Disguise, a topic prevalent in many classics, ranging from The Odyssey to Metamorphoses, is again crucial in the development of this Shakespearean play, King Lear. To disguise is to "alter in appearance or nature so as to conceal the identity of", as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary. In King Lear, disguise of the physical appearance is used to transform the intrinsic elements of several main characters. The metamorphosis of King Lear, Earl of Kent, and Edgar, creates turning points as well as drives the plot of the play. Though the reason for disguise is different, all three use disguise to transition into a lower social class. King Lear, without his powerful authority and loving daughters, unclothes himself and sympathizing with the poor in an attempt to regain his lost innocence. Kent, banished by the king, disguises himself as a peasant in order to regain association with nobility and the trust of the king. Edgar, victim of his brother's deceitful scheme, takes on the identity of a beggar and disregards his own in the search for justice. Disguise reveals a prevalent social hierarchy and provides a transitional state that is used by characters to reclaim their lost status.
The significant class distinction is evident through the struggle of Lear, Kent, and Edgar as they deal with their banishment from the noble rank. This is most specifically seen through the association of social status with physical appearance. Lear, upon seeing Edgar disguised as a beggar, points out the extreme differences between the attires that define the upper and lower class. "ThouÂ owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here's three on 's are sophisticated" (III.iv.104-106). As Lear acknowledges Edgar's bareness, his lack of silk, leather, and wool, Lear implies the socio-economic association of such fabrics. However, this physical association does not also imply a psychological one. Lear does not know that Edgar clearly understand this same principle, for it being the reason he is disguised. As well, Kent, who also disguises himself as a lower class, states that "For confirmation that I am much more than my out-wall" (III.ii.44-45). He makes clear that his disguise as a peasant does not define his true character and worth. Thus, the power of the physical disguise, specifically through the transition to a lower class, lies in its ability to provide the freedom these characters need to discover truth and regain status.
Using these physical disguises, characters are unburdened from their former selves, in turn, able to transform their inner selves and surrounding conditions in order to achieve their lost status. King Lear undresses himself in an act to find truth. After losing his power and authority as the king, Lear also strips himself of clothing in the course of the storm. This removal of the outer shell is a disguise that hides his identity of nobility and moves him to the most natural state of men. Only in this state, Lear is able to gain innocence and purity that is associated with poverty. Through a series of events and realizations, he finds the naked truth regarding the loyalty of his daughters. He sees beyond the flattery and clothed deceit of Goneril and Regan to discover the true and loving nature of Cordelia. In this way, Lear regains his previous status as a rational father, who "loved her [Cordelia] most, and thought to set my rest on her kind nursery" (I.i.124-125). He also regains innocence as he seeks Cordelia's forgiveness and return of love. In this physical transformation, Lear also transforms his inner qualities.
The Earl of Kent had the freedom to speak and advise King Lear on both political and personal affairs and decision making. However, he is not without vulnerability as after speaking up against Lear's treatment of Cordelia, he is fully banished from the kingdom. Being the loyal servant, Kent refuses to abandon Lear, especially after Lear's "folly" decision. He chooses to disguise himself in order to remain by his side, and regain the freedom that has been also banished from this kingdom. In employing the disguise of a peasant, Kent stresses his honesty and loyalty as a lower class citizen. When Lear asked what services he can provide, Kent answers, "I can keep honest counsel, ride, run, mar a curious tale in telling it, and deliver a plain message bluntly. That which ordinary men are fit for, I am qualified in. And the best of me is diligence" (I.iv.32-35). Gaining the trust of Lear, Kent is able to re-associate himself with his master, a noble identity. And this disguise as a lower class provides more freedom than his former self, as he is able to again counsel the King, redeeming his previous position.
Edgar, similar to Kent, is sent away, but by his own treacherous brother, Edmund. Jealous of Edgar as the legitimate heir to Gloucester's fortunes, Edmund designs a clever scheme to manipulate his father to fully reject Edgar as his son and at the same time, appears as a false friend to Edgar, telling him to flee for his safety as advice. Edgar is forced to disguise himself as poor Tom the beggar, switching from upper class to the lowest social status, in order to avoid the inevitable demise facing him if he maintains his identity. To disguise himself, Edgar "take the basest and most poorest shape/ That ever penury in contempt of man/ Brought near to beast" (II.iii.7-9). However, this physical alteration serves only as a temporary disguise as Edgar uses this lower status as a mean of returning to his previous nobility. He is constant to his purpose, as "In nothing am I changed/ But in my garments" (IV.vi.9-10). Through the role of poor Tom, Edgar is able to ask assistance from the King and reunite with his father, Gloucester. When the disguise is no longer necessary, Edgar reveals his true identity, "My name is Edgar, and thy father's son (V.iii.180)." and return to his noble status, now crowned as King.
The dimension of disguise in King Lear reveals a prevalent notion of social stratification. And through physical disguise, characters transition into a lower social realm in order to reclaim their lost statuses. For Lear, he is able to return to the natural and savage state to find truth and regain innocence. For Kent, he is able to regain association with his master, Lear, and position as his counselor. For Edgar, he is able to escape the scheme of his brother, Edmund, to return to nobility and reunite with his father, Gloucester. This lower social class provides a powerful transitional state for which these characters search for truth and justice.