King Lear Contents
- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Social / political background
- Religious / philosophical background
- The Theatre
- Act I
- Act II
- Act III
- Act IV
- Act V
Clothing and disguise
There are many instances in King Lear of characters appearing to be what they are not.
Kent and Edgar
Kent and Edgar change both their outward and vocal appearance in order to serve those to whom they are still loyal but whose disfavour they have unjustly incurred. However, there are moments when both revert to their true natures. Kent forgets himself and challenges Cornwall’s edits. The Duke is so affronted that a servant should speak like a nobleman that he puts Kent in the stocks.
Once in the company of his father, Edgar finds it even harder to maintain his disguise. In Act 4 Scene 6 Gloucester queries Edgar’s accent as he leads his father to the ‘cliff top’, which he trusts will be a means of restoring hope. Hastily he has to re-adopt his peasant accent and vocabulary, as he does again (to comic effect for an urban audience) when Oswald confronts Gloucester.
Shakespeare plays with the stage convention that good characters can generally see through such disguises whilst the morally corrupt are taken in by them – a concept which of course flatters the audience which is always aware of the truth of identity! This awareness of the audience also allows Edgar and Kent asides or soliloquies which are a stark contrast to the disguise they have to maintain with other characters, providing moments of great pathos.
Words can be used to disguise more sinister motives, concealing a character’s true identity and purpose in order to mislead. The extravagant speeches with which Goneril and Regan protest their supposed love for their father in the opening scene act are successful as verbal disguises, hiding their entirely self-seeking motives. Lear's ears hear what they want to hear whilst his eyes remain closed to the truth which lies behind the words. Similarly, Gloucester trusts in Edmund's verbal disguise as the loving son wishing to protect his father from a murderous, treacherous Edgar. Again, Gloucester fails to see through Edmund's words and impetuously outlaws Edgar.
It is notable that both the good Kent and the pure Cordelia lack the ‘glib and oily art / To speak and purpose not’.
Kent dresses like a servant to serve the King and Edgar wears only a blanket to preserve decency but is otherwise naked. These characters adopt disguise only because they have no choice: having both been outlawed, the consequence of discovery would be death. However, by adopting the clothing of ‘the lowest of the low’ they make important discoveries about how society treats such people, as does the near-naked Lear. The mad king reflects on this when he realises that:
Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.(Act 4 Scene 6)
Symbolically, the near-naked Edgar becomes a symbol of man stripped down to his most essential nature. Devoid of any misleading costume, he is able to help lead the King (and later his father) towards the truth. As Lear says to him:
Thou ow'st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume (Act 3 Scene 4).
whereas ‘robes and furred gowns hide all.’ (Act 4 Scene 6).
Lear too casts off his clothes. Free from rich kingly robes and precious jewels, Lear stands on the heath able to see for the first time the difference between essential human nature and all the trappings with which humans have distanced themselves from the rest of creation. Just as he recognises that he has taken too little care of the poor and needy in his kingdom, so he realises that human identity does not depend on the clothes on one's back. He thus echoes biblical teaching about clothing.
Edgar has led the King to a sense of his common humanity, something to which he had become blind. He learns that all individuals are similarly vulnerable and that, at heart, all humans are but 'poor, bare, forked animal’[s] (Act 3 Scene 4).
Something which represents something else through an association of ideas.
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