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What is the role of disguises in "A Scandal In Bohemia"?

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The value of disguise is a major theme in Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia," which introduces the mysterious character of Irene Adler to the world of Sherlock Holmes.

It begins as a very large and exotically-dressed man wearing a black vizard mask arrives at the lodgings of the famed detective, announcing himself as Count Von Kramm, an agent of the King of Bohemia. Holmes quickly unmasks the visitor as the royal figure he claims to represent. Chagrined, the king explains that his forthcoming marriage will be ruined unless his former lover, an adventuress named Irene Adler, is prevented from making public a compromising photograph of the two of them. Holmes takes the case.

The next afternoon, while awaiting the return of Holmes at the detective's Baker St. address, it takes some time before he realizes that the unkempt, apparently alcoholic groomsman who arrives is actually his friend. Holmes reveals that he had affected this disguise to mingle with the ostlers and other "horsey" types in the vicinity of Irene Adler's small villa. In this way, he had not only learned a great deal about the woman's home, habits, and associates but had even been pressed into service as a witness at her just-concluded wedding.

In the story's finale, Holmes concocts a ruse involving Dr. Watson, in which the detective gains access to Adler's home while masquerading as an elderly, wounded clergyman. While Watson creates a diversion, Adler accidentally reveals the location of the dangerous photo to the observant Holmes. Although he is forced to leave without the blackmail object, the detective returns the next day with the king and Dr. Watson to find that Irene and her new husband have vanished. Instead of the prized photograph, they find instead, a photograph of Irene in an evening dress and a note.

In the note, Irene explains that she had followed the "clergyman" home on the previous evening, disguised as a "slim youth in an ulster." Realizing that Sherlock Holmes was now in pursuit, she and her new husband decided it would best to depart immediately on their honeymoon. As for the photograph, she says, "your client may rest peace, because " she no longer needs to release it. Knowing her word to be "inviolate," the sovereign is tremendously relieved and grateful. When he offers Holmes "anything" he wants as payment, the detective asks only for the photograph of Irene, who as Dr. Watson says, is "the woman" who "eclipses" all others for Sherlock Holmes.

As always, the theme of disguise is perfectly suited to the universe of the mystery, where nothing and no one are what they seem.

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It is the use of disguises that provides those wearing them important information and intrigue.

In the case involving the King of Bohemia and Irene Adler, an actress, the King is about to be married, but is worried about a compromising photograph of himself with Miss Adler; this photograph is in the possession of Miss Adler, who refuses to relinquish it. Disguised as the agent of the king, the King himself arrives wearing fur-trimmed boots that reach past his calves that "completed the impression of barbaric opulence which was suggested by his whole appearance." He wears also a black vizard mask. But Holmes quickly perceives that the man poses as someone other than he is. After he reveals himself, he asks Holmes to retrieve this photograph for him.

So, Holmes himself goes into disguises in order to obtain information. Watson notes that Holmes could have become a fine actor because

It was not merely that Holmes changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. 

He first poses as a a slovenly groomsman in order to hear the gossip of the stables and the cabbies. From them he learns that Miss Adler is about to be married. In fact, he is solicited to be a witness to this wedding. Then, because the newlyweds are about to leave town, the urgency of finding the photograph is heightened.

Holmes's next disguise is that of a clergyman who mingles with the crowd outside Irene Adler's home, jostled by this crowd, the clergyman is knocked to the ground and bloodied. Concerned about him, the actress has him brought inside. In the meantime, Watson throws a smoke bomb into the house and cries of "Fire" resound, causing the occupants to flee the house. But first, taking advantage of the situation, Holmes watches where Irene rushes to, knowing that she would wish to retrieve her valuable photograph. He discovers, then, her hiding place.

The next morning the King accompanies Holmes to the Adler house; however, a servant informs them that the newlyweds have departed on their honeymoon. Nevertheless, she invites the men to enter the drawing-room where Holmes finds in the hiding spot another photograph of the actress along with a note addressed to him. In it Miss Adler informs Holmes that as an actress, she, too, could assume other identities.

Disguised herself, then, she has turned the tables on Holmes and followed the King and Holmes back to his dwelling, as her letter, with another single photograph of her, reveals. Her letter states that she will cause no more problems for the King, and Holmes is so impressed with her that he asks the King to give him the photograph as his reward.

Thus, the use of disguises adds interests, provides information, moves the plot forward, and even adds a little intrigue to the narrative of "A Scandal in Bohemia."

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