The prolific use of disguises in “A Scandal in Bohemia” sends the message that not everything is what it seems, and that appearances are never to be trusted. Sherlock Holmes, the King of Bohemia, and Irene Adler all attempt to disguise themselves in order to get what they want, with varied results; the quality of their disguises, and their ability to fool those around them, is a measure of the intellectual capacity of each character in the story.
The King of Bohemia attempts to disguise himself when he comes to meet Holmes but is unprepared for the detective’s powers of observation and detection. When a man arrives wearing a mask and calling himself Count Von Kramm, Holmes quickly recognizes him for who he is: “Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein, and hereditary King of Bohemia.” In his demeanor, Holmes makes clear that he is unimpressed by his visitor’s royal status as well as his attempts at trickery. The King does not seem to understand the concept of disguise, believing that a flimsy face mask could somehow render him incognito, despite the opulence of his dress, carriage, and even of the paper he uses to write the note. His inability to hide his true identity is a signal of the King’s lack of intellect and creativity: he is incapable of stepping outside of himself or being anyone other than the King of Bohemia.
Holmes, on the other hand, is a master of disguise, and manages to fool everyone around him, including his friend Watson, with his costumes. He begins by transforming into “a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt and side-whiskered, with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes” to glean information about Irene Adler from the neighborhood workmen. His second disguise is that of a clergyman, which he uses to trick Adler into inviting him into her house so that he can find out where she has hidden the much-coveted photo of herself with the King of Bohemia. This is an essential part of his method of detection: the disguise allows him to enter into the world of the crime and observe as much as possible without being recognized.
Unlike the King in his ineffectual mask, Holmes embodies the character he is taking on. Watson notes that for Holmes, the disguise was not superficial: his “expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary.” He then compares his friend’s disguises to theater: “The stage lost a fine actor… when he became a specialist in crime.” Although the goal of this disguise is to fool Adler, she is impressed to learn that she has been tricked by the clergyman costume. In her final message to the detective, she cheers him on: “You really did it very well. You took me in completely.” Holmes’s skill with deception, then, reflects his deductive prowess and cunning, as only by closely observing the world can he hope to imitate it.
Adler’s use of disguise, meanwhile, serves a complex dual purpose in the story. On one hand, she wants to spy on Holmes and learn more about the investigation without being observed herself; at the same time, she wants Holmes to know that she has tricked him, proving that she too is capable of a superior level of cunning.
Once Holmes has identified the location of the photograph that the King of Bohemia needs so urgently, he and Watson return to discuss their plans to retrieve it. They are still on the street in front of Holmes’s apartment at 221B Baker Street when the detective announces that he will go to Adler’s house at 8:00 a.m. the following day, before she is awake, taking her by surprise. As reach the door of Holmes’s apartment, they are greeted by “a slim youth in an ulster who had hurried by.” Holmes has heard the voice before but cannot place it. The youth is Adler in disguise, of course—she had been present during the men’s conversation and is now aware of the detective’s plans for the next day. Not content to simply leave town undetected, Adler leaves a note for Holmes when he arrives at her house, acknowledging that she was behind the disguise. She is proud of having successfully deceived Holmes, noting that “I have been trained as an actress myself. Male costume is nothing new to me.”
Trickery is a form of cunning, and in this detective story it is a valuable skill, as is the ability to see through another’s disguise. The King of Bohemia attempts to take part in this game of disguises and ends up looking foolish and ignorant; ironically, it is his elevated social status that renders him incapable of disguising himself. Holmes and Adler, however, take pride in their ability to mask themselves and infiltrate each other’s world, using disguises to prove their intellectual value.
Disguise and Deception ThemeTracker
Disguise and Deception Quotes in A Scandal in Bohemia
There will call upon you to-night, at a quarter to eight o’clock… a gentleman who desires to consult you upon a matter of the very deepest moment… Be in your chamber then at that hour, and do not take it amiss if your visitor wear a mask.
“Your Majesty had not spoken before I was aware that I was addressing Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein, and hereditary King of Bohemia.”
“That is excellent. I think, perhaps, it is almost time that I prepare for the new role I have to play.”
“He’s a brave fellow,” said a woman. “They would have had the lady’s purse and watch if it hadn’t been for him. They were a gang, and a rough one, too. Ah, he’s breathing now.” “He can’t lie in the street. May we bring him in, marm?” “Surely. Bring him into the sitting-room. There is a comfortable sofa. This way, please!”