and asked him to do something about it.

Note: Oswald's reason is understandable. Anyone may wish to get rid of an unwelcome guest. Goneril knows nothing about Oswald's reasons and so her eaction have nothing to do with him. Her response and actions result from her distorted view of old people, particularly Lear, and what she thinks they will do in their dotage. She thinks Lear is doing it, though she has not seen it or questioned it - she just thinks it has happenned - unfortunately, the writers of study notes are caught in the same warped beliefs. A little checking on their parts would reveal the error of this thinking.

He comes up with a plan designed to provoke Goneril into expelling Lear. The plan works. But it did things far beyond Oswald's intention. It was the catalyst that caused Goneril to attack Lear and setin motion all the action of the play.


work in progress

So what does he do and what is the upshot? Oswald, as Goneril steward, runs her household and is in charge of all the servants. He doesn't want Lear and his knights coming back every second month Oswald doesn't want Lear and his 100 knights to be coming along every second month. and loading him down with the responsibility of looking after them and he and his staff having to do a hell of a lot more work. He wants to get rid of them permanently. What does he do to solve this problem? What can he do? He needs to invent lies and distortions about them and put it to Goneril. He makes up a lie that Lear and his knights are causing unbelievable trouble.

They are good men and don't do any harm whatsoever. They were Lear's top administrators and, likely, Goneril already knows some of them and knows their quality. If they stay in her Duchy every second month, and get to know the place, they might offer advice that she would find beneficial, possibly resulting in Oswald being displaced as Goneril's right-hand man. To avoid that possibility, Oswald needs to come up with a plan that will cause Goneril to get rid of them once and for all.

He has a pretty good idea as to how she is likely to react, but he still needs to be careful and clever in what he puts to her.

He thinks up a plan to put them in a bad light. He intends to accuse them of riotous behaviour, drunkenness, complaining about the food, its cooking and its serving and making intolerable and excessive demands on his staff, and highly suggestive remarks to the women. That they are abusive, foul-mouthed and threatening and, as some of them wear swords, the staff are fearful for their lives. One key member of the staff chided the King's fool for a sarcastic remark, whereupon the King struck the gentlemen.

He need only tell his staff about the extra work Lear and his knights are heaping on them now into the future, month after month, for some of them to also want to be permanently rid of the knights. There are bound to be some of his staff prepared to lie to Goneril in the hope of gaining this end. He would have little difficulty in finding members of his staff willing to go to Goneril and pass on this lie.

Oswald plans to use them, as a deputation, to put his lies to Goneril. Goneril will be shocked, and immediately wish to discuss the matter with Oswald. He would realise that she might wish to go to her servants and sympathise with them, ask questions, and find out exactly what's been happening. The danger to Oswald is that the honest members of his staff might tell her the truth - that nothing has happened and that Lear's men are absolute gentleman of the highest moral quality and no problem.

Oswald must forestall Goneril speaking to his honest staff members, but how? He does it by timing. He knows that Lear and his knights return from hunting late in the day. He puts a lookout on the battlement to look for Lear's approach and when he sights Lear, is to signal Oswald, who is waiting for this moment before sending his deputation to speak to Goneril.

He is so careful in the timing of the deputation to her, that it all happens very quickly. They tell their tale, and Goneril has it instantly confirmed by Oswald who is waiting at her door. Goneril will be shocked, and might wish to go to her servants and sympathise with them, ask questions, and find out exactly what has been happening. Oswald had foreseen the possibility that honest members of his staff might tell her the truth - nothing has happened and Lear's knights are of the highest moral quality. At that very moment, Lear arrives. There is no time for Goneril to speak to the rest of her servants. It goes off exactly as Oswald had planned.

(If she had had time to think about it, she might ask when did the striking occur, did Oswald see it happen, why has she heard about from a third party and not from him, given that he has seen her several times each day and could come to her at any time with such problems? If he had been pinned down in this fashion, he could got out of it by saying he didn't actually witness the event but took it on board, checked it out, and then thought it best to let the victims tell her their story.

Oswald's plan ans its outcome

Did my father strike my gentleman for chiding of his fool?
Ay, madam.
By day and night he wrongs me; every hour
He flashes into one gross crime or other,
That sets us all at odds: I'll not endure it:
If you come slack of former services,
You shall do well; the fault of it I'll answer.
He's coming, madam; I hear him.
Horns within

Almost simultaneously, this conversation takes place.

