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Shakespeare's King Lear and the Nature of Disguise

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Shakespeare's King Lear and the Nature of Disguise
Shakespeare's King Lear and the Nature of Disguise. painting by Ford Madox Brown

The motif of disguise is prominent in King Lear. Two characters choose to change their apperal. Edgar and Kent. It is possible to draw upon a “progress narrative” approach to explain their motive for their disguise. Yet this explanation is insufficient. This paper suggest different methods of interpretation Historical elucidation that draws upon class conflict, which Shakespeare chooses to show through the conduct of his disguised character, is stressed. Yet another and different way seeing the function of disguises is exhibited in the paper: Edgar’s Tom and Kent’s Caius entail symbolic importance as the emblems of truth and regeneration in the play.   

First and foremost, the motif of disguise in King Lear is defined in terms of “progress narrative”. “progress narrative”, according to Garber, is a story line that advances towards the fulfillment of specific goals. A character whose life story embodies “progress narrative”... is ‘compelled’ by social and economic forces to disguise himself or herself in order to get a job, escape repression, or gain artistic or political ‘freedom’ (Garber, 70). In King Lear, Edgar decides to “take the baset and most poorest shape” (2.3.7) in the form of mad “poor tom”  out of the elementary imperative of self preservation. His bastard brother manipulates their father to believe in Edgar’s unreal intents of patricide and usurpation, so the latter, in order to escape’s the father’s deadly wrath, is left with no choice but to conceal his identity: 

No port is free, no place/ That guard and most unusual vigilance/ Doest not attend my taking. Whiles I may’scape/ I will preserve my self... (2.3.3-6). 

The main motive of another disguised character in the play can also be explained in terms of a “progress narrative”. Kent as a loyal and true advisor of Lear has put himself “between the Dragon and his wrath” (1.1.124). The former is being subject to the king’s outbursting ire and is doomed to banishment. But the ever – devoted and dutiful Kent is determind on adhering to his master. In order to do that, he decides to change his exterior disguising himself as Caius: “If but as well I other accents borrow / That can my speach defuse, my good intent/ May carry through itself to that full issue...” (1.4.1-3). 

A “progress narrative” underlies the interpretation of other characters’ motives for disguising themselves in the Shakespearean corpus. In As You Like It Rosalind and Celia, like Kent in King Lear, are liable to banishment by their patron, Duke Frederick. Like Edgar of King Lear Whose face he “grime[s] with Filt” (2.3.9), Celia “with a kind of umber smirch[es] [her] face” (1.3.110). Rosalind decides to cross-dress: 

...Because that I am more than common tall/ That I did suit me all pointes like a man?/ A gallant curtle-ax upon my thigh,/ A boar-spear in my hand... (1.3.113-116). 

The decision of the two female heroins to change outward (and sexual) form is attributable to the same concern that guides Edgar in King Lear, self preservation. The text of As You Like It explicitly refers to that: 

Also, what danger will it be to us,/ Maids as we, to travel forth so far !/ Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold. ...I’ll put myself in poor an mean attire... The like do you; so shall we pass along/ And never stir assailants (1.3.106-108, 109, 110-112).

 Yet, to regard the disguise motif in Shakespeare’s plays in terms of a “progress narrative” only in insufficient. The shakespearean play is more than the sum of sequential events or the literal plot. The “progress narrative” approach concentrates on the story line, that is, the verbal representation of events. A character does X to achieve Y. From the point of view of the plot, for example, Edgar disguises himself so he can survive his father’s will to kill him. Characters and their actions (action of disguise) bear a more profound aspects the mere plot; their function embodies symbolic and allegorical implications. Weinsheimer’s argument about the nature of characters in relevant to that point:  

...[characters] are textualized. As segmants of a closed text, Characters... are patterns of recurrence, motifs which are continually recontextualized in other motifs (Weinsheimer in Rimmon – Kenan, 32). 

