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The Character of Kent In King Lear

By Donald LaGreca (© 1986)

This article was first published in the Spring 1986 Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter.

While reading Eva Turner Clark’s analysis of King Lear, in her Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare’s Plays, I was struck by the polarity of our interpretation of this supreme drama. Where Clark finds historical and political allusions, especially for the years 1589-1590, I find personal ones. For King Lear is a play of internal, personal tragedy. With this in mind I strongly disagree with her statement, “I consider Kent represents Drake.” (P. 869 n.) Therefore I sought another contemporary of Oxford’s who would fulfill the characteristics and qualities of the Earl of Kent. In looking tor this prototype, I drew upon J. Thomas Looney’s methodology. (See Shakespeare Identified, p. 80.) Simply stated my task was to examine the text of Lear, to draw from it a definite conception of the character and qualities of the Earl of Kent, and then look for a man who fits that description. Once such a man was found it was necessary to connect him with the character of Kent and with the author. Eventually I found that my conception of Kent had been accurately described by S.T. Coleridge,

Kent is, perhaps, the nearest to perfect goodness in all Shakespeare’s characters, and yet the most individualized. There is an extraordinary charm in a bluntness, which is that only of a nobleman arising from a contempt of overtrained courtesy, and combined with easy placability where goodness of heart is apparent. His passionate affection for and fidelity to Lear act on our feelings in Lear’s own favor: virtue itself, seems to be in company with him. (Complete Works of Samuel Coleridge, Vol. IV, edited by W.G.T. Shedd, Harper and Bros., New York: 1884, pp. 138-39.)

The first two requirements of Looney’s blueprint had been completed. I had read and examined the text of Lear, and with the aid of Coleridge, I had out-lined the qualities of Kent. It was now necessary to find the man. He must be blunt but charming; noble and courteous, but not overbearing in rank or slavish to authority. He must be loyal to his country, his monarch, and his friends. He must be someone worthy to lead men; even nations. (It must be remembered that Kent is one of the triumvirate who, it is implied at the close of the play, will lead England’s destinies.) He must be someone who had won the highest respect and admiration of Oxford; the man chosen to be old King Lear’s personal champion (and, in effect Oxford’s also?) And, in keeping with my hypothesis on the nature of the play, he almost surely must be a man with whom Oxford was personally acquainted, on a familiar, even intimate basis. I believe that man to have been Peregrine Bertie, the 12th Lord Willoughby de Eresby. Lord Willoughby, as he is generally known, is familiar to Oxfordians through the writing of Eva Turner Clark and Bronson Feldman. They convincingly argued him to be the prototype of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.

Kent first holds our attention with his passionate plea for Lear to reverse his judgment on Cordelia (Act 1, Scene 1). His declaration to Lear, “To plainness honors bound, When majesty stoops to folly,” gives voice to Willoughby’s point of view. While Commander of the English forces in the lowlands (December 1587 – March 1589), he was rebuked by the Queen for not consulting her regarding an appointment of the Captain of the Garrison at Bergen. Willoughby wrote back, “How unfit it is for Princes (whose cares are infinite) to be encumbered with impertinent causes.” (Three Generations of a Loyal House, by Lady Cecilie Goff. Printed privately under the care of the Rampant Lion Press, London: 1957, p. 35.) In the same scene, Kent tells Lear,

My life I never held but as a pawn,
To wage against thine enemies,
Nor fear to lose it,
Thy safety being the motive.

In September 1589, the Queen placed Willoughby in command of the English troops sent to aid the Protestant cause of Henry of Navarre. Elizabeth wrote to Henry describing her commander,

…His quality and the place he holds about me are such that it is not customary to permit him to be absent from me; … you will never have cause to doubt his boldness in your service, for he has given too frequent proofs that he regards no peril, be it what it may… (Goff, p. 55.)