My lord, I know not what the matter is; but, to my judgment,
your highness is not entertained with that ceremonious
affection as you were wont; there's a great abatement of
kindness appears as well in the general dependants as in
the duke himself also and your daughter.
Ha! sayest thou so?
I beseech you, pardon me, my lord, if I be mistaken for my
duty cannot be silent when I think your highness wronged.
Thou but rememberest me of mine own conception: I have
perceived a most faint neglect of late; which I have rather
blamed as mine own jealous curiosity than as a very pretence
and purpose of unkindness: I will look further into 't.
But where's my fool? I have not seen him this two days.
Since my young lady's going into France, sir, the fool hath
much pined away.
No more of that; I have noted it well.
To focus on the salient points here are very abbreviated versions of the previous two conversations:

Firstly Goneril's side:
Goneril did not see the alleged striking but has heard about it days later. But why didn't she hear about it from Oswald at the time? He is supposed to know her mind, so why didn't he tell her about it when it happened? It is beyond belief that he would think it of no consequence considering the importance that she places on it. Why doesn't Goneril ask Oswald to explain why he failed to tell her of this extremely important event that she finds so damning of Lear?

And when did the alleged striking take place? We will see shortly that it would have had to occur at least two days ago, that is, assuming it actually happened! Oswald and Goneril would have talked together on several occasions over the last few days, so why didn't he tell her about it two days ago, or yesterday, or earlier today? Yet she has to come to him about it. Was he ever going to tell her? It seems that Oswald has found no recent complaints against Lear or his knights or he would surely have told her of the striking at the same time, it being by far the most important black mark to bring against Lear. It seems that nothing has actually happened. Goneril's 'By day and night he wrongs me' appears to be groundless and her 'every hour he flashes into one gross crime or other' seems ridiculous but shows her irrational train of thought and her determination to degrade her father.

Note that it is while Goneril and Oswald are talking together that Lear returns from a day's hunting. One of the first things Lear says is that he has not seen his Fool for two days which places the alleged striking at least two days back from the present. Note also that this is said within moments of Oswald telling Goneril that the striking event did occur, or rather, confirming what someone else has told her. The striking episode smacks of fabrication aimed at putting Lear and his knights in a bad light.

Now Lear's side:
When we examine Lear's side of the story, we find that he has not seem his Fool for two days. The alleged striking, therefore, would have had to occur at least two days back. Now consider the Knight's words about 'a great abatement of kindness' and Lear's response. Both express sensitivity to a changed attitude toward them by Goneril's household. If Lear had really struck Goneril's gentleman and if his knights had really been riotous consider what Lear might have said in response to his Knight's remark. Surely it would have gone something like this: "I am amazed that you draw my attention to a great abatement of kindness. Isn't it to be expected? What, with you fellows kicking up a shindig day and night, and not forgetting that a few days ago I struck Goneril's clotpoll and nearly kicked him to death." In fact, Lear says nothing like this, but only says that he will make inquiries into the cause of neglect is proof enough that Lear did not strike Goneril's servant, nor that his knights are riotous.

Now consider how the 'great abatement of kindness in the general dependents' may have come about. From the Knight's and Lear's remarks, it would seem to have started a few days ago. But who gave the orders a few days ago for this change in attitude? The orders did not come from Goneril! It is only just NOW that she orders Oswald to neglect Lear by not providing 'former services.'

If you come slack of former services,
You shall do well; the fault of it I'll answer.
Put on what weary negligence you please,
You and your fellows; I'll have it come to question:
If he dislike it, let him to our sister,
....... Remember what I tell you.
Well, madam.
And let his knights have colder looks among you;
What grows of it, no matter; advise your fellows so:
I would breed from hence occasions, and I shall,
That I may speak: I'll write straight to my sister,
To hold my very course.

There seems little doubt that Oswald has been running his own anti-Lear campaign, without any instruction from Goneril. Such a campaign would not be as overtly hostile as that now ordered by Goneril. Oswald, with his lackeys as accomplices, may have invented the 'striking' story to get Goneril's reaction. Goneril is so obsessed with degrading Lear that she does not think rationally. Goneril's 'By day and night he wrongs me', therefore, is not only groundless, but utterly ridiculous. Oswald is lying, plain and simple, but in doing so is able to influence Goneril by telling her what he knows she wants to hear. It has the desired effect because only a little later she makes these outbursts.

