“It is curious, although edifying that the plays we revere, century after century, are the tragedies. In them and in them alone, lies the belief – optimistic, if you will – in the perfectibility of man” – Arthur Miller
These are the words of the great playwright Arthur Miller and they are, in essence, another way of stating “Pride cometh before the fall.” Actually, it is a self-actualization of pride that comes before the fall. Pride exists long before the fall arrives. In fact, it is pride that is often the reason behind a fall. Attempts at self-perfection are the ultimate example of pride and it often leads to self-destruction. This is a common theme that manifests itself in works of tragedy. When one examines the three plays Oedipus Rex, King Lear, and Death of a Salesman, a clear understanding of how an attempt to self-perfect is the ultimate form of pride can be derived. It is also a fool’s errand because the self is imperfect and any attempts at perfection are doomed to fail. This is what the main characters of the three aforementioned plays learn at the tragic conclusions of the works.
The tragedy of Oedipus is – to a certain degree – a tragedy that is self-imposed. An oracle has warned Oedipus that he is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother. This prophecy was too much for Oedipus to bear so he lived his life as a way of circumventing the tale of the oracle from actually happening. This is Oedipus’ form of self-perfection. He believes he can reshape his life and reverse a tragic outcome. Unfortunately, no matter what Oedipus tries to do to reverse the possibility of the prophecy from coming true, his actions yield the unintended consequences. Oedipus discovers that he was responsible for murdering his father and for marrying his mother. In an outburst that was a mix of shame and rage, Oedipus blinds himself in a form of self-punishment. It is in this last act that he attempts to perfect his flaws. To a certain extent, he succeeds but the consequences are both tragic and bitter.
Much of the tragedy present in the tale of Oedipus is heartbreaking since the character of Oedipus is not an evil one. He is not the victim of a comeuppance that results from his own evil plans. His only crime was that he was born. He attempted to live his life in a way that would reverse the outcome of the horrific prophecy. Yet, his actions to do this have the reverse effect. From this, we do feel a sense of sympathy for him. However, some of the disaster that befalls him is his own fault.
That is, had Oedipus not married anyone and not killed anyone he could have avoided the outcome of the prophecy. Oedipus, instead, opted to live his life the way he wanted with the belief he could defeat the oracle. While his intentions are noble they are also filled with extreme pride. To believe one can overcome the fate of the gods is hubris and pride at its very worst. It is this hubris that creates the tragedy that befalls Oedipus and it is also this hubris that provides an important morality lesson: excess pride can lead to disastrous consequences.
Shakespeare’s King Lear is one of the playwright’s most famous tragedies. Like Oedipus, it deals with a monarch who is mired in tragedy. In many ways, the character of
Lear is one that brings much of his tragedy on himself do to his actions of pride and his attempts to tempt fate. As with Oedipus, Lear is not an evil character. He is simply misguided. However, he does pay the price for this as evidenced by the tragic outcome of the play.
Lear wishes to divide his kingdom among his three daughters with the bulk of his kingdom going to those that love him the most. While this is a noble gesture, it is also a flawed one. Lear disinherits his daughter Cordelia while presenting his kingdom to his other daughters Goneril and Regan. The reason for this that Lear was angered at Cordelia honesty for her criticism towards him while the other two opted to soothe his ego. Lear later learns the error of his ways as Goneril and Regan turn out to be calculated villainesses leading to their demise. Ultimately, it is Lear who bears the shame and guilt of this outcome as he feels it was his failure as a father that lead to the tragedy. Had he been open to honesty, such tragedy could have been avoided.
Once again, we have an example of how pride leads to a tragedy. Lear’s anger towards Cordelia is rooted in his refusal to hear any truthful criticism. Rather than hear what she was to say, he dismisses and punishes her. This empowers his other two daughters which set in motion the tragic outcome of the play. Had King Lear been honest with himself he could have avoided the entire calamity. However, he was more concerned with seeking assuage to his ego as opposed to recognizing true devotion and love.
Therein lay the main problem with pride: it is blinding. (Yes, this is the ultimate metaphor in Oedipus) Lear only wishes to see and hear want he wants to here. It is his excessive pride that causes this. It is this same pride – much like the pride of Oedipus – that guarantees a tragic outcome. And, like Oedipus, King Lear finally realizes the error of his ways after it is too late. This is another common theme among those that seek self-perfection: they do not realize it is impossible until it is too late. This makes it impossible to reverse cause once a tragic event is set in motion.
While he is not a king, the character of Willy Loman manages to elicit the same prideful tragedy that is inherent with Oedipus and Lear. Loman’s flaw rests in his self-delusion that he can achieve greatness. At one time, he was successful in business but now he is a mere shell of himself. Yet, he refuses to believe this and tries to carry on. While this is noble, it is a worthless venture if there is no realistic way to achieve the desired result. In Loman’s case, his lack of talent and ability make it impossible for his to further succeed. He believes he can succeed, but he embodies a number of self-defeating traits. Namely, his attempts to kill himself display his weak and fragile mental state.
This also shows an excessive wounded pride since he cannot come to grips with the fact his is not as good a salesman as he believes himself to be. Once again, it is pride that is undermining the character and driving him towards a tragic end. Had Loman understood his limitations, he could have devised a strategy that would have gotten him out of his bad situation. Instead, hubris and pride kept him on the same path to tragedy and failure.
Pride, self-perfection, and tragedy often go hand in hand. This is because it is pride that leads people to believe they can be perfect. Since this is not possible, the path such a belief leads to is one of tragedy. Such is the lesson taught in Oedipus Rex, King Lear, and Death of a Salesman. It is a lesson well worth paying attention to since these plays show the tragic danger of prescribing to such false beliefs.
Miller, Arthur, Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin, 2005.
Shakespeare, William, King Lear. New York: Washington Square Press, 2004.
Sophocles, Oedipus Rex. New York: Prestwick House, 2005.