The theme of pride plays a fundamental role in determining the final denouement of the play. Indeed, it is the source of both Lear’s downfall and the subsequent downfall of his kingdom. Lear’s pride is not in isolation however; Regan, Goneril, Edmund and arguably Cordelia’s pride also play an intrinsic part in the demise of Lear’s kingdom. Hence, pride is a prominent and continuing theme throughout King Lear and in essence exemplifies both the ‘good’ characters and the ‘evil’ characters.
Like all tragic heroes, Lear has one fatal flaw- pride. It is clearly apparent that he wants to be treated as a king yet he has no desire to fulfil the responsibilities that come with his title; fundamentally, Lear ignores the failings of the legal system: “legal systems that hammer the sins of the poor while winking at the wrongs of the rich”. In many ways, it is possible to argue that Lear has gone against God. It was originally perceived that God chose the monarchs; certainly, in this respect Lear has abandoned his responsibilities as a king to satisfy his feeling of self worth. Essentially, Pride has led Lear to abandon his commitment to his kingdom and to God. The notion of “which of you shall we say doth love us most” thus reiterates, the word “say” in particular, that Lear would prefer a superficial display of love, which is demonstrated by Regan and Goneril, as opposed to Cordelia’s love which is evident through her devotion and loyalty to her father. Certainly, Cordelia is already his favourite daughter and he has decided on giving her “a third more opulent than (her) sisters”. Inevitably though, Lear overlooks Cordelia’s “kind nursery” simply because she refuses to take part in his egotistical ‘love test’. However, this is only because she cannot describe the true extent of her love in words, she “cannot heave (her) heart into (her) mouth”; nevertheless, Lear favours Regan and Goneril’s false-hearted, albeit manipulative flattery. More importantly, Lear’s pride ultimately see’s him going against the two people who ironically have his best interests at heart- despite Cordelia’s description of her “ponderous” daughters and Kent’s warning to Lear of his “hideous rashness”, Lear’s pride blinds him and he again sides with his other daughters’ flattery. The stark consequence of Lear’s rashness is accentuated at the end of the first scene as Regan and Goneril decide to “hit together”; thus creating a strong sense of foreboding. Lear’s tragic flaw-pride, undoubtedly results in Lear’s fundamental misuse of power, which culminates in his life and his kingdom moving further out of his control.
Despite Lear’s apparent transformation as the play develops, he nevertheless maintains a certain notion of pride. Without doubt, Lear is adamant that he strikes back at his two deceiving daughters through sterilising them; Lear wishes that Goneril is unable to have children: “Dry up in her the organs of increase”. This emphasises that he still blames his daughters- his pride is yet again blinding him from seeing that it was his narcissistic ‘love test’ which brought about his downfall. Lear’s obsession with justice continues as he “anatomizes” his daughters in the mock trial he enacts, which is a parody of the ‘love test’, in Act one. Once again, whilst Lear can now see the true character of his daughters, he never even contemplates that he had a role in his downfall. More significantly, Lear’s pride is shown through his sympathy towards Poor Tom. Lear is not concerned with himself who is now “houseless” but rather with the “naked wretches” such as Poor Tom. Whilst this demonstrates Lear’s newfound humbleness, it is also indicative that Lear still feels more worthy than Poor Tom; Lear has the desire to become an “unaccommodated man” through stripping off his clothes- yet this ultimately suggests that he still feels he has more status. In this respect, it poses the question of whether Lear has learnt from his experience at all.
Edmund’s pride alternatively, results in him virtually going to any means to suppress his illegitimacy: “all with me’s meet… that I can fashion fit”. Ironically, however, Edmund’s speech, “why bastard?” in Act two, decries his stereotype; yet he subsequently conforms to this stereotype through his behaviour. Consequently, Edmund epitomises Machiavellian qualities, which was a recurring topic in Jacobean drama. All of Edmund’s beliefs are summarised in his soliloquy in Scene two of Act one, whereby he rejects the hierarchy that has made his brother and father prosperous. However, Edmund’s disapproval stems from his pride; in reality Edmund also wants to succeed in society’s terms. Certainly, the importance Edmund places on status is illuminated by the way he callously frames Edgar- this goes against natural order and this indicates how Edmund feels his social status is of more importance that his relationship with his brother and father. In many ways, Gloucester, Edgar and Edmund simply echo Lear’s predicament. Furthermore, it is possible that Lear, Kent and Cordelia represent the old ways of the monarchy and social order, while Edmund, Goneril and Regan represent a new hierarchy, which adheres to Machiavellian codes- these three are after all arguably synonymous with the devil. Without doubt, Shakespeare was aware of the social shift that was occurring when he wrote many of his plays and this may well be a reference to it. Regardless of Shakespeare’s motive however, it does provide damning proof of Edmund’s pride and the stark consequences of it.
Similar to Edmund, Regan and Goneril’s pursuit of self-gratification results in tragedy. Their pride is evident through their flattery towards their father in the opening scene- Goneril states that she loves her father more than “eyesight, space, and liberty”. This highlights how, like Edmund, Goneril and Regan are willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve their goal of gaining rule over England. Indeed, their pride results in the barbaric treatment of Lear in Act two, when he is left in “the hell-black night” of the storm. Again, this goes against natural order and reveals that they feel their status is more important than their father’s well-being. The notion “all cruels else subscribe” may represent how on such a terrible night any other creature would have pitied Lear and given him shelter, but not his daughters who are becoming increasingly sadistic in the quest for rule over England. Essentially, the two daughters are personifications of evil- they have no conscience, only greed and this greed enables them to crush all objects in their path to achieve their goal. Albany’s biblical allusion to Goneril as a “gilded serpent”, accentuates how, like Eve was tempted by to take the fruit from the tree of knowledge, Lear has been tempted and deceived by Goneril’s superficial behaviour. Ironically, however, greed is the sisters’ downfall. Their desire for status is satisfied- yet Edmund, the sisters’ lust object, destroys their alliance and crucially they destroy one another. Thus, pride is the source of their destructive nature, which in the end destroys them too.
Cordelia’s is perhaps the only character who possesses ‘good’ pride; it is her pride and morals, which initially cause her to warn her father over the “dog hearted” Goneril and Regan. In fact, Cordelia’s virtue and purity is implied through religious imagery, for instance, “she shook the Holy water from her heavenly eyes”- in this respect Cordelia epitomises Christian qualities. It is arguable that Cordelia is more a resemblance of an angel rather than a human being. Her pride is exemplified through her sacrifice in the final scene; as Christ is thought to have redeemed the sins of people through his crucifixion, Cordelia has redeemed Lear’s sins through her death. Hence, Cordelia’s sacrificial nature makes her more like a Christ-like figure. Also, her sacrifice has led her to die with her morals intact, thus maintaining her dignity and pride. Alternatively, it is arguable that Cordelia’s pride leads to the ultimate downfall of the kingdom. Her prideful stubbornness prevents her from playing Lear’s ‘love test’, and this stubborn “nothing” results in Regan and Goneril’s rebellion. Certainly, this suggestion may have justified Cordelia’s death to the audience; however, most feel that her pride, which results in her remaining loyal to her father, as the only good example of pride in King Lear.
To conclude, the theme of pride plays a pivotal role in catalysing a series of events, which show Lear’s kingdom deteriorating and being placed into the hands of his deceitful daughters. Thus, whilst there is evidence of some goodness derived out of pride in the play, ultimately it has led to the destruction of the kingdom and the death of many of the characters. Pride is therefore, the main source of the tragedy.
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