The Sin of Pride Exposed in King Lear, and The Duchess of Malfi
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,...