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Disguise in King Lear

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Disguises are frequently used by characters in Shakespearian plays: Portia's disguise as a judge during the pivotal scene in A Merchant of Venice, the invading army during MacBeth, who use branches of trees to disguise themselves, Richard's masquerading as a loyal subject in Richard III, are but a few examples of disguises. It is common to view disguises - especially disguised intent - as being inherently negative. Richard's claim 'Since I cannot prove a lover... I am determined to prove a villain' clearly alert the auidience to the fact that his use of disguise will work towards a malicious outcome. However is it fair to view the use of disguise in such a negative way? King Lear points to disguise as neither good nor bad. Rather, the text suggests disguise is a powerful tool, which becomes positive or negative depending on the motives of those who use it.

It is easy to view disguise as conniving, for Edmund, Regan and Goneril all mask their true thoughts in a bid to gain power. During the initial love test, Goneril's claim to love Lear 'more than words can wield the matter/ dearer than eyesight' paint her as a dutiful, loving daughter. Had Lear thought about these words, he might have found reason for concern 'dearer than eyesight' - if anything, her aim is to cloud his sight, through words that lack truth. Regan is not to be outdone in this scene, chipping in to state 'I find she names my very deed of love...' The audience is aware of the falseness of these words, when Regan and Goneril are left on stage alone together. Goneril's claim 'The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash' comes closer to her true thoughts: that Lear is a foolish old man. Therefore, the audience is left in no doubt that both sisters are happy to hide their true thoughts, in an attempt to gain a large inheritance from Lear.

This use of disguised motives, to manipulate others and gain power, is not just limited to Goneril and Regan. Edmund operates along exactly the same lines. His opening soliloquy alerts us to his devious nature. 'If this letter speed and my invention thrive, Edmund the base shall top the legitimate'. Edmund proceeds to act surprised as to the contents of his own fake letter, as Gloucester reads it. He pretends that he will look after Edgar's honour, all the while plotting to usurp him. When Goneril, Edmund and Regan are compared, a powerful case can therefore be presented for seeing disguise as a negative thing. All three present themselves in false terms, so that they can ascend to positions of power. Interestingly, for all three, their disguises are cast aside when they gain power. As Gloucester is blinded, late in the play, he calls for the son he thinks is dutiful - Edmund - only for Regan to inform him 'Thou callst on him that hates thee.'

Given this obvious, malicious use of disguise, is it



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