Thus, it is possible to interpret the disguise motif in the two shakespearean plays, King Lear and As You Like It, in historical terms. The characters and their action function as an allegory “of cultural conflict which the playwright reflects in his drama. Hegel claims that dramatic literature in its original form is concerned not with characters in conflict but with historical and cultural systems “individualizes in living personalities and situations pregnant with conflict” (Hegel in Fisch, 27). The historic – cultural conflict in King Lear, Colie identifies as the “crisis of the aristocracy” (Colie, 185-217). According to him, a class tension characterized the Elizabethan period. This dissonance is given attention in As You Like It and especially in King Lear. It is impossible, Colie further asserts, not to find in Shakespeare’s works a profound critique of aristocratic manners in particular the aspects of clothing. Contemporary preachers “...never ceased to bewail the ruinous frivolous preoccupation of the rich with their apparel” (Colie, 187). Lears’ complaint against the luxurious attire of Goneril is connected to that notion: 

Thou art a lady;/ If only to go warm were gorgeous,/ why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,/ Which scarcely keeps thee warm (2.4.269-72).

 Edgar in Tom’s beggarly garb appears in the play as the opposite of the aristocratic fashion. The sole blanket that he reserves, "e“se we had been all ashamed” (3.4.65), seems to sustain him in the “contentious storm”. As a noble, Edgar in the form of Tom rebels and protests against the customary dress of his class: “let not the creaking of shoe nor the rustling of silks betray the poor heart to woman” (3.4.96-7). The same sense of rebellion is seen in Celia, in As You Like It. As as aristocratic woman, she appears in the play in “poor and mean attire” (1.3.109). 

Class conflict is portrayed through the motif of disguise in another important way. Colie points to a change in aristocratic weight during the English renaissance. A general respect for the common individual came to be recognized as ideals of social egalitarianism grew on a larger scale (Colie, 189). The disguised Kent in King Lear “...protess[es] to be no less than [he] seem[s] (1.4.14). His service is of the kind “...which ordinary men are fit for...” (my stress) (1.4.35). Caius’ service to his king is valuable despite himself being an ordinary man and not a member of the court like banished Kent. The king himself testifies about Caius’ conduct: I thank thee fellow. Thou serv’st me, and I’ll love thee (1.4.90). The rustic beggar, Tom, is the companion and guide of an earl, Gloucester. A blind aristocrat puts his life in the hands of a Bedlam boy despite the protests of his old servant: 

Old man: Alack, sir, he is mad

Glaucester: ‘tis times’ plague, when madmen/ Lead the blind (4.1.45-6).

 It seems that aristocrats, such as the king and Gloucester, becomes dependent on commoners such as Caius and Tom.

Beyond historical interpretation, the disguised Edgar and Kent become symbols embedded in the drama. In a play that deals with flattery and with children who are false to their fathers, Caius and Tom stands for the truth. Relating to the motif of cloths in King Lear, Charney claims that “Renaissance symbolism makes nakedness the most important symbolic attribute of truth. Nuda Veritas, the naked goddess, is without pretence, disguise, or duplicity (Charney, in Cauile, 78). Such is Tom of Bedlam. Half naked (only covered with a blanket), he encounters Lear in the heath and utters words of truth: 

...obey thy parents; keep thy word’s justice; swear nut; commit not with man’s sworn spouse; set not thy sweet heart on proud array (3.4.80-83). 

Hills sees these words as the essence of truth in the play. Goneril and Regan have broken the fifth commandment and have not obeyed their father. Glauester has comitted adultery, and therefore, the forth clause of the above quotation is related to him. Lear disobeyed Tom’s imperatives of “keep thy words justice” and of “swear not” by swearing an evil oath (1.1.109-120,162), by cursing (cursing Goneril in 1.4.284-298) and by encouraging flattery (Hills, 88-9). Regarding the aspect of pride, Lear’s speach in act 1 scene 1 portrays kingly pride. The frequent use of the pronoun “we” indicates royal pomp. In line 132, Lear uses the pronoun “I” with relation to power : “...I do invest you jointly with my power...”. When it comes to power, it is the sole privilege of a king indicated by the “I” instead of “we” (Hills,14). Moreover, what identifies mostly the king’s speech with pride is his warning to Kent: “Come not between the Dragon and his wrath”. Lears identifies himself with a powerfully mythological beast. Tom’s command, “set not thy sweet heart on proud array” becomes valid in face of the proud king’s degeneration: “Death on my state” he (Lear) cries, looking at Kent (2.4.110). Indeed, “[n]othing (royal pride) will come on nothing” (1.1.92). The naked Bedlam beggar unfolds the naked truth.

In fact, the naked Tom helps Lear to see the naked truth. The king discovers the truthfulness of Tom’s uncovered body: 

Thou ow’st the warm no silk, the beast no/ hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume (3.4.106-7).