Willoughby’s qualities of leadership and their recognition by his superiors and peers are shown not only by his commands in the Lowlands and France, but also by the planned offensive against the Spanish mainland following the defeat of the Armada. Francis Drake and Sir John Norris, who commanded the fleet and troops respectively in this endeavor, “were very anxious that he (Willoughby) should be in supreme command of the expedition.” (Goff, p. 47.) However, for health reasons, Willoughby declined. Thus far, Willoughby fulfills Kent in bluntness, loyalty to crown and country, and the soldierly skills and qualities of leadership of men. Kent’s other outstanding quality is his loyalty to those who are in disfavor with those who wield power. As Kent stood by Cordelia against Lear, and as he stood by Lear against Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril, so did Willoughby honor his friendship to those who were in opposition to state power. From his days as a youth in Burleigh’s household he had a deep devotion to the ill-fated Earl of Essex whom he described “as a man I love and honor above all men.” (Goff, p, 21.) Willoughby also numbered among his friends Sir Drew Drury, the leader of the Puritan Party, and the scrivener John Stubbe, who Willoughby included as a member of his household until Stubbe’s death in 1591. (Goff, p. 22.) Readers of Bronson Feldman’s Crowners Quest (12 – IV – 80) will recall Stubbe as the Puritan who was prosecuted for writing a book, in August 1579, against the Queen’s proposed marriage to the French Catholic Duke of Alencon. Feldman writes, “Hatton dug out … a decree of the Catholic despot Mary Tudor and her consort Philip the Spaniard ordering the behanding of any writer and printer of books they regarded as demeaning majesty. John Stubbe and his printer William Page lost their right hands under cleavers commanded by Kit Hatton. The mention of Hatton leads to another aspect of Kent’s character. Kent shows a particular hostility to Goneril’s retainer Oswald. Coleridge says, “The Steward should be placed in exact antithesis to Kent, as the only character of utter irredeemable baseness in Shakespeare.” (Complete Works, p. 139.) More than that, Oswald can be seen as a caricature of Sir Christopher. Willoughby can also be placed in exact antithesis to the Queen’s dancing Chancellor. We find the following quotation from Sir Robert Naunton’s Fragmenta Regalia, quoted in B.M. Ward’s The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford:

My Lord Willoughby was one of the Queen’s best swordsmen … I have heard it spoken that had he not alighted the Court, but applied himself to the Queen, he might have enjoyed a plentiful portion of her grace; and it was his saying – and it did him no good – that he was none of the Reptilian: intimating that he could not creep on the ground, and that the Court was not his element. For, indeed, as he was a great soldier so he was of amiable magnanimity, and could not brook the obsequiousness and assiduity of the Court. (p. 151.)

Let us now consider some smaller points of Kent’s character. Act III, Scene iv finds Lear determined to “arraign” his daughters. He drafts Kent to be “on the commission.” Shortly after Willoughby arrived in England from his command in the Lowlands, “he was one of the commissioners appointed to try Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, for treason.” (“Peregrine Bertie,” Dictionary of National Biography, p. 405.) When Lear first comes upon the disguised Kent (Act I, Scene iv) he asks him, “What coat thou profess?” Kent replies, “I do profess to be no less than I seem; … and to eat no fish.” This last expression was a popular phrase to signify one’s loyalty to the government and the Protestant faith. Willoughby was reared in that faith. His mother, Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk, was an ardent Protestant. Willoughby was no less, as evidenced by his military service to Protestant causes and his friendships with prominent Protestants. In this same conversation Kent protegees himself to be “as poor as the King.” Willoughby’s tour of duty in the Lowlands had made him a poor man. By 1589 he was deeply in debt. In order to pay his creditors he sold his timber and his stocks and mortgaged his estates in Norfolk. (Goff, p. 44.) Six years later (1595) he finally sold his lands (Goff, p. 71 – 72.) No doubt Oxford felt a sympathy for Willoughby’s financial difficulties; he too had become impoverished and had been forced to sell his lands.

Kent’s opposition to a despotic government shows itself when he joins the French invasion force camped near Dover. (Act IV, scenes iii and vii.) This too has a parallel in Willoughby’s career. While not joining England’s enemies, Willoughby was greatly embittered at not being repaid the monies he had spent in the Queen’s behalf in the Lowlands. On August 28, 1596, he wrote the Earl of Essex asking him to intervene with the Queen to secure for him the Governorship of Berwick-on-Tweed. Willoughby wrote, “If your Lordship cannot prevail I shall a thousand times wish rather to have buried my bones in Caddis Mallis (a stretch of land near Cadiz) than return to England so ill-regarded.” (Goff, p. 74.) His feelings are more strongly put by Sir John Buck, his longtime friend, who writes to Willoughby, “You write that England hath no need of the good man at Grimsthorpe (Willoughby’s estate in Lincolnshire) nor he of it.” (Goff, p. 75.)

Earlier in this essay I had included as a criterion for the prototype of Kent that this man must be familiar to and respected by the dramatist. Willoughby again suits the standards. He was the brother-in-law of Oxford, married to his sister Mary. From at least 1582, when Oxford broke with the Catholic party, he and Willoughby were on the best of terms. (Ward, p. 154.) As for Oxford’s respect for Willoughby, one has only to look at the great lord’s military deeds. He served as Ambassador to Denmark; his military victory over the Duke of Parma (against superior forces) consolidated the English defeat of the Armada; his service to Henry of Navarre, and his loyalty to Essex and Stubbe must have won Oxford’s deep admiration and affection. Oxford’s feelings must have reflected the universal esteem with which Willoughby was held. “Willoughby’s valor … excited more admiration on the part of his contemporaries than that of almost any other soldier of the age.” (“Peregrine Bertie,” Dictionary of National Biography, II, p. 406.)

