Use of Disguise in British Literature Essay

British literature from the bygone days of Anglo Saxon towards the most confound present era encompasses different periods with its own generation of versatile writers. Anglo-Saxon literature is deemed to be the oldest among the vernacular literatures of modern Europe with the result its relationship with the Latin period was very close. Its life ranged from the 5th century to the Norman Conquest of 1066 with several works of great religious importance and epics to its credit.

The literary works of fiction whether ‘Beowulf’ or ‘Life of St Eugenia’ present the literature with the religious fervor but an ample of the privileges of rights and duties cherished by the contemporary society.

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These thematic elements were sought by its most special features and styles in which they were written but more than that, they were cherished, woven and beautified by the use of disguise for e. g. in the ‘Life of St. Eugenia’, much before violence and act of martyrdom takes place, the saint disguises herself as a man to join Christian missionaries against the wishes of her parents.

This male disguise gives protection to the virgin not only from her family but also from everyone who wants to remove her from the monastery and the male monks. As said by Horner, “The dramatic tensions produced by this disguise once again exemplify the tensions between literal and spiritual reading practices, as the life acts out the struggle between the interiority and exteriority, which is the hallmark of the Elfrics corporeal hermeneutics. ” (Horner, 156) Written around 800 C. E, ‘Beowulf’ reveals the tale of King Hrothgar, who has established his own kingdom but is now thwarted by the continuous attacks from the hideous monster Grendel.

Grendel, a descendent of the biblical Cain has been unleashing warfare with Hrothgar’s thanes for twelve years, and remains untouched by their appeals to leave them. Soon after words, Beowulf, a warrior from the Geatland kills Grendel and his mother and later a dragon that besieges Beowulf’s home Geatland. In a much profound Grendel, ‘disguise’ is used as a manifestation of the self and character of Grendel who is divided between the two worlds: firstly in the world of poetry and secondly the world of humans, but never is able to devoid himself from his monstrous attitude.

When once a Shaper, a poet gives shape to the worldview of Danes with his evocative poetry and music, Grendel gets attracted towards this heroic ode and decides to join humans but is rejected. He feels himself on the verge of solipsism and when Grendel meets the dragon, the hope for attainment of human vision is darkened by his nihilistic affinity. Grendel becomes destroyer and takes to assault, but when he moves towards the end of his life, he has to tackle with the meaning. Hrothgar withstands repeated attacks of Grendel and becomes nobler.

In between the two traits of human and beast, Grendel becomes more of a beast, but with a sense of pity towards him as he is himself a tormented soul between his own beastly world and the world of humans who themselves are turned into beasts. Tormented by the human ways, he disguises himself and reaches Herot, which is the golden guest hall, and slaughters thirty men. Similar sorry and pain is witnessed by Queen Wealhtheow who tries to hide her wails in disguise while being a wife of Horthgar. From her heart, she despises Hrothgar yet she disguises herself as dutiful and loyal wife always addressing him as ‘my Lord’.

Unferth, who is also a great soldier had killed his brothers years ago but now desperately wants to be a hero and when Grendel knows about it, he teases him by saving him inspite of killing all the other soldiers. Unferth feeling ashamed disguises himself so that he gets killed by the soldiers while fighting along with Grendel. It is a human tendency to hide their wails behind several disguises, wearing a mask of happiness and solitude on their face beckoning this greatest work of epic to reveal this trait of human beings in the portrayal of Grendel, Unferth and Queen Wealhtheow.

(Staver, 190) ‘Disguise’ in the variegated forms can be found most profoundly during middle age. Between the years 1340 to 1400 was the period of transition from the medieval showing sparks of modernity yet it was typically medieval people borne with the superstitious and chivalric attitude, religious mind and backwardness. In fact the age of Chaucer was not stagnant: it was inching it way steadily and surely to the dawn of the Renaissance and the reformation. It was an age of restlessness amid the ferment of new life that Chaucer lived and wrote.

Old things and new appeared side by side upon his pages and in his poetry, we can study the essential spirit of both the ages, one that was passing, and other that was to come. In this period, on one hand people clutched their traditional ways yet at the same time tried to hold whatever was modern. They wore the mask of modernity yet found incapable to release their traditional ways. (Simpson, 224) ‘Disguise’ in the Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ is a means to embody the attitudes of common man as well as knights.

‘Tales of Knight’ shows that to fulfill their desires, knights can go the extreme extent of disguising themselves and enter into their own enemy’s quarters. In one of the tales, two knights are seen fighting over the same woman, which in the end shows how they believe and truly cherishes their chivalric code. Chaucer wanted to show how a knight who ventured into the far away place had an ardent love for chivalry, truth and honor. He wanted to let the other people know what really were honesty, truth, virtue, liberty and courtesy for a knight. The knight proves his point through the story of Arcite and Palamon.