For Lear Tom is “the thing itself” (1.108). Lear finds in him a man like himself driven towards madness and like himself responding to the elements (3.4.104) (Hills,91). Wishing to emulate the truth which is embodied in the beggar’s nakedness, the king undresses himself: “unbutton here” (l.111). In previous lines Lear identifies cloth with superficial pomp. In lines 35-36 (act 3, scene 4), he orders himself, concerning his royal custom, to”...Shake the superflux to them/ and show the heavens more just”. Undressed, Lear is like poor Tom, a free man in a ‘state of nature’ without debts for the superfluity of civilized life and flattery of the court (Charney in Colie 79). Acording to Hills, Edgar helps Lear to unmask the mask of royalty (Hill.90). It is ironic that Edgar needs a mask to unmask Lear’s false life. After the king tears off his cloths, Gloucester appears on the stage holding a torch. The torch signifies the Promethean fire which in Renaissance iconology, stands for clarity of knowledge (Hills,93). That symbolizes Lear’s newly gained mental lucidity regarding his life. Further more, the motifs of sight and eyes are prominent in the play. In act .1, scene .i, l. 58, Goneril uses the sense of sight to describe her love to the king by saying that for her, Lear is “[d]earer than eyesight”. Another example, in the same act and scene, line 265, the latter asserts the he “nor shall ever see” Cordelia’s face again. The course of events prove the sense of sight as being misleading: Goneril’s love turs out to be false and the king ends his life seeing Cordelia’s face through a mirror (5.3.263). Tom refers to the deaptive sense of sight in the play by referring to eyes sickness: “...the foul fiend ...gives the web and the pin, squits the eye,...” (3.4.117-19). Darkness as another noticeable motif in the play is related to the motif of sight as an element that hinders the eye. The fool’s remark is valid: “...we were left darkling” (1.4.223). Gloucester’s torch, in act 3, scene 4 is the light that enables Lear to see clearly in the dark.

Like Tom, Kent’s Caius stands for the “naked truth”. The aim of his disguise is to allow him to fulfil specific function as a servant, to “deliever a plain a message bluntly” (1.4.34-5). Caius is “[a] very honest hearted fellow” (1.4.20). In connection to the motif of sight (which is described above), Kent sees himself as the king’s eye. It is not a false eye as is the case in the play but a true one: “see better, Lear and let me still remain/ the true blank of thine eye” (my stress) (1.1.160-161). As in the case of Tom’s disguise, Kent’s disguise is also characterized by the aspect of the curtailment of cloths: “...for which I razed my likeness” (1.4.24). The verb “razed” is derived from the noun razor and thus it (the verb) alludes to the act of cutting of and reduction. The diminution of cloths symbolizes, in Caius’ (Kent’s) disguise as well as in Tom’s (Edgar’s) disguise, truthfulness.

Both Kent and Edgar appear in King Lear as fully absorbed in the new identity of their disguise. Although it might seem that Caius is in a state of constant awarence of his true self as Kent by the timely exposure of his disguise closely to Lear’s death in act 5, scene 3, it is still argued that the former is totally absorbed in the Caius’ identity. In the beginning of scene 4 act 1, Kent draws a description of his new disguise:  

If but as well I other accents borrow,/ That can my speech defuse, my good intent/ May carry through itself to that full issue/ For which I razed my likeness. Now, bunished Kent,/ If thou canst serve where thou dost stand condemn’d,/ So may it come, thy master, whom thou lov’st, shall find thee full of labours. (1.4.1-7).

 Hill thinks that the abandonment of the first – person pronoun “I” as it appears in lines 1-4, and the use of the second person pronouns “thou” and “thy” in the reminder of the speech indicates that a new “Kent” adresses an old “Kent”; Kent is completely transformed (Hills. 38). Besides Hill’s valid point, a second examination of the verb “razed” (1.4) (first examination of the verb is in the previous paragraph), reveals another facet to Kents process of identity transformation. The meaning of “razed” can also be to destroy or demolish completely. Thus Kent’s new identity, Caius, completely destroys and consumes Kent’s old identity in the act of ‘razing the likeness’.

