King Lear

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Clothing and Costumes Symbol Analysis

Clothing and Costumes Symbol Icon
Complementing the many references to animals throughout the play are mentions of clothing and instances of disguise. Kent, banished by Lear, disguises himself as the commoner Caius. Edgar, fleeing Gloucester's mistaken wrath, transforms himself the mad beggar, Poor Tom. As the honorable characters of the play must take off their fine clothes and put on disguises to remain loyal, and Lear associates Goneril and Regan's fine clothing with their duplicity, clothing becomes a symbol of the desire for power and status that corrupts characters like Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Cornwall. On Dover beach Lear remarks to Gloucester: "Through tattered clothes small vices do appear./ Robes and furred gowns hide all" [4.6.181-2].

Clothing and Costumes Quotes in King Lear

The King Lear quotes below all refer to the symbol of Clothing and Costumes. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of King Lear published in 2004.
Act 2, scene 3 Quotes
"I will preserve myself, and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury in contempt of man
Brought near to beast."
Related Characters: Edgar (speaker)
Related Symbols: Animals, Clothing and Costumes
Page Number: 2.3.6-9
Explanation and Analysis:

Having fled his father’s castle, Edgar finds himself alone in the wilderness. He decides to take on the disguise of a fool called “Poor Tom” in order protect himself from being recognized and killed.

Edgar begins, first, by declaring this intention to “preserve” himself, marking basic survival as his primary intention. Saying, “bethought to take the basest and most poorest shape” declares that the best way to protect himself will be to take on an alternative identity and costume of lowliness. That his “penury” or poverty will be “in contempt of men” implies that his false identity will inherently criticize the morally-empty pomp and circumstance of those from which he hides. Thus he will take on the role of the “beast” primarily for self-protection, but also with an inherent skepticism of others, particularly the morally-bankrupt "nobility."

This passage takes the theme of man’s relationship to the wilderness in an intriguing direction: in order to best protect himself from the human world of deceit, Edgar must approximate the wilderness as much as possible—becoming “the basest and most poorest shape” that he can. In an odd way, this recourse to nature follows in Edmund’s footsteps: not only is he locating in wilderness something that was lacking in the human world, but he even invokes the tropes of baseness associated with Edmund illegitimacy. Yet whereas Edmund sought a reprieve from legal and moral justice, Edgar is seeking protection only from a misapplication of that justice. Thus Shakespeare presents nature as a repository of both productive and counter-productive divergences from human society.


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