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Disguise and Identity in The Importance of Being Earnest and The School for Scandal

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2210 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The Role of Disguise


Disguise refers to anything changing or concealing the appearance of a person or thing including the physical appearance to hide secret identities. In superhero stories and books, disguises are used to conceal secret identities and retain special secret powers from the people who are ordinary (Hyland 102). In the plays “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Wilde Oscar and “The School for Scandal” by Brinsley Richard the predominant theme is a disguise. However, the two texts display in many instances significance similarities and differences of disguise in the entire plays. The play by Wilde can be defined as a trivial or farcical comedy firstly performed in 1895 in London whose protagonists maintain fictitious identities or personas to avoid burdensome social obligations. On the other hand, the play by Richard is a manners comedy satirizing the customs and behaviors of upper classes through dialogues which are witty and with the plot that is intricate and having comic situations that expose the shortcomings of the characters. This essay seeks to explore the importance of disguise as demonstrated in the plays “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Wilde Oscar and “The School for Scandal” by Brinsley Richard, including the plot differences while focusing on the characters such as Jack and Joseph in the plays.

Disguise in “The Importance of Being Earnest

In his play, Wilde hilariously satirizes the Victorian caricature and the values of disguise held by the by the individuals that time. He exposes disguising ideals and social beliefs of the society of aristocracy by mocking their contemporary character traits in a derisive manner; which can be termed as voguish traits. An irony is created of false perceptions of living earnestly; such that many appear to live a disguised manner which does not concur with the Victorian values (Wilde 302). Earnestness can be defined adequately by showing the sincerity of being or feeling serious in purpose, effort or intention. Also, it means the determination to be true and not hiding any secret identities. Jack is one of the characters leading a corrupt life in the code of conduct of Victoria. The Victorians regard earnestness as the sublime virtue to attain in life for acceptance in the aristocratic society; however, Jack and other character revere it trivially (Tropsha 72). Jack felt pressure to live up to the standards of being earnest and perceived it as tiresome, and therefore decided to devise the manner in which he could satisfy himself as well as the society. By disguise, people are able to sustain a given image which is respectable in the society but change when they are elsewhere. Jack fictitiously creates a brother named “Ernest” to leave his duty of being a guardian and his home in the country under pretenses which are false. He says that his brother is sick to venture the town without being suspected or in disguise. In town, he courts Gwendolen, his love, and engages in pricey pleasures in disguise. Similarly, Algernon pretends to be Ernest, Jack’s brother to win Cecily’s heart because he knew that such name was loved by women (Tropsha 76).

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Jack is presented as a Justice of Peace in Hertfordshire where he owns a country estate and he is recognized as responsible and serious guardian to his adoptive granddaughter, Cecily and represents Victorian morality values; respectability, honor, and duty. In the Victorian setting, the place of a guardian requires one “to have a moral high tone on all matters,” and Jack stands as a person qualifying these criteria which are not true (Wilde 301). He also pretends that his brother, Ernest lives an irresponsible and scandalous life which makes him get into trouble always and leaves London in disguise to assist his brother who is in trouble. As a matter of fact, Jack intention was to “get up to town” and not because of his brother, and goes missing for several days while living a life that he seems to disapprove in the country (Tropsha 74). This shows that Jack is using an excuse of Ernest as a disguise to maintain intact his honorable image. Also, Jack does not know his real name since he was found in a cloak-room in a handbag at Station of Victoria as a baby.

Moreover, the theme of disguise is also used by Wilde in the play as revealed in the strategies and language of lying to exploit the society’s hypocrisy such that the use of disguise may be seen as lying. Both Jack and Algy make christenings’ request and it can be seen Chasuble as if connected highly to the notion of name-giving; which mean giving a definition (Clay 24). The christenings theme in the play depicts Jack as if they would want to go back to childhood to change their identity. Changing one’s name can be viewed in the postcolonial era as an intention to conceal one’s otherness and nationality (Hyland 123). One can get better or fit in a given society by changing their identity for more prospects in disguise. While using the name Jack Worthing, Jack is hindered from marrying but he gets better prospects to marry when using the name Ernest Moncrieff which is a disguise since it is not his name. Apparently, Jack is forced to say the truth about his life while in the conflicts within some social class. While in the relationship with Algy, Jack is engaged in jokes revealing the truth about his life. The conflict involves a general characteristic of Victorian farce, which is food, where Jack and Algy are dining and emphasizes on the moral vitality of eating; for example, Jack says “he does not like people who are not serious with meals” (Wilde 303). In act II Algy is approached by Jack who says “it is heartless to eat muffins under the circumstances” but his intention was to have the muffins but Algy denies him.

Despite the fact that Jack has the secret life in the play, he claims to be speaking the truth. The character states the truth conveying his morality as well as emphasizes truthfulness which is the major theme in the play. Jack is accused by Algy of untruthfulness when he speaks as a dentist, and this indicates disguise and she says “it creates an impression which is false” (Wilde 300). Jack tells Algy that he is not living in Shropshire and after revealing the truth about his life he says that “truth is never simple and is rarely pure” (Wilde 301). Jack also reveals that he did not tell Gwendolen the truth when he states that “truth is not told to a nice, refined girl” (Wilde 313). Furthermore, Jack finds out that his real name is Ernest and that he has been speaking the truth; however, he was convinced that he had lived a disguised life (Wilde 357). All the lies are revealed as the truths at the end of the play.