From the onset, it appears that they would reveal what exactly the code of chivalry is for them but at many occasions their actions would go against the traditional concept of the chivalric code. Imprisoned behind the bars of King Theseus, they both get attracted by the beauty of Emily, sister-in-law of King Theseus and behind the bars argue with each other to possess this most beautiful woman. But soon they realize it is such an obtrusive act on their part to cry for the woman they cannot even think of attaining, as they have to remain behind bars throughout their lives.

After a period, a duke named Perotheus, who is a friend both of Theseus and Arcite petitions for Arcite’s freedom, Theseus agrees to the same yet on the terms that Arcite would be banished forever from Athens. How can he be happy with this new freedom, as he gets jealous of Palamon who despite behind the bars can at least see Emily every day from behind his tower? But Palamon too becomes depressed all the more as now he thinks Arcite would make use of Army to have Emily. Here Arcite does not bring army but using a disguise of a servant returns back to Athens to get closer to Emily.

Here the role of disguise comes in. People of that era would disguise themselves to attain whatever they want. Meanwhile Palamon too escapes from the prison and comes to know about Arcite designs, as he hears him singing in the woods in praise of Emily. He comes face to face with Arcite and both ensnare to have a fight. But Theseus intervenes and Palamon tells whole reality to him. Theseus invites both of them on a sportive spree- to fight with each other in front of spectators with equal number of warriors to back them and who so ever is victorious would have Emily’s hand.

In the battle, Arcite is able to subdue Palamon but does not kill him, as his chivalric code never permits him to do so. But when Arcite rides towards Theseus to lay claim for Emily’s hand, his own horse throws him off crushing him to death. As he dies, Theseus’ men take Arcite to bed, where doctors make every effort to heal him and on the death bed, he tells Emily what she should do, and he says, “With my cousin Palamon here I have had strife and rancor for much past time, for the love of you, and for my jealousy….

And if you are ever to be a wife, forget not Palamon, the noble man. ” (Chaucer & Nicolson, 69) In the end, he shows his chivalric code and code of honor to display his love for them. In yet another tale from ‘Canterbury Tales’, ‘disguise’ is used for deception but to reveal values of a wife and her devotion and loyalty towards her husband. Once Marquis of Saluzzo, Italy lured by the beauty and virtue of a poor girl, Griselde, marries her, but with a condition she would always obey him and do whatever he asks her to do.

When their first child is borne, Walter decides to test his wife for her loyalty. He straightforwardly tells her, as the rest of the nobility does not accept her so her daughter must die. As bound by the duty as a wife, Griselde accepts. Walter does the same when their son is borne, still Griselde does not oppose. He then plans another test by arranging fictitious order sent from Rome especially for him stating he should give divorce to his wife with immediate effect, despite the fact that his subjects have begun to hate him for killing his children, he goes on with his plans.

Meanwhile he orders his children back with great pomp and show but still without revealing truth about them. In fact, he goes to the extent of declaring his marriage with the girl who happens to be his daughter. He returns the dowry to Griselde and makes adequate arrangements to send her back home. Again she accepts her fate without repenting. All the people follow her lamenting to see her condition. When both the children reach palace, he orders Griselde to arrange his marriage with their daughter, again Griselde accepts without questioning.

He even declares his new bride to be treated better than his previous wife. Again when he sees there is no grudge on the face of Griselde, he kisses her and reveals the whole truth to live happily ever after. During the medieval period, ‘disguises’ were the most important armaments for the men and women of great disposition who used them to accomplish their mission or solve their purpose. The use of disguise then passed on to the fictitious world of great literary Elizabethan era 1558–1603 with great flavor.

In almost all the works of fiction, be it poetry, play, prose or a novel, writers made use of characters in one context or the other disguised themselves in a pursuit of their goals. At the time Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, women began to get their voice in literature. As a woman and performing men’s job, Queen had to adopt different personalities; when she needed strength to overpower her feministic ways, she adopted her father’s strength and at the time when she was going to get married, she behaved like the most elegant maiden.

Her attitude to adopt different persona and the way she used disguise to achieve her ends was an example for others to follow. She was a motivation and a sparkling work of creation of God in the eyes of writers of her contemporary era. Disguise was most important to protect her vulnerability but Shakespeare was less overt, yet his plays had women having three-dimensional traits. Along with this, his male characters too had a chief trait of disguising themselves especially sexual disguise.

“While some aspects of the disguise are common to all the plays in which it appears, its dramatic function is shaped by the particular design of each play; and the differences are fully as important as the similarities in understanding the complexity of the device in Shakespeare’s hands. ” (Hayles, 63) Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ is a play on the concept of kinghood. King Lear has all the qualities in him to be considered as a king, but when he is old, he brings destruction on himself, on people who are close to him and on his own country.

It is a play that removes the veils that cover the true nature and character of human beings. People who look simple, religious minded and innocent are in true nature culprit and villain. It happens in the world where there is greed, hypocrisy, and flattering and where the king is always cautious to even seek advice from his most trusted man Kent. We could see the traits of disguise within the context of the first two acts only where the King’s two daughters Regan and Goneril use flattery as a disguise hiding their true feelings, and indulging in conspiring to occupy the land.

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