08
Aug
11

Shakespeare Synthesized: The Relevance of Pride as Thematic Element

When undertaking a task as weighty as the study of Shakespearean literature, there are indeed some challenges.  This is not to say that the texts are necessarily difficult, or particularly easy for that matter, but that careful analysis must be accompanied with a solid reception of theme.  Undoubtedly, a student can get lost in the myriad of interpretations and meaning in the depth of the Bard’s work.  That is why, essentially because of this apparent inconsistency, finding the most significant elements within the text is crucial for a full and appreciative literary understanding.  The purpose of this discourse, then, is to argue that yes, the plays of Shakespeare we studied in this course – as well as their modern-day film adaptations – are ripe with valuable thematic elements.  But the over-arching theme of pride surpasses all of them in terms of saliency, substance, and magnitude.  It is this specific theme that initiates the tragic unraveling and decline of King Lear, causes Titus Andronicus to renounce and murder his own child, and precipitates the destruction of several main characters in Othello.  It is this type of pride that loosens a man’s grasp on reality and becomes that which not only defines him, but eventually destroys him.  As such, we begin the discussion of pride as a relevant thematic element by carefully looking at each source and arguing pride’s mostly unflattering (but nonetheless powerful) effects.

Since theme is defined as the main idea, or message, of a narrative, we look to theme as being one of the most important elements in terms of analysis.  Throughout the course, we studied themes that revolved around violence, family, and society.  In some cases, theme was even illustrated by certain gender roles or through sexual ambiguity of some sort.  There are four main texts that deserve our close inspection, to fully realize the extent to which pride thoroughly channels itself through and embeds itself within each one of them.  These include Shakespeare’s original plays Titus Andronicus, King Lear, and Othello – in addition to Tim Blake Nelson’s film adaptation of the latter, aptly named O.  With that in mind, our task becomes this:  by using the texts as a means for interpretation through close reading, how truly fundamental is pride in terms of the overall stories?  Does it usurp some of the relevance away from some of Shakespeare’s other views on family relations, politics, and religious connotation?  This essay will attempt to prove that yes, pride not only assumes the highest position in our hierarchy, but also speaks so loudly through the Bard’s use of language that it absolutely demands our attention and study.

The first play that we studied for this course was Titus Andronicus.  We are introduced to the title character in Act 1, and from the outset realize that he is a focused military leader with a number of equally admirable traits.  From the material, we are told that “A nobler man, a braver warrior, / Lives not this day within the city walls.”  Later on, readers learn that Titus is a “Patron of virtue,” and “Rome’s best champion.”  It takes no real great analytical talent to understand that our hero is essentially a good man.  We see the first instance of his prideful nature when Titus becomes enraged at his daughter’s betrothal to Bassianus instead of the new emperor Saturninus.  The prideful old soldier simply cannot allow his only daughter to “fall” from the potential position of Empress of Rome into a lesser role.  In his view, the Androcini are better than this, they deserve much better than this – and the pride of his family name simply will not be tarnished on his watch.  When his son Mutius comes to his sister’s defense, Titus’s pride reveals itself in the form of bloodshed – as Titus fatally stabs him and defends it by exclaiming, “Nor thou nor he are any sons of mine. / My sons would never so dishonor me.”  This, quite simply, is pride in its worst manifestation.  For a man to be so proud as to justify the killing of his own progeny, there must be some serious underlying issues.  At the very least, we can say that pride was the cause of this violence.  We see it again when the emotionally injured Titus declares that Saturninus’s words “are razors to my wounded [proud] heart.” Ironically, we see a measure of Titus’s pride when he cuts his hand off in an effort to save his two sons from execution at the hands of the Emperor.  Is this the same type of pride that drove him to stab his own son?  In an ironic twist, yes it is.  His pride has reached such a crescendo at that point in the play that he willingly agrees, “With all my heart I’ll send the Emperor my hand. / Good Aaron, wilt thou help to chop it off?”  Without pride, this decision could never have taken place.  To divest oneself of something so important suggests that Titus is proud enough to sacrifice for his sons’ benefit.  It is this startling and quite real juxtaposition (pride as violence with Mutius, yet redemptive with Quintus and Martius) that makes pride such an undeniably crucial element within the reading of the play.

Aaron the Moor, Shakespeare’s example of unrepentant evil in Titus Andronicus, also demonstrates a form of pride that cannot be ignored.  His is an unapologetic pride, for he even states that despite being punished for his criminal behavior, he would do it again, “Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did / Would I perform, if I might have my will.”  This is an astounding statement, given the position that he is in – one of execution at the hands of the new political ruler.  But what makes Aaron’s position so strong?  Why does he maintain steadfast in his villainy, as the chips slowly mount up against him?  Again, look to pride for the answer.  Aaron is another type of character who feels wronged by his situation.  Outcast because of racial differences, he uses evil pride as a subjective form of checks and balances, or as a means to “get back” at society.  He is proud in the sense that he knows he is different, excluded, perhaps unfairly, and resentful because of it.  This pride translates into deceit, violence, and a shameless attitude without any real hope of reformation.