GONERIL [to Lear]
You strike my people;
other of your insolent retinue
. . . . . Here do you keep a hundred knights and squires;
Men so disorder'd, so debosh'd and bold,
. . . . . your disorder'd rabble
My train are men of choice and rarest parts,
That all particulars of duty know,

We come to the issue of the riotous knights. But are they riotous? Where is the least evidence of riotous or insolent behaviour? There is none! We can only take note of what people say, and by comparing pro and con, form a reasoned opinion. According to Goneril they are riotous but Lear says they are not. Why is Goneril to be believed in preference to Lear, when we know how she reacts to hearsay and in this case has, more than likely, been lied to by Oswald and his underlings? Goneril responds with precipitate action.

Even when no danger exists, she fears what she imagines. She even admits that she does! Lear's followers are men of choice and rarest parts, only a few are soldiers, the rest being gentlemen and squires. Goneril refuses to listen to Albany who, though a soldier himself, has noticed nothing untoward.

a hundred knights!
'Tis politic and safe to let him keep
At point a hundred knights
Well, you may fear too far.
Safer than trust too far:
Let me still take away the harms I fear,
Not fear still to be taken:

Oswald serves Goneril with utter loyalty through thick and thin, and becomes her right-hand man. By doing her every bidding, she trusts him without question. Why does Oswald serve Goneril with such devotion? But whose interest does he really serve? Goneril's or Oswald's?

..... I know you are of her bosom.
I, madam?
I speak in understanding; you are; I know't:

Note: Oswald's reason is understandable. Anyone my wish to get rid of unwelcome guest. Goneril knows nothing about Oswald's reasons and so her eaction have nothing to do with him. Her response and actions result from her distorted view of old people, particularly Lear, and what she thinks they will do in their dotage. She thinks Lear is doing it, though she has not seen it or questioned it - she just thinks it has happenned - unfortunately, the writers of study notes are caught in the same warped beliefs. A little checking on their parts would reveal the error of this thinking.


Goneril says she will write to Regan to tell her about what has happened. In fact, she doesn't write that letter but gets Oswald to write it. She then orders Oswald to deliver the letter to Regan and also support her case against Lear by relating his version of what happened. Just moments before Oswald can hand Regan the letter, he is abused and threatened by Kent. Cornwall asks Oswald the reason for Kent's attack. The account he gives Cornwall and Regan is a pack of lies.

What was the offence you gave him?
I never gave him any:
It pleased the king his master very late
To strike at me, upon his misconstruction;
When he, conjunct and flattering his displeasure,
Tripp'd me behind; being down, insulted, rail'd,
And put upon him such a deal of man,
That worthied him, got praises of the king
For him attempting who was self-subdued;
Unfortunately, Oswald's lies are believed by Cornwall and Regan, particularly when they note what he has just said is supported by what they have read in Goneril's letter. This is hardly surprising given that Goneril's letter was written by Oswald. Hardly would his verbal story conflict with what he had written , therefore, the letter also contains lies. The effect of Oswald's lies result in Regan and Cornwall acquiring a negative opinion of Lear and his knights.

Shortly after Oswald's arrival at Gloucester's castle in walks Goneril. She talks with Regan and Cornwall and so confirms everything Oswald has said and everything he wrote in the letter. We were never told what Oswald said to Goneril earlier at her palace following his confrontation with Lear but clearly it must have been the same story as the one he has just given Regan and Cornwall. In other words, he has told the same lies to all three of them.

Again and again, in articles and study notes we read of Oswald's loyalty to Goneril. The authors of these texts, despite their hatred of him for the detested villain that he obviously is, often grudgingly praise him for his loyalty to her. But now that it has been shown that he has deliberately lied to her the question arises as to whether he is as loyal to her as everyone thinks. Though he lies to Goneril, it ought not be assumed that his lies have a harmful or negative effect on her. Quite the contrary, his lies might speed her progress but, at the same time, speed his progress as her apparently faithful servant. Realise that every advancement that Goneril achieves automatically advances Oswald. So don't think that he does things to help her. His object, first and foremost, is to help himself but if anything he does also happens to help Goneril it only adds to his gain. The question arises, "Does Oswald lie to Goneril in her interest or his own?"


Coleridge's opinion of Oswald: The steward should be placed in exact antithesis to Kent, as the only character of utter irredeemable baseness in Shakespeare. Even in this, the judgement and invention of the poet are very observable; - for what else could the willing tool of Goneril be? Not a vice but this of baseness was left open to him.
Coleridge got it wrong. Oswald was not the willing tool of Goneril. In reality, Goneril was the unsuspecting tool of Oswald! ©