Theatrical Reason In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes uses his famous reasoning abilities to read a woman in order to solve a problem. After all, according to Holmes a woman’s emotions always give her away, making it easy for him to find Irene Adler’s hidden photograph. The apparently rational assumptions about women lead Sherlock Holmes to overconfidently use those generalizations in his reasoning to find the photograph. Theatricality is the main tool used by men in this story, and in their seemingly flawless use of a costume, they underestimate the ability of others to see through their reasoning.
Though theatrical efforts are used as a result of a man’s reasoning, it is the man’s overconfidence in his use of theatricality as well as misjudgment in the reasoning of others that result in his ultimate failure, as his costume only serves to reveal the man’s true identity. As a result, the man’s emotions get the better of him, ironically similar to the way a woman’s emotions are supposed to get the better of her. In the beginning of the story, the King of Bohemia seeks Sherlock Holmes’ help as someone else.
He wears a “black vizard mask” (212) in an attempt to disguise his true identity, underestimating Holmes’ ability to see through the King’s costume. Once the King realized his theatrical effort proved useless, he “sprang from his chair, and paced up and down the room in uncontrollable agitation. Then, with a gesture of desperation, he tore the mask from his face and hurled it upon the ground” (214). Here, the King clearly lets his emotions get the better of him when his costume is discovered.
His emotional outburst indicates that the event of someone figuring him out were unexpected, and not realizing that anyone would be able to read past his costume, the King not only overestimates his seemingly reasonable idea to hide behind a mask, he also overconfidently assumed no one else would be able to figure it out. It isn’t until Holmes correctly points out the King’s true identity that the King begins to realize the extent of Holmes’ reasoning abilities, which is something he failed to consider before. Like the King of Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes makes use of different ostumes in order to solve the problem presented to him. He uses his reasoning in deciding his character “of a groom out of work,” (219) using a logical assumption about grooms that by doing so “[he] will know all that there is to know” (219). Here, Holmes’ reasoning works to his advantage, as he accomplishes what he sets out to do. It might then be argued that his reasoning here proves the successful use of his theatricality, but it can also be said that the success of his first costume leads Holmes’ to decide to use a second costume.
In this case, his reasoning leads him to assume that theatricality will prove successful the second time around as well. Combined with his preconceived assumption about women, it follows that Holmes overconfidently uses theatrics the second time around. The second time Sherlock Holmes’ decides to act as a different character, he assumes that everyone involved would act a certain way, which is the main reasoning behind his theatrical plan.
He also uses a generalization about women and their emotions as the main motive for his reasoning, claiming that “when a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most” (230). Here, he uses a common stereotype about women and their overpowering emotions to his advantage, thinking it reasonable to assume the stereotype applies to all women. His lack of reflection about the specific woman he was dealing with shows his reasoning was not thought through.
Although he correctly assumed that Irene would try to protect the photograph in the event of an emergency, he failed to consider the possibility that Irene would not only reason out her own emotions but reason out Holmes’ identity as well. As soon as Irene Adler reveals the location of the sought after photograph, she is quick to realize how she had betrayed herself (233). Despite her emotions serving Holmes in the way he anticipated, she was able to use her logical judgment to identify Holmes for who he really was, even though he did nothing to directly reveal himself. Her knowledge of who he was came unexpected to Holmes.
Although he was quick to utilize common assumptions about women, he underestimated Irene’s ability to reason for herself, and in doing so he overestimated his seemingly faultless theatrical idea. He was so overconfident, in fact, that he barely gave a second thought to the person who said, “Good night, Mister Sherlock Holmes” (231). The next day he told the King of his seemingly reasonable findings, without any doubt as to his success, which is why his failure comes as a bit of a shock to him. Although his reasoning was well thought out, Sherlock Holmes receives a surprise when he finds out his identity was discovered.
When he is addressed by name, he gives a “questioning and rather startled gaze” (232), and when he finds out Irene Adler knows his identity, he “staggered back, white with chagrin and surprise” (233). Here, Holmes is ironically showing emotion upon finding out he was discovered by a woman. As his theatrical plan seemed to be flawless, his failure comes as a direct result of underestimating the reasoning and observing abilities of a woman. His overconfidence in his own abilities also leads Holmes to believe that no one is able to figure out his thinking process.
His emotional outburst, therefore, is caused by his inability to get over himself as well as a common generalization about women and their emotion. Sherlock Holmes is considered by his closest companion Watson as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen,” going as far as saying that Holmes is “excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions” (206). By generalizing Holmes’ reasoning abilities to include the motives of all men, Watson is making an association between men and reason.
This idea relates to the general idea shown throughout the story that correlates men with reason and women with emotion. However, it is ultimately a woman who uses reason to figure out a man, who in turn ironically lets his emotion get the better of him, which is the case of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. Although Holmes correctly uses a generalization about women to reason out his theatrical plan to find the photograph, he not only fails to notice any flaws in his plan, he also fails to consider Irene as a specific person as opposed to a general form of a woman.
Likewise, the King of Bohemia failed in his attempt to disguise himself from Holmes because he didn’t stop to think of the imperfections in his costume. The men’s overconfidence in their seemingly reasonable theatrics leads to their eventual failures, and their inability to see others as reasoning people results in their surprised emotions. This is ironic, as emotion is considered by Holmes to be the main flaw in women. However, luckily for the characters in the story, regardless of the failed theatrical antics of the men, everyone got the solution they were hoping for.