Identity, Self Knowledge, and Reputation in King Lear

Throughout the play, the characters
are led on a journey 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. Shakespeare’s
usage 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 up.

Goneril
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 daughters stop using their fake personalities, and their real
personalities are uncovered. The theme of emotion being covered by language is
also shown by Edmund, when he says that “It is his hand, my lord, but I hope
his heart is not in the contents” (I.ii. 62-63).

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              The
use of acting and false roles was an aid to Shakespeare making the audience realize
more about the staged 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 when Lear says that
the world is a “great stage of fools” (IV.v.175), utilizing metaphor. The idea
that one plays many roles in their lives suggests that identity might be even
more fragile than once thought and is an idea that can also be found in King
Lear. Lear’s identity is based on the fact that he is the king and, when he
initiates the “division of the kingdom” (I.i.3-4), he 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.

Kent and
Edgar are both placed in a situation where they have to disguise themselves in
an order to “preserve” (II.ii.6) who they are. However, when they do this, they
eliminate most aspects of their characters. When Kent is asked who he is, Kent
simply replies with “A man, sir” (I.iv.10). This shows that Kent eliminated so
much of who he is that he is only a mere human being. Edgar, on the other hand,
takes “the basest and most poorest shape” (II.ii.7), thus casting off
everything, including his humanity and saneness. The use of the word “base” is
familiar, as Edgar’s half-brother 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. Edmund claimed that
“Edmund the base/Shall to th’legitimate” (I.ii.20-21), foreshadowing Edgar’s
identity crisis. Edmund used the word “base” again, displaying his malevolent
desire to take his brother’s place.

However,
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 feels reluctant in returning 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.

 

Identity
is presented as a tool for manipulation and deception. This suggests that roles
are constantly being assumed as a means of self-preservation. Lear, Gloucester
and Cordelia failed to disguise themselves, and so suffered the most out of all
the characters, bringing up the idea that the ability to disguise oneself was a
tool in protecting yourself against those with malevolent intentions. Throughout
the play, a generational gap was visible among the characters. The older
characters, like Lear and Gloucester centered their lives around their
families. The younger characters, like Goneril and Edmund were more
individualistic in nature. However, even things that were seemingly set in
stone, like familial ties and royal titles, were easily undone. This shows that
nothing that can hide the undertones of fragility from an identity.