All day the duke and king prepare for their performance of “The Royal Nonesuch,” rigging up a stage with a curtain and lighting. Many men are in attendance that night, and, after the duke talks the show up, the king enters on all fours, naked, and painted “as splendid as a rainbow.” The audience laughs wildly, so much so that the king performs his “capering” act three times.
Thus far, the duke and king have seemed, while vaguely seedy and selfish, harmless enough and farcically silly, a perception strengthened by the king’s ridiculous performance, which the audience finds hilarious. The duke and king seem to know what society wants (low farce), and they deliver.
After that, the duke thanks the audience members and asks them to spread the word about the show. The audience members, however, are dissatisfied with how short the show was. They begin to storm the stage before a big man jumps up on a bench and shouts that they have been cheated, yes, but that they don’t want to be the laughing-stocks of the town. He proposes that they talk the show up to the other men in town, which they all proceed to do.
The men in the audience resent having been defrauded, but instead of limiting the damage the duke and king can do to their community, they maximize it to protect their own externally derived sense of dignity. They know that what the duke and king are doing is wrong, but hypocritically become complicit in it.
The next day, the duke and king play to a full house and scam them in the same way as they did the audience before. As they eat later that night, the duke and king tell Jim and Huck to float the boat two miles below town and to hide it. On the third and final night of performing “The Royal Nonesuch,” the house is crammed again, but Huck notices that the men in the audience all have rotten eggs and produce and dead cats hidden in their pockets and coats. Just before the show is scheduled to start, the duke tells Huck to make a run for the raft. He does so, and the duke does the same.
The duke and king must expect that the men in the town will use the third show as a way to exact revenge against the con men themselves; otherwise, they would not know to make an escape plan for the night of their final performance. The townspeople, then, are woefully predictable in their selfishness, which the duke and king rather cunningly exploit. We can’t help but think that society had it coming, so to speak.
Back at the raft, Huck and the duke meet up with Jim and the king, who didn’t even go to town for the performance. The duke revels in how well he and the king pulled off the scam, and mocks the townsmen for thinking that they would get the last laugh by throwing their eggs and cabbages and cats at the con men. All in all, the duke and king make a little less than five hundred dollars.
The duke’s mockery of society is reminiscent of Colonel Sherburn’s critique, though Sherburn’s centers on the cowardice of society, whereas the duke’s centers on people’s overestimation of themselves and their cleverness. Huck might agree with these critiques, but he would not exploit society out of selfishness as Sherburn and the con men do.
Huck knows that the duke and king are really just con men, but he doesn’t think it would do any good to tell Jim that, and anyway, Huck thinks, “you couldn’t tell them from the real kind.” The next morning, Huck wakes to find Jim mourning, thinking about his wife and children. Huck realizes, even though it doesn’t seem natural to him, that Jim must care just as much about his family as white people do for their own. Jim recounts to Huck how one time he asked his daughter to shut the door and she didn’t do it but just smiled at him. Jim slapped her, only to learn soon after that the girl is deaf and dumb. Jim doesn’t think he’ll ever forgive himself for harming her.
Huck implies here that anybody who exploits society for purposes of self-interest, from a con man to a monarch, is villainous: social standing doesn’t reflect one’s character. For example, Jim, who is oppressively marginalized, reveals here that he is maybe the most morally sensitive character in the novel, supremely loving of his daughter and ashamed for having hurt her out of ignorance. In what is central to his growth, Huck learns that blacks are just as capable of love as whites.