Edgar is fully engrossed in mad Tom’s identity. In his first appearance on stage as Tom, Edgar realizes that by assuming the role of “Poor Turly god, Poor Tom”, there is a chance for him of no longer being known to himself: “Edgar I nothing am” (2.3.21). Throughout act 3, the role of madness that he assumes absorbs his whole being. The frequent use of fiendish beings and the reference to a sets of sins in the first – person pronoun “I” although there is no indication in the play that Edgar has committed them, show the latter’s engrossment in his disguise: “...swore as many oaths as I spake... Wine loved I deeply...” (my stresses) (3.4.88,91).

However, from another point of view, the question of identity is irrelevant. Edgar’s Tom and Kent’s Caius function as an emblem in the play, an emblem of truth. As such their identity as characters (with a disguise) dissolves into their symbolic value. Hills’ remark concerning Edgar’s role in the play is applicable to Kent as well: 

Tom becomes a concept. ...the image of Edgar has been erased in the world, yet the idea of Edgar plays a vital role in the episode. Through the lines and action the avdience may recognize a deep truth... . That truth lies in the complex idea of Edgar, which goes beyond the deception and illusion of the dramatic character (Hills,90).

It is appropriate now to suggest another interpretation to the verb razed which appears in Kent’s words “I razed my likeness”. The verb raze is derived from the verb to eraze. Once Kent becomes the loyal and frank servant named Caius, his character is erazed as a character towards becoming an emblematic concept of truth.

Besides being a symbol of truth, Edgar fulfils another important function. His Tom’s conduct in the play entails a regenerative power. In act 4 scene 6, Tom saves his father physically from the sword of Oswald and spiritually from despair. The spiritual deliverance is of greater importance. Tom’s dedication to the old and blind Gloucester teaches the latter the meaning of love. By referring to Gloucester as “father”, although literally it means an old man, the Bedlam beggar manifests a true filial duty. Gloucester is emotionally affected by his guide’s goodness. At the end of act 4, scene 1, the former alludes to the beggars regenerating power: “Let the super fluous and lust dieted man/ That slaves your ordinance, that will not see/ Because he does not feel, feel your pow’r quickly...”(1/70-73). The combination of eyes and feelings is repeated by Gloucester in act 4, scene 6, line 151, as he says to Lear “I see it feelingly”. From a merely sensual being, the blind earl becomes compassionate (Hills,143). This is the true sense of sight manifested in the play. Relying on sight alone without feelings results in misconceptions (as illustrated in previous paragraph). In Dover cliffs Tom restores Gloucter’s belief in the heavenly grace: “thy life’s a miracle”. ; “Think that the clearest gods, who make them honors/ Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee” (4.6.55,73-4). Twice Tom asks his father to patiently bear the burden of suffering (4.6.79 and 5.2.9-10). For Gloucester, these requests gain their legitimacy from the Beggar’s conduct: “...thou whom the heavens plagues/ Have humbled to all strokes...”, Gloucester says about Tom (4.1.66-67). Lastly although he appears in a different disguise, Edgar saves also the kingdom itself and not just his father. Killing Edmund, the former purifies she realm from evil. Edgar’s power of regeneration extends from the private (his father) to the public (the kingdom).

Finally, Tom functions as a regenerating source for Edgar. Adams claims that through Tom Edgar undergoes a spiritual journey. Only after Edgar (and Tom) experience the hardships of life, he can emerge as a better person (Adams in Cookson and Loughrey ed, 84). Lear’s suffering affects Tom. In a noble moment the later is able to forget his predicament and concentrates on the king’s ordeal: “When we our betters see bearing our woes,/ We scarcely think our miseries our foes” (3.6.101). The opportunity that Edgar has of witnessing the suffering in the world while being disguised as a beggar, makes him a moral person: “...by the art of known and feeling sorrows,/ Am pregnant to good pity” (4.6.225-26). Now as a better (an experienced) man Edgar is ready for the final match against his brother. According to Hills Edgar is slowly regenerated towards reclaiming his noble blood (Hills,146). This process of regeneration appears in three stages depicted by clothing. In the beginning Tom wears only a blanket. In act 4, scene 6 he wears the garments supplied to him by his father. And finally in the last act and scene, he appears wearing a full plate armor as a knight of Christ challenging the evil Edmund.

In conclusion, an explanation of the motif of disguise in King Lear that draws upon a “progress narrative” approach in insufficient. Historical explanations and symbolic interpretation throw another light on the question of disguise. One can neither ignore Shakespeare’s indirect criticism on the nobelity of his time expressed by the conduct of common characters such as Tom and caws in an aristocratic world nor can he over look the symbolic implications these characters.

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