Survey of English Literature
December 16, 2014
Class Structure in Disguise
Several characters in Shakespeare's King Lear undergo transformations for both driving the play's momentum and allowing for a social layer to preside within the work. King Lear displays characters whose disguises make significant class differentiations, favorably casting a light on the lower class. Realizing that he is without a home and loving daughters, King Lear learns to sympathize with a beggar, and unclothes himself in an act to recuperate his lost innocence. Edgar, the victim of deception, treads into the disguise of a beggar with which Lear sympathizes, and relinquishes his past identity. He has seen the life of 'poor Tom' secured and presumes that he will remain by guising himself into that same class. The banished Earl of Kent disguises himself a peasant in order to restore his affiliations with the nobility. Therefore, through these characters a transition into the lower social realm is made through disguise in order to reclaim their lost statures, and it is in that transitional phase that the audience learns, in different ways learns, what the use of disguise means, and what commentary it makes on the conception of class.
King Lear reveals the class struggle through Edgar, Kent, and Lear, as they, through disguises, deal with their troubles of being evicted from the noble class. I found it rather interesting that Shakespeare uses the characters' guises only through mobilizing them downward. Essentially, it is only the characters of the upper-class disguising themselves as lower-class residents. This is elaborated in the discussion of attire by Kent: "For confirmation that I am much more / Than my out-wall (his appearance)" (III. ii. 44-45). In this instance, Kent clarifies that his disguise does not define his character. Moreover, Kent is remarking on his associations of characteristics to class, in this instance, that one's physical appearance in that sense attire is what defines the associated upper class. Lear expands on the attire of nobility in noticing Edgar's ordinary outfit, "thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume" (III. iv. 100-103). The fabrics in which Lear remarks upon clearly divides the two classes, as Lear notices through Edgar's bareness, the socio-economic associations of such fabrics. However, what the King does not know is that Edgar clearly recognizes this division, as he is disguised as well. Accordingly, the intent behind the disguise is to illustrate through these characters that physical appearance plays a crucial role in which class society affiliates one with.
Edgar's ownership of his own disguise is an inverse to that of Kent. Edgar is the only one that seems to combine awareness and action with the astute use of disguise. However, his capacity is thoroughly revealed only in terms of contrast with Kent. Edgar's use of disguise is founded upon the conception of time, and it is through his remarks of time that his skill to control his is disguise is employed. It is intriguing that Edgar must disguise himself out of nobility as a plan to return to it. Even the initial reasoning for his disguise points to time as an inevitable conception soon to run out if he remained affiliated to nobility. In a soliloquy he professes, I will preserve myself, and am bethought / To take the basest and most poorest shape / That ever penury, in contempt of man, / Brought neat to beast. My face I'll grime with filth, / Blanket my loins, elf all my hair knots, / And with presented nakedness out-face / The winds and persecutions of the sky (II.iii. 7-12). In claiming 'I will preserve myself', Edgar reveals an inner fear of his early demise. Accordingly, taking on the attributes of a beggar will 'preserve' his life. Also in stating, 'THAT ever penury, in contempt of man', Edgar reveals that this is a plan yet to be...
Cited: Bevington, David M. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 5th ed. Chicago: Pearson Education, 2004. Print.
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