Disguise “The School for Scandal”

In the play, some characters such as Joseph Surface represent false appearances. Lady Sneerwell is attracted to Joseph’s brother Charles Surface, and plots with Joseph to break the relationship between Maria and Charles. Joseph Surface is the bad brother but in disguise pretends to be a gentleman who is honorable. The fate of Joseph is foreshadowed by Mrs. Candour’s gossips, who deliver false accounts using the metaphor of money (Brinsley 256). Joseph attributes that scandal like the one which ruined his financial success. Joseph Surface has a reputation of an upright man but beneath is the villain; that is with evil intentions and motives indicating that he is in disguise. Joseph uses lies with the intention to attract Maria and marry her for financial interest (GALE 2). Also, Sir Oliver uses disguise to discover their distinction about the one who is a good brother between Charles and Joseph.

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Surface brothers take central characters in the play while displaying reputation which is undeserved; that is their true identity is concealed from being in the real world. Joseph cultivates a goodness reputation yet he is a hypocritical moralist, whereas his brother has a bad reputation but he is honest at his core. Both Joseph and his brother’s earn their reputations over the course of the play when their true nature is revealed. The two brothers also have a similar name, “Surface” which indicates that their only difference is the characters and reputation (Brinsley 206). Joseph appears to be good on the surface but deep down he is evil, implying that he is hiding his flaws in disguise. When a person portrays him-or herself as loving, charitable and loyal yet their true nature is opposite, such person is disguising and in the play the characters have the names which tend to reveal their main traits (GALE 3).

The plot of the play shows concealed elements of the natures of the characters which fittingly, is concealed and exposed through the literal acts. The rich uncle to Joseph, Sir Oliver Surface, who lived in India for many years tests Joseph and his brother to know the truth about their identities to the surface. He uses different persona to test each nephew to see whether they would recognize him when he returned (Brinsley 267). Sir Oliver wanted to know their true nature by seeing how each of them would respond. Moreover, the screen scene, which is the most famous scene of the play the characters’ true natures are revealed when they hide physically in the room and then exposed. Lady Teazle pays a visit to the house of Joseph because she is looking forward to becoming his lover. When the husband to Teazle arrives and tells Joseph about his wife having an affair with Charles, Lady Teazle is concealed by the screen. When Charles arrives, Sir Peter hides as eavesdrop on Joseph to discover whether Charles had a love affair with Lady Teazle. At the end of the play, all the characters appear from their hiding place exposing Joseph’s true nature as the one trying to steal the wife from a friend and not Charles. This shows that Joseph had lived in disguise of an honorable gentleman who is finally exposed as an evil person or bad brother to Charles Surface (GALE 4).

When comparing the play by Wilde and Richard, both ending of the plays with revealing the true nature of each character. Also, the characters develop a new union than they had realized before having come to par with the truth. In the play by Wilde, Jack discovers that despite having lived in disguise, he was the true Ernest as he has been claiming. On the contrary, Joseph knows his true nature but he does not want to destroy his reputation as an honorable person, however, in the end, his true nature is revealed in front of all the character in the play unlike Jack. All the characters in the plays come to acknowledge the importance of living according to their true nature rather than conceal their identities which in the end are exposed.


In the plays, the authors appear to alter the characters’ identities to serve the purpose of bringing out the irony, building the theme, advancing the plot and creating comic innuendo. In other cases of the plays, there is no disguise in such that the characters do not transform their appearance but they hide true ideas or feelings behind a façade; for example, when all the characters gathered in Joseph’s house and each of the hid to conceal their feelings. In such cases, both Wilde and Richard traverse through the distinction between the inner reality and appearance of the characters. This essay has therefore demonstrated the role of disguise in plays “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Wilde Oscar and “The School for Scandal” by Brinsley Richard as well as the differences in the plots while exploring the appearances of Jack and Joseph in the plays.

Works Cited

  • Clay, Diskin. “The theory of the Literary Persona in Antiquity.” Materiali e discussion per l’analisi dei Testi classic (1998): 9-40.
  • Top of Form
  • GALE, CENGAGE L. E. A. R. N. I. N. G. Study Guide for Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “School for Scandal.”. DETROIT: GALE, CENGAGE LEARNING, n.d. Internet resource.
  • Hyland, Peter. Disguise on the Early Modern English Stage. Routledge, 2016.
  • Bottom of Form
  • Top of Form
  • Brinsley, Richard, and Michael Cordner. The Rivals. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998. Print.
  • Tropsha, Alexander, Paola Gramatica, and Vijay K. Gombar. “The importance of being earnest: validation is the absolute essential for successful application and interpretation of QSPR models.” QSAR & Combinatorial Science 22.1 (2003): 69-77
  • Bottom of Form
  • Wilde, Oscar. The importance of being earnest. Broadview Press, 2009.


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