Identity, Self Knowledge,and Reputation in King Lear Throughoutthe play, the characters are forced to find themselves through disguise and an evaluationof their status. By doing this, Shakespeare uncovers the superficial, yet fragilenature of human relationships. Shakespeare alludes to theatre, suggesting thatone’s identity is something that can be changed by acting. This theme ofidentity begins immediately when King Lear divides his kingdom. When Cordeliadoes not give Lear the response that he wants, he asks her to “mend your speecha little” (I.
i.88). This is a display of Lear’s disinterest in the truth, and howhe only wants Cordelia to play the role of an obedient daughter. The use of theverb “mend” is interesting, implying that there’s something that can be putback together easily. This shows how volatile and changeable Lear’s definitionof 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 dividedup.
Gonerilproclaims in the court scene that “I love you more than word can wield thematter” (I.i.50) before using language to show how much she loves him. Thiscontradiction shows that the statements that she makes, and her true feelingsare inconsistent with each other.
She is not using her own words, but the onesof 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 thedaughters’ true attitudes towards their father. The theme of languageconcealing emotion is also shown by Edmund, when he admits that “It is hishand, my lord, but I hope his heart is not in the contents” (I.ii. 62-63). Theuse of acting and false roles was an aid to Shakespeare making the audiencemore aware of the fictional world that they were watching.
Furthermore, ithelped the audience gain awareness on how the fabrication of identity was so easyto construct. This idea is further clarified later in the play through Lear’smetaphor 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 ofidentity and is a notion that can also be found in King Lear. Lear’s identityis 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 truththat one cannot be a King without a crown is not acknowledged by Lear as hebelieves that he is “Ay, every inch a king” (IV.v.103) despite removing himselffrom the throne. Both Kentand 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. Whenasked “What art thou?” (I.iv.9), Kent responds with “A man, sir” (I.
iv.10) showinghow 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 ofman/Brought near to beast” (II.ii.7-8), thus casting off everything, includinghis humanity and saneness. The use of the word “basest” is familiar, as Edmunduses that word several times during his soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 2.
This showsthat Edgar took a bit of Edmund’s identity through his language. This wasactually foreshadowed, when Edmund claimed that “Edmund thebase/Shall to th’legitimate” (I.ii.
20-21), again using the word “base” that isa motif of Edmond’s malevolent desire to take his brother’s place.However,while both Kent and Edgar disguise themselves, they don’t stay disguised for thesame time. When his disguise was unneeded, Edgar reinstates his identity. Thiswas seen at the end of the play when he declares “My name is Edgar and thy father’sson” (V.iii.159), which was a complete turnaround from “Edgar I nothing am”(II.iii.
21). Edgar describes himself in terms of Gloucester, showing thatfamily 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 “tilltime and I think meet” (IV.vii.11). This could be because Kent’s disguise wasto protect Lear, as his servant. Identityis presented as a tool to manipulate and deceive. This suggests that roles areconstantly being assumed as a means of self-preservation.
Those that failed todisguise themselves – notably Lear, Gloucester and Cordelia – are subjected tothe greatest suffering, bringing up the idea that the ability to disguise oneselfwas a tool in protecting yourself against those with malevolent intentions. Whenconcerning the origin of identity, there seems to be a generational divide inthe play, with the older characters looking at family and the youngercharacters more concerned with the individual.