Oxford could have had good reason for giving this noble character the title Earl of Kent. A brief look at the possible source of Lear might shed some additional light on this problem. The New Variorum Edition of King Lear (edited by H.H. Furness) claims that the “direct source” for Lear was “the ante-Shakespearean drama of The Chronicle History of King Leir.” (p. 383.) While no date or author is given for this older work, it was dramatized as early as 1593-94.” (Variorum, p. 383.) During these years Oxford was in retirement. It is possible that the Chronicle History was an earlier, less refined forerunner of King Lear. The two plays have a noticeable similarity. The “blunt and faithful counselor and friend” of King Leir is named Perillus. (Variorum, p. 401.) The blunt and faithful Willoughby was baptized Peregrine. The first two syllables of these names are nearly identical in spelling, and are alike phonetically. It Oxford was the unknown author of Leir, he may have already had Willoughby in mind.

The change in name from Perillus to Kent could have been a part of Oxford’s revision. This, I believe to have taken place sometime after Willoughby’s death, June 25, 1601. Kent’s declaration that, “I have years on my back forty-eight …” (Act I, scene iv) could be a clue to a more definite date. Willoughby was born October 12, 1555. If Oxford revised the older Leir sometime after the autumn of 1603, he could have included that line based on how old Willoughby would have been had he lived. It is possible that Oxford, saddened by the untimely loss of the “Brave Lord Willoughby,” rewrote the role of Perillus as a homage to the man Bronson Feldman described as “… a general more feared by the Spaniards than any English officer of the age.” (Secrets of Shakespeare, Lovelore Press, Philadelphia 1972, p. 14.)

The name of Kent appears three times in the family history and career of Lord Willoughby. It is possible that these episodes suggested the name of Kent to Oxford. Peregrine’s father, Richard Bertie, married his mother in 1552. On Good Friday, 1554, he was summoned before Bishop Gardiner, the Catholic lord chancellor. The bishop tried to persuade him to have his Protestant wife convert. In June Bertie sailed from England, but soon returned fearing for Katherine’s safety. On January 1, 1555, he managed to get her away from London using a disguise. While awaiting a ship to leave England safely they hid in Kent. The Berties finally reached Wessel where Peregrine was born and so named in memory of his parents’ peregrination. (Bertie, Richard,” Dictionary of National Biography, II, p. 407.) This story was doubtless told to Willoughby by his parents and may well have been known to Oxford.

The second episode concerns Willoughby’s sister Susan, who married the Earl of Kent, Reginald Grey, who died in 1573. (Ward, p. 154.) The last connection can be found in Willoughby’s French campaign. He commanded four thousand English troops in support of Henry of Navarre. The quality of the troops in general was poor, “with the one exception of Captain Leverson’s Kentish regiment” who “when put to the teat had risen to the occasion magnificently,…” (Goff, p. 58.)

Perhaps Oxford felt that such an earldom was an honor which Willoughby deserved but had never received. In any case, it seems likely that in the characterization of, first Perillus, and later Kent, Oxford was setting down a character who walked in company with virtue and thus attempted to do justice to Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby.


Editor’s note: Mr. LaGreca offers the following additional material, which serves to amplify the evidence presented in his article:

1) The source for the Stubbe behanding under orders from Christopher Hatton, is from Sir Harris Nicolas, Memoirs of Sir Christopher Hatton (London, 1847), pp. 140 – 41. Stubbe wrote to Hatton, while in prison and using his left hand (December 1, 1579), of his (Hatton’s) “round dealing” and severe sifting out of that fault that bred me all my woes.”

2) Also, Eva M. Tenison, in her Elizabethan England (Vol. VIII, pp. 226 – 27), demonstrates that Stubbe was with Willoughby during his service in the Lowlands. When Stubbe entered his household is not certain, but there is no doubt that he was a trusted member of it.

3) Finally, regarding the connection of Willoughby to the name of Kent, I again rely upon E.M. Tension (Vol. VIII, p. 216). She tells us that the family of Peregrine’s father, Richard Bertie, claims “ancient Saxon origin and “appear in the roles of Kentish territorial magnets” under the name of DeBerty and DeBerghstede. The birthplace of Richard Bertie was “Bertiested (now Bearsted) in Kent.”

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