King Lear, as we will see, probably has the most compelling evidence in terms of how debilitating the element of pride can be.  We first see the aging King of England in a position to divide his kingdom equally between his three daughters.  There is really nothing prideful in that, but when he demands that they each state the level of love they have for him, we see his pride-driven ego begin to emerge.  Clearly, he is a proud man who needs to have this positive reinforcement in his life.  Otherwise, what would the point be in asking his children to declare their allegiance?  Shouldn’t a father already be aware of their position?  Should there be a valid reason for his request other than prideful vanity?  Ironically, it also works to show readers the dishonesty that lies beneath the surface in the sisters Goneril and Regan.  But Lear doesn’t realize this at the time.  When Cordelia opposes her deceitful sisters’ opinions and tells her father, “I love your Majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less,” Lear cannot understand this and his pride suffers dramatically.  It then follows that his pride “allows” him to outright disown Cordelia with these especially terse words, “Here I disclaim all my paternal care.”  When the Earl of Kent tries to intercede on Cordelia’s behalf, Lear banishes him as well, threatening him with death if he ever “be found in our dominions.”  Surely this is not the logical, well-thought out diplomacy of a right-minded monarch?  Why would a man who presumably has the capacity for consistent and rational behavior banish his own blood, and later one of the highest members of his inner circle?  For what crime, even?  The Earl of Gloucester calls his crime “honesty,” but the answer to our question is, unequivocally, pride.  This is not the nationalistic pride one feels for their country, for example, or the positive-feeling pride that accompanies watching your children succeed.  The pride that infiltrates Lear’s mind at this point is the type that incapacitates and is so inherently obtuse that it allows for no other balanced thought.  Since it is this element that triggers most of the resulting actions in the story, it must be categorized as the most salient theme.

Lear isn’t the only character in the play to show prideful tendencies, however.  Edmund, as the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, is tremendously prideful in his actions to depose the rightful Gloucester heir, Edgar.  In Edmund’s mind, he is the more qualified to inherit the estate of his father.  And with that assumption, pride grows within himself.  He calculates how to remove his half-brother and voices publicly, “Let me, if not by birth, have [Gloucester’s] lands by wit. / All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit.”  With these words, Edmund is shaping his deceitful plan.  And what is the cause of his actions?  What urges his decision to take what isn’t his?  Namely, it is the prideful intent that lives inside him – most likely from his label as a bastard child, and the “unfairness” that he must feel at why Edgar’s rightful position cannot either belong to him, or shared in some way.  Contextually, being in such a position would certainly cause a bit of resentment and jealousy.  When you add a prideful man into this mix, nothing good can result.

Othello, much like King Lear, is packed with prideful elements – ranging from Iago’s pride in being overlooked for a promotion to Othello’s own internal pride which causes insecurity and anxiety at so many different levels.  To begin with, readers are informed within the first few lines that Iago has been “wronged” in some way.  It is evident that his own pride has been hurt by Othello’s selection of another for promotion when Iago states, “I know my price, I am worth no worse a place.”  In this passage, we see an individual who most certainly thinks his qualifications and merits on the battlefield are deserving of the lieutenantcy he was denied.  He is flatly stating that he knows his worth (proud), and he deserves much better than what he has been given.  Human nature will generally confirm that a certain amount of humility should accompany such denial, but Iago is not a humble type of character in the least.  Fury burns within him, and revenge becomes his way of trying to reverse the current scenario to his favor.  Iago even gives it as plainly as he can to readers with these words, “And nothing can or shall content my soul / Till I am evened with him [Othello].”  His pride is probably best described as being at least equivalent to the level of jealousy he has for Cassio, who was given the position instead.  Pride, therefore, is the instigator that drives him to start calculating Othello’s destruction.  Ironically, he even uses this same word to categorize the Moor himself.  He describes his boss as “loving his own pride and purposes,” which is perhaps Shakespeare’s way of foreshadowing the fact that Othello truly has a tremendous amount of prideful proclivities.  Coming from such an immensely evil character such as Iago, however, and so early in the play, readers may overlook this allusion.

