False Pretenses

The “Persons of the Play” denoted that Kent would later be disguised as Cauis, blatantly leading an audience to believe that he would be the sole, or at least primary, shape-shifter of the play. Perhaps it is too soon to say for sure, but it is plausible that Shakespeare has presented the audience with many characters in disguise, some of whom are disguised in order to perform a larger role in the play. Disguises are usually prevalent in his comedies, such as the multiple disguises in Taming of the Shrew. In this tragic history of King Lear, it becomes evident that the characters are concealing their true identities, both physical identities and their personal objectives or qualities for good intent, not for their own betterment.

Kent is physically attempts, and succeeds, in preventing the Lear from knowing his true identity. In Act 1 Scene 4, Kent has “razed my [his] likeness,” referring to his beard, and has assumed a new accent (lines 1-4). His aim to trick the king is justified by his good intent, regarding the king and his relationship with Cordelia. This deception is for the benefit of the king, the master that he loves. It is odd to think that he is deceiving the king for his own benefit. It is also a foreign idea that one should be so loyal to a king that is not loyal to his own blood. The only character who has shown to be completely honest is quickly dismissed from the play; Cordelia exists with France, fleeing England and her father’s love at once. The love expressed by Kent for a king who is so unloving and self-centered is ironic, and could easily fit into the realm of a comedy.

Likewise, the misnomer of the “Fool” presents the character as a misguided person, one who would not be helping the King, but rather harming him. As illustrated throughout both parts of Henry IV and Henry V, it is unwise for a king to associate himself with fools, or people of lower regards. The Fool is obviously portrayed through his dialogue as more of a “Wise Old Man” figure, guiding the conscious of King Lear through odd compilations of sayings, such as: “Have more than thou showest, / Speak less than thou knowest, / Lend less than thou owest, …” (1.4.100). These spurts of advice disprove the assumed characteristics of the Fool. And like Kent, the Fool’s purpose is to help the king, serving as his advisor or physically separated conscious.

Thus far (up to Act 3, that is), the disguise of characteristics on behalf of the Fool is deeper and more fruitful than that of Kent. This is evident through the conversation between Lear and the Fool. Lear questions the Fool, asking him where he learned the songs, and he even permits him to call him a fool (1.4.130). The King’s acceptance of the Fool’s words and his lack of anger at the slight disrespect shown to him proves the success of the Fool’s deception.

These are often characteristics of comedies, not tragedies. Even among the history plays, Shakespeare does not allow for the characters to prevail in their plots to overthrow Henry IV or Henry V… so why are these characters in disguise present in this tragedy? They could possibly be presenting the alter ego of Lear, showing the guidance that he needs and his true conscious, rather than just presenting the psychologically unstable mind that Lear so often exhibits. The way in which these elements of comedy are executed do hold dominant characteristics of tragedy. They are not completely comedic, especially the seriousness with which the disguised characters are avidly helping the King. Shakespeare almost create a false pretense, making the audience second guess at certain purposes and representations of people throughout the play.

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4 thoughts on “False Pretenses

  1. mcoh31g

    I think you point out some interesting arguments related to disguise. I think your rhetorical questions during the conclusion of your post pose some interesting arguments. But in regards to your confusion about why there is disguise in a history play, when disguise is typically seen in comedy, I think that touches light on the ambiguity of genre. No matter how serious the play, even Macbeth and Hamlet, I always find conventions of comedy; when I read comedy plays, I often see larger social implications made that illuminate some very un-comedic ideas. So, not that Shakespeare’s “purpose” of the play really matters, but I don’t think he would lock himself in genre related conventions. Even when his plays seem specifically geared for a specific genre, there is always another genre related lens to analyze the text from

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  2. Pingback: Looking for some more Shakespeare observations? | Noticing Shakespeare

  3. Pingback: False Pretenses – Beginning Thoughts on King Lear | Noticing Shakespeare

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