One way Shakespeare gets the plot moving in Lear is to pull out one of his favorite little tricks: have someone throw on a disguise and then pal around with folks who know him or her well who nevertheless seem to be totally fooled by the maneuver. The point is not the physical disguise, which, in Shakespeare plays, is usually pretty pathetic. This device is, in essence, a symbol for theater itself and, on an even grander scale, for the human capacity for transformation. When we watch a play, if the acting is sufficiently compelling, we permit ourselves to be fooled by people pretending to be someone else. In the biz this is called “suspending disbelief.” All non-psychotic audience members know that the people on stage are not really the characters they portray, but if the actors hold up their end of the bargain by acting, instead of faking, we accept the artifice. We the audience do this in hopes of a reward--a bit of transcendence, a voyage into an alternate reality, a little vacation from ourselves. When Shakespeare has a character disguise himself as a plot device, he creates mini plays-within-the-play. This device is not just a gimmick, though. It illustrates what it takes for a person to grow.
In Lear, not one, but two main characters do this play-within-the-play bit. In both cases, high born characters pretend to be someone at the other end of the social spectrum. The Earl of Kent pretends to be an old valet so that he can come back and look after the King who has just banished him. Edgar, heir to the Earl of Gloucester, pretends to be a mad, homeless beggar:
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: my face I'll grime with filth;
Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;
And with presented nakedness out-face
The winds and persecutions of the sky.
Initially, Edgar resorts to this extreme measure to save himself because, thanks to his half-brother’s machinations, their father thinks Edgar is plotting dad’s assassination and has called for Edgar’s arrest. But by adopting a disguise and really committing to it, Edgar ends up saving more than himself. When Lear’s sanity is on the verge of collapse, Edgar, pretending to be “Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the tadpole, the wall-newt and the water,” is the only person who is able to get through to Lear. As they huddle together in a hovel as a violent storm rages outside, Poor Tom teaches Lear a few things about human nature and empowers him to reconcile with the daughter whom he has unjustly disinherited. Poor Tom then goes on to stage a little performance that saves his own dad, Gloucester, from suicide.
In the end, even Poor Tom, whom Lear calls “my philosopher,” cannot prevent the old men’s hearts from breaking. But at least while Edgar is fully committed to being a raving lunatic, he is able to raise both Lear’s and Gloucester’s consciousness.
Maybe one reason why Edgar and Kent succeed at getting through to the high-and-mighty by adopting the persona of someone occupying a low rung on the social ladder is that these folks at the top are not used to seeing such people as more than stock characters. Actually, neither Lear nor Gloucester was any good at reading even the people whom they should have known the best: their own children. And so maybe it is not surprising that Lear and Gloucester come to see the truth about their own kin thanks to someone they experience as utterly unthreatening and Other. The pretend servant and pretend madman are successful, in part, only because their audience doesn’t really know what servants and madmen are like, having never bothered before to see the world from their perspective before. So it doesn’t really matter that neither Kent nor Edgar really look like a servant or a lunatic, respectively; what matters is that Kent and Edgar are thoroughly committed to the performance, and the performance precisely suits their audience’s needs.
Thinking about all this reminded me of a federal securities fraud case I once witnessed tried to a jury. With that case, I saw a quasi-tragedy play out before my eyes. It was a “quasi” tragedy because it was just sad—at least from the defendant’s perspective. The defendant was a mid-level manager whose bosses had already negotiated plea agreements with the government. He was a handsome family man and a hard-working, ambitious professional—trained as both a lawyer and an accountant. He was also the author and recipient of many e-mails describing various complex accounting transactions and observations on what should and shouldn’t be disclosed to “anyone.” At trial, the lawyer for the accused pursued a theme that went something like this: “My client don’t know nuthin’ ’bout no mark-to-market accounting. His company hired lots of fancy lawyers and accounting firms. He and the company relied on them to tell him what was right. The Government is gist tryin’ to make his young fella a scapegoat and get another notch in its gun.” To go with this theme, the lawyer, a city boy, adopted an exaggerated country accent, cowboy boots, and bad grammar.
This strategy struck me as distracting. Neither the lawyer nor his client was an ignorant bumpkin. And the mismatch between the lawyer’s style and the case’s exceedingly complex substance created a disturbing dissonance. I cannot say that the jury found this bright young family man guilty on multiple criminal counts because they too felt this dissonance and thus distrusted the lawyer and, by extension, his client. And, certainly, the decision to pursue this particular trial strategy was not professional malpractice. Yet, for whatever reason, the strategy did not result in the client prevailing in the face of the government lawyers’ plodding, methodical presentation. The jury was not willing to suspend its disbelief.
When lawyers take the stage, they invariably adopt a persona of some kind. But the role has to be calibrated to work for a particular audience and suit a precise context. And the lawyer has to play the part with great sincerity, which, generally, requires really believing in the underlying cause. Borrowed garments alone won’t get the job done.