Any discussion of pride cannot be undertaken without also illustrating the same theme in the psyche of the title character.  Othello is a man full of it, and an argument can even be made that it is perhaps natural for him to feel this way.  After all, he is an extremely successful military officer who “commands / Like a full soldier.”  He has a beautiful wife who loves him unconditionally, and he enjoys the complete respect of his subordinates.  Even the Duke of Venice calls him “valiant” in the final scene of Act 1, and references are made to both the general’s nobility and bravery.  But what of pride?  A good place to start would be with his relationship with Desdemona.  In Act 1, Scene 3, we see both Othello and Desdemona in effect defending their relationship to her father Brabantio and the Duke of Venice.  The inference in this scene is that her father and the Duke are incredibly surprised that such a union exists.  But proud Othello will have none of this uncertainty.  He shows pride in the fact that he “won [Brabantio’s] daughter” through the “dangers I had passed.”  This speaks of pride borne of military duty, nobleness, and the pride that simply accompanies being a good, honest man above reproach.  He is so proud of his relationship with Desdemona that he implores the Duke and Senator to call for her and ask for her concurrence.  If he [Othello] is wrong, then “Not only take away, but let your sentence / Even fall upon my life.” For a man to wager his life on something that he knows to be true and just, shows an extreme amount of pride in the situation.  In this example, we can see some positive effects of being proud.  As the play continues, this same prideful spirit that Othello owns will begin to work against his historically good judgment.

Nelson’s film adaptation of Othello provides viewers with an interesting study by taking the centuries-old play and interpreting it through an especially modern lens.  Since his movie O is set in the present-day south, Nelson can explore such recognizable, yet polarizing, themes such as racial prejudice and familial conflicts in an extremely contemporary way.  But much like its original cousin, O showcases the destructive pride that causes the downfall of so many.  This source is an interesting study because it gives us an excellent visual representation of the effects pride has on a character.  It is one thing to read about a man’s pride causing internal conflict, confusion, and anxiety – but Nelson’s interpretation of his main character, Odin, evokes a sense of sympathy not found in the written text.  For example, when Hugo first plants the idea in Odin’s head that Desi is probably being unfaithful to him, the anguish on Odin’s face represents pure hurt.  This argument would even contend that without a significant amount of pride from within, hurt could not even be a possibility.  Odin loves Desi, he is proud of their relationship.  He is proud of his status as the star of the basketball program.  He is proud that despite being a (racial) outsider, he is still viewed as a leader on campus.  That is why his stabbing hurt, and Nelson’s capturing of it on film, is so full of despair.  Because he has such a large amount of pride, acceptance of something like Desi’s (apparent) infidelity throws him into such a state of confusion that he cannot recover from it.  The scene on the basketball court where Odin rips down the rim – and reacts so indifferently to the booing crowd – there is no way an “un-prideful” person reacts in that way.  Put yourself in his shoes: nobody disrespects Odin James.  He is the big man on campus with the MVP trophy, the prettiest girlfriend in school, and college scouts drooling over his athletic abilities. How dare anyone “diss” him?  For if this type of man lacked pride, the story would end before it even got started.  Once (a pride-less) Odin thought his girlfriend was cheating on him, he’d go find another girlfriend and that would be it.  However, pride sneakily intervenes and doesn’t allow that scenario to occur.  In other words, pride – more than any other dramatic element in the story – dictates the outcome.  It dictates Odin’s fall from grace, it dictates Hugo’s actions and resentment of his father, and it dictates the deaths of both Roger and Desi.  It plays a crucial role in Mike’s injury and eventual redemption, as well as the coach’s inability to see his son’s frustrations and desires for what they are truly worth.  Frankly, pride rules the day.  And while there are, certainly, other themes in Nelson’s film that are important (teenage violence, racial prejudices, etc), none produce a more compelling argument than pride does.

As literary opinions usually go, there are literally hundreds of different interpretations that could be introduced for any given work.  This is most certainly true with something as widely read and analyzed as Shakespeare.  With the handful of sources that are outlined and examined in this essay, however, the prevailing conclusion is that pride carries the most weight.  It easily cruises past other themes such as ones pertaining to violence, gender, or politics in terms of relevant power.  It surpasses any theme of love, or religion, or family.  By and large, this theme of pride sits alone as the most credible example of what is most significant in all of the works we have studied.  However, this is not to say that pride is necessarily a “good” thing – since it is clear from the textual evidence that it leads to some very serious and destructive outcomes if left unrecognized and unchecked.  Pride, as we have seen it, exists primarily in characters who either have earned some form of esteemed status (Lear, Othello, Titus), or have been wronged (subjectively) in some way (Iago, Hugo, Edmund.)  But the result is the same:  this overwhelming and heavy encumbrance of pride causes – whatever the individual context may be – bad judgment, ill-fated decisions, and a decidedly negative outcome.  It almost never leads to anything positive, and it can be debated that it clearly leads to the exact opposite – which is the tragic element of destruction.  For these reasons, it is fair and reasonable to pronounce pride as the most salient theme in the majority of the texts we studied this semester.  While other arguments may exist that saliency is subjective, or that other themes deserve equal billing, the fact is that pride, fairly or unfairly, exceeds them all.  Perhaps the Book of Proverbs can serve as a worthy complement to Shakespeare as Solomon warns, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  For too many of the fallen Shakespearean characters, this was a lesson in humility learned far too late, and arguably, not at all.

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