"Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."
In this brief monograph, we shall be hunting down and examining various creatures from the bestiary of Medieval/Renaissance thought. Among these are the fierce lion of imperious, egotistical power, a pair of fantastic peacocks, one of vanity, one of preening social status, and the docile lamb of humility. The lion and the peacocks are of the species known as pride, while the lamb is of an entirely different, in fact antithetical race, that of humility and forgiveness. The textual regions we shall be exploring include the diverse expanses, from palace to heath, of William Shakespeare, the dark, sinister Italy of John Webster, and the perfumed lady's chambers of Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick.
The tragic hero of Shakespeare's King Lear is brought down, like all tragic heroes, by one fatal flaw, in this case pride, as well as pride's sister, folly. It is the King's egotistical demand for total love and, what's more, protestations of such from the daughter who loves him most, that set the stage for his downfall, as well as calling to the minds of the Elizabethan audience of Shakespeare's day the above-cited biblical edict. This daughter, Cordelia, can be seen as the humble lamb mentioned earlier, and her love and filial devotion go not only beyond that of her sisters (which is nil) but beyond words, thus enraging the proud king whose subsequent petulant rebukes extend to a bit of ironic Freudian projection: "Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her" (I.i.125). Here, Shakespeare is emphasizing Lear's pride by having him indulge in the common tendency of despising in others (and in this case wrongly) what one is most guilty of oneself. Lear's rash pride is also underscored in the exposition of the first scene by Kent, who feels it his duty to speak out "when power to flattery bows" (I.i.144). Only pride bows to flattery, and Kent is in essence telling Lear that his pride is getting the better of him.
Another aspect of pride which appears in King Lear, as well as Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, is that of the preoccupation with reputation and social status. In the latter play, it can be seen in Ferdinand's speech to the Duchess in act III, scene ii, in which he tells her an allegorical story about reputation, love, and death (See appendix). Given the Duke's choleric disposition and unnaturally obsessive fixation on his sister's sexual activity, it is not altogether certain how far his speech is motivated by pride and how much it is a product of another mortal sin (not treated here), lust. All the same, it is indicative of an overall world view in which pride of place is woven into the social fabric of the time. (Indeed, things are not so very different today, 400 years later--Plus ca change...)
The Duchess offers up her own little allegorical tale at the end of act IV, scene iii in which she relates the fable of the salmon and the dogfish to her murderer-to-be, Bosola (see appendix). This speech is the perfect companion piece and point/counterpoint-style retort to Ferdinand's paranoid parable. Where Ferdinand casts death as a mere supporting character in his story, the Duchess more rightly sees death, "the net," as the great leveler, bringing an end to the foolish, proud scorn of "great men" for those "born mean." In addition, the fish imagery is ultimately biblical, suggesting to Christian minds the "fisher of men" who is also the humble lamb of god. Hmm.
King Lear is not without its own criticism of the status conscious individual, yet Shakespeare is more concerned with a specific type of man, the social-climber. The early Seventeenth-century was a time of great upheaval in the social structure of England, namely due to the rise of the gentry and bourgeoisie and the subsequent diminution of the aristocracy. Shakespeare was certainly not unaware of this phenomenon and seems to be on the side of the old order in, for example, his depiction of Goneril's servant, Oswald. Here is a fellow who is proud, vain, haughty, self-serving, and ambitious, as well as a host of other things cataloged by Kent in act II, scene ii (see appendix). Kent's invective, aside from its vituperative intensity, is laced with references to social status and various modes of social climbing, all of them dishonorable: "three-suited," implies that he is a servant, allotted three suits a year; "worsted-stocking knave" refers to rank, as upper classes wore silk; "super-serviceable" and "a bawd in the way of good service" point to a willingness to do anything, no matter how distasteful, to procure advancement. Add to this a thick layer of proud, scornful arrogance and you have the ultimate caricature of the Jacobean social climber.
Another example of the new breed is Edmund, a machiavellian schemer whose disregard for old values such as honor, faith, and respect for elders is exemplified by his duplicity, paganism, and filial betrayal. Edmund is Oswald squared; his opposite number is his brother, Edgar.
Edgar, while not a proud, scheming social climber, provides yet another look at the type during his Poor Tom impersonation when he relates the kind of man Poor Tom was before he became a Bedlam beggar (See appendix). While his description of his former "self" includes all seven of the deadly sins, Edgar begins with the declaration that he was "a servingman, proud in heart and mind" (III.iv.78). While I hesitate to credit Shakespeare with the prescience to anticipate my humble interpretations, it seems that he put pride at the top of Poor Tom's list of sins because it was, either in his opinion or in the opinion of the time, the most offensive. In any case, the condition of a Bedlam beggar can be seen as being the punishment for such sins, and the fact that Lear is sitting in the same hovel with Poor Tom, both cold, naked, and insane, clearly indicates that Lear is experiencing a similar punishment for his own sin of pride.
Moving now from dank hovels to my lady's chamber, let us observe her paint an inch thick as we consider the last manifestation of pride to be discussed here, that of female vanity. The English Renaissance represents the culmination of centuries of scathing indictments directed toward the ladies and their face-painting, glass-gazing, prancing, and preening, in short, their use of what was in that day called "art." The attitude of the wits of London at the turn of the Sixteenth century toward feminine wiles was beyond unflattering, as can be seen in Bosola's mocking description of an old lady's "closet" (boudoir) in The Duchess of Malfi: "One would suspect it for a shop of witchcraft, to find in it the fat of serpents, spawn of snakes, Jew's spittle, and their young children's ordure; and all these for the face" (II.i.32-4).
More playful and less severe is Herrick's "Delight in Disorder," a poem that chooses to celebrate the opposite of feminine art, a charming casualness in appearance (See appendix). Herrick does not, however, merely state in verse that it's better to be informal in dress; he infuses his descriptions of casual beauty with an undercurrent of sexual arousal. Consider these words: Kindle, wantonness, distraction, crimson, tempestuous, wild. Put end-to-end in this way, they are potently erotic, but they are strewn throughout the poem so casually, with the same carefree elegance and grace which Herrick is celebrating, that their effect is far more subtle, albeit just as effective. We come away strangely titillated, as well as charmed, by this easy-going young lady. Herrick spends the first dozen lines delighting in her disorder and ends with a little dig at the more made-up, decked-out broads as he declares that her various examples of disarray "Do more bewitch me than when art/Is too precise in every part."
Jonson's "Still to be Neat" does a far more economical job of summing up the appeal of "sweet neglect," using only six lines, however his poem lacks the sexiness of Herrick's (See appendix). It is a more balanced poem, though, the first six lines describing a painted woman, the second six the unpainted one, and it features a similarly pithy closing line, his declaration that "the adulteries of art" "strike mine eyes, but not my heart." The poem originally appeared as a song in one of Jonson's plays, in which it is supposed to have been written for a certain Lady Haughty, a name indicative of not a little touch of pride, pardon my litotes.
So, to sum up, we have captured, examined, and tagged our various creatures of pride, and it is now time to set them free once more, to run wild over the four corners of the earth. The lions will devour all in their path with arrogant derision; the peacocks will peck and claw at one another as they jockey for position in their petty social circles, all the while pouting and preening, painting feathers on their feathers; and the lambs will go on being slaughtered in their docility, uttering never a scornful word, so that we may have lamb chops with mint jelly at Ruth's Chris with our beautiful, precisely made-up wives.
And we can be proud.
©1996 Patrick Galloway
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