Identity, of human relationships. Shakespeare alludes to theatre,

Identity, Self Knowledge,
and Reputation in King Lear

the play, the characters are forced to find themselves through disguise and an evaluation
of their status. By doing this, Shakespeare uncovers the superficial, yet fragile
nature of human relationships. Shakespeare alludes to theatre, suggesting that
one’s identity is something that can be changed by acting. This theme of
identity begins immediately when King Lear divides his kingdom. When Cordelia
does not give Lear the response that he wants, he asks her to “mend your speech
a little” (I.i.88). This is a display of Lear’s disinterest in the truth, and how
he only wants Cordelia to play the role of an obedient daughter. The use of the
verb “mend” is interesting, implying that there’s something that can be put
back together easily. This shows how volatile and changeable Lear’s definition
of love is, as he thinks that it is something that can be instantly changed.
Alternatively, the usage of the verb “mend” mirrors how the kingdom is being divided

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now

proclaims in the court scene that “I love you more than word can wield the
matter” (I.i.50) before using language to show how much she loves him. This
contradiction shows that the statements that she makes, and her true feelings
are inconsistent with each other. She is not using her own words, but the ones
of the daughter that Lear desires. This is revealed at the end of the scene,
when the fake personalities of Goneril and Regan are cast off, revealing the
daughters’ true attitudes towards their father. The theme of language
concealing emotion is also shown by Edmund, when he admits that “It is his
hand, my lord, but I hope his heart is not in the contents” (I.ii. 62-63).

use of acting and false roles was an aid to Shakespeare making the audience
more aware of the fictional world that they were watching. Furthermore, it
helped the audience gain awareness on how the fabrication of identity was so easy
to construct. This idea is further clarified later in the play through Lear’s
metaphor of the world as a “great stage of fools” (IV.v.175). The idea that
“one man in his time plays many parts” suggests a very fragile notion of
identity and is a notion that can also be found in King Lear. Lear’s identity
is based on his status as king and, through the “division of the kingdom”
(I.i.3-4), he ultimately divides himself, thus changing his identity. The truth
that one cannot be a King without a crown is not acknowledged by Lear as he
believes that he is “Ay, every inch a king” (IV.v.103) despite removing himself
from the throne.

Both Kent
and Edgar are forced to disguise themselves in an order to “preserve” (II.ii.6)
themselves and, in doing so, reduce their identities to their fundamentals. When
asked “What art thou?” (I.iv.9), Kent responds with “A man, sir” (I.iv.10) showing
how Kent reduced his identity to a mere human being. Edgar, on the other hand,
takes “the basest and most poorest shape/That ever penury in contempt of
man/Brought near to beast” (II.ii.7-8), thus casting off everything, including
his humanity and saneness. The use of the word “basest” is familiar, as Edmund
uses that word several times during his soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 2. This shows
that Edgar took a bit of Edmund’s identity through his language. This was
actually foreshadowed, when Edmund claimed that “Edmund the
base/Shall to th’legitimate” (I.ii.20-21), again using the word “base” that is
a motif of Edmond’s malevolent desire to take his brother’s place.

while both Kent and Edgar disguise themselves, they don’t stay disguised for the
same time. When his disguise was unneeded, Edgar reinstates his identity. This
was seen at the end of the play when he declares “My name is Edgar and thy father’s
son” (V.iii.159), which was a complete turnaround from “Edgar I nothing am”
(II.iii.21). Edgar describes himself in terms of Gloucester, showing that
family is central to his identity. This could be because Gloucester’s title,
and therefore his identity, will one day become his own. On the other hand,
Kent is reluctant to return to his former self, waiting to reveal himself “till
time and I think meet” (IV.vii.11). This could be because Kent’s disguise was
to protect Lear, as his servant.


is presented as a tool to manipulate and deceive. This suggests that roles are
constantly being assumed as a means of self-preservation. Those that failed to
disguise themselves – notably Lear, Gloucester and Cordelia – are subjected to
the greatest suffering, bringing up the idea that the ability to disguise oneself
was a tool in protecting yourself against those with malevolent intentions. When
concerning the origin of identity, there seems to be a generational divide in
the play, with the older characters looking at family and the younger
characters more concerned with the individual.