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Characters Within “King Lear” Essay

There are many ways in which a person can use their appearance as extensions of their personalities. Through viewing the attire of another, their age, income or class, interests, nationality or religion can be determined. A person with a pressed black suit, a gold watch, alligator skin briefcase and golfer tie can be classified as a middle aged, business man with a good income living in a city. This is all concluded from examining image that that man was presenting. The outward appearance of a character provides a direct connection to that characters nature, and helps the readers interpret their emotions.

Imagery is a word, phrase, or figure of speech (especially a simile or a metaphor) that addresses the senses, suggesting mental pictures of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, or actions. Images offer sensory impressions to the reader and also convey emotions and mood through their verbal pictures. Clothing images can be used to deceive, reveal truth and suggest a journey of self-discovery, within a character. Shakespeare uses clothing imagery within King Lear as a central theme in which readers may discern the complexity of the characters presented in the play.

Garments can be used to reveal as well as conceal a character choosing to show either of these feelings. They can deceive through the means of a disguise. In King Lear deception is an underlying issue that is expressed in many characters. Goneril and Regan use their elaborate costumes to hide their true personalities.

Thou art a lady:

If only to go warm were gorgeous,

Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wearest,

Which scarcely keeps thee warm. (Act II, scene iv, ll 301 – 304)

Lear states that if warmth were all that were needed, then his daughters do not need their elegant dress. He emphasises to them that should they take off, or expose, their images of splendour, then the world would know what ungrateful and hypocritical daughters Goneril and Regan truly are. Another
character masking his genuine identity is Oswald, as Kent points out:

…nature disclaims in thee: a tailor made thee. (Act II, scene ii, ll 50 – 51)

This insult indicates that nature denies any part of Oswald’s making, and Kent takes this offence further by saying:

A tailor, sir: a stonecutter or a painter could not

have made him so ill, though they had been but two

hours at the trade. (Act II, scene ii, ll 53 – 55)

Not even an amateur apprentice could have produced Oswald, and he is therefore an abnormality of nature. Only Kent and Lear have the correct insight into Oswald’s characteristics, which label him as a traitor and a disgrace. Each image of clothing expresses the means of discerning sharply between the apparent and the real.

Just as disguises are used to produce deception, they can also be used to display honesty. Kent represents truth because although he is in disguise, this disguise is used to lead Lear down the correct path.

That can my speech diffuse, my good intent

For which I razed my likeness. Now, banished Kent,

If thou canst serve where thou dost stand condemned,

So may it come, thy master, whom thou lovest,

Shall find thee full of labours. (Act I, scene iv, ll 2 – 7)

Although Kent was banished, he still wanted to serve Lear loyally and so hisĀ disguise was in faithful loyalty and integrity. He humbled himself in appearance and value to better serve his King. Edgar also indicates that although his attire has changed, he himself has not changed.

…In nothing am I changed

But in my garments. (Act IV, scene vi, ll 12 – 13)

He, like Kent, uses his disguises to aid and assist others, as well as to keep him safe from his brother Edmund. Edgar helps his father Gloucester during his attempt at suicide by offering his service as a guide and also saving him from death. Edgar also helps Albany by revealing to him the murder conspiracy plotted against him. Edgar is able to use his speech and appearance to save those around him, thus symbolising the innocence in his simple garments and carefully accented voice.

Wretched though I seem,

I can produce a champion that will prove

What is avouched there (Act V, scene i, ll 51 – 53)…

If my speech offend a noble heart,

Thy arm may do thee justice. (Act V, scene iii, ll 153 – 154)

Each of these characters were able to stay upright and commendable, while concealing their identities. They were able to stay true to their personalities using their disguises. Kent and Edgar were able to discover their true qualities through the need to “mask” their titles.

Throughout the progression of a character’s disposition in King Lear, the character experiences a gradual change in clothing. This clothing, or change in immediate garments, is directly reflected on the characters change in situation or mood. As their garments change, the character is modified andĀ moulded into a new and hopefully improved individual. Lear refers to the conditions of his panoply, as displaying his current state of mind. He starts out arrogant and magnanimous, but as each untruth and disgrace offends him, Lear becomes unbalanced and depressed. He condemns the bitter justice in the world by crying:

Through tattered clothes small vices do appear;

Robes and furred gowns hide all. (Act IV, scene vi, ll 180 – 181)

Lear rejects the empty extravagance of royalty and majesty because to him, it is all tainted with the betrayal of his daughters. Later on, when Lear is cleansed of his acrimony and resentment, a Gentleman states that, “…we put fresh garments on him” (Act IV, scene vii, ll 26), and Lear further emphasises this by saying “…and all the skill I have / remembers not these garments” (Act IV, scene vii, ll 75 – 76). This signifies the change in Lear from affliction and dejection to restoration and optimism. Throughout his transformations, Lear is always able to express his tribulations through his disrobing.

The clothing images used within Shakespeare’s King Lear are the means by which readers feel imaginatively the deception, truth and self-assurance of the characters portrayed within the literature. The clothing of certain characters can represent as well as conceal their sincerity or hypocrisy. The journey of self-discovery can be viewed through the transitions between the appearance’s of how the characters attire themselves. Readers must be receptive to the images presented no matter how literally absurd they may be, and only then can the image be properly appreciated and understood. “Images operate, as one might deduce, in the realm of the imagination. They are the vehicle by which the poet’s thoughts pass into the reader’s mind as the reader’s imagination responds to the poet’s imagination.” (Harbage, 23).


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