Pride is the essential hallmark of tragedy - the best tragedies involve someone who is well-intentioned or honorable who are undone by their own assumptions and delusions of grandeur. This fatal flaw is understandable and tangible, and yet it allows us to see the inevitable downfall of people we relate to and wish to do good. The titular character from Shakespeare's play Macbeth suffers from immense pride, which is often inspired and egged on by various cultural and social factors, pressuring him to do things that are simply outside his capabilities. The result is a feeling of disappointment, and abject failures on their part to achieve their dreams. In Macbeth the fatal flaw that both Macbeth suffers from is pride. Both characters attempt to take great steps to gain the importance and power that they desire, but are undone by their own hubris and the world around them.
The primary character of Macbeth offers an example of prideful characters who feel they deserve more than they have, and are destroyed because of these desires. The character of Macbeth is a general in the army of the King of Scotland, Duncan; after a visit with three witches, who prophesy that he will kill Duncan and become King himself. Regardless of the prophecy, Macbeth believes he may be granted the kingship on his own merits: “If chance may have me king, why chance may crown me without my stir” (I.iii.137-138). Given the opportunity that has been offered him, however, and with the encouragement of his conniving wife Lady Macbeth, he eventually decides to follow through with it and gain the kingdom. However, this is not as much of a victory as he may think, as he starts to doubt his own agency and the threat of his possible death.
In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is an interesting, if abrasive and unfriendly, character whose own feminine power constantly emasculates Macbeth - eventually, he kills Duncan more for her own benefit than his, and frequently questions whether or not he actually chose to kill him or whether or not he was manipulated. In the play, she clearly is the power behind Macbeth, as he is too cowardly to make decisions on his own, whereas she is confident in her own choices. “Come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,” says she, equating her status as a woman with the murder she is about to be an accessory to (I.v.45-46). Here, Lady Macbeth is one of the driving forces behind Macbeth's own pride; despite being controlled by her, he still feels as though he deserves the crown - he merely pushes himself to kill Duncan faster than he normally would have.
Despite Macbeth’s ultimate decision to kill Duncan, he still regrets the decision and beats himself up about it. He immediately asks, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” (II.ii.58-59). In this way, his constant waffling from his decision continues long after the deed has been done.
Macbeth constantly waffles between killing Duncan and not killing Duncan; while he wants to be king and follow his wife’s instructions, he believes that “We still have judgement here, that we but teach bloody instructions which, being taught, return to plague th’inventor” (I.vii.8-10). In this case, whatever he does will come back to haunt him, and he knows it. And yet, he still does this anyway, instead of taking the safer and more plausible route.
All's Well That Ends Well is a fantastic play that mixes realism with fairy tale elements, with an interesting love story in the middle of it. The love story is made all the more interesting by the fact that Bertram, on the whole, is completely unlikeable for the majority of it - he constantly imposes certain stipulations on Helena, because he is of noble born and she is from the lower classes, to make sure that she is good enough for him. When she chooses Bertram, the fact that Bertram is appalled by the choice is fascinating, as it sets up all manner of romantic and comedic conflicts that can arise (and do). Bertram does whatever he can to drive away Helena, including attempting to seduce another woman (Djana) at the same time. This unconventional treatment of the love story is fascinating, because the audience is now just invested in how these two will get together when one of them does not even necessarily want to.
The principle of forgiveness seems to be a big component of a lot of Shakespeare's comedies, and this same perspective of forgiveness can be found in All's Well That Ends Well, in which the love of Bertran and Helena is constantly countered by their disparity in social position. "In All's Well that Ends Well, the world of comedy is threatened not so much by strife as by mutability," says Hunter, noting the constantly dying world Shakespeare presents in the play, and the need to overcome differences in order to perpetuate it through romance (107). In this play, the gender of the person needing forgiveness is reversed, as Bertram imposes conditions on Helena in order for her to be worthy of marrying him; "Shakespeare has altered his story in a very basic way. Instead of a clever wench who must prove herself worthy of an aristocratic husband, we have an unworthy husband who must be made worthy of his wife" (Hunter 112).
The love story in All's Well that Ends Well is fascinating, as Bertram and Helena are people driven together by the desires of Helena, not a mutual attraction to each other. Bertram, therefore, is one of the more unlikable romantic leads in Shakespeare's works, through his manipulative and dismissive treatment of their courtship. However, by the end, after discovering that Helena is alive, Bertram reverses his position and the balance found in Shakespeare's comedies is restored somewhat (as tenuous as the happy ending may be).
Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is another interesting tale of a love story gone awry, as many different depictions of medieval romance and marriage are shown. Claudio and Juliet marry each other, but this marriage is not solidified; therefore, Isabella has to go to Angelo to ask for Claudio's forgiveness, while Angelo tries to take advantage of Isabella (while instead taking advantage of Mariana, his erstwhile wife), and so on. This results in a fantastic comedy of errors where numerous romantic relationships are intertwined, and the complex plot keeps the audience struggling to keep up with the (comparatively) simplistic characters.
Measure for Measure should be viewed under the same forgiveness criteria as All's Well that Ends Well. In this play in particular, "the offense of humanum genus is against, not love, but law" (Hunter 204). The character of Angelo is directly responsible for the upending of society by instituting new social ethics that are not in the interest of the greater good; his institution of laws against sex outside of wedlock is shown as not only negative and dangerous, but also hypocritical as he sleeps with Isabella to circumvent the law, trading it for sexual favors. The offending character is exemplified in different characters at different points, from Claudio's need for forgiveness of his crimes, Isabella's need to get Claudio forgiven for his crimes, and Angelo's forgiveness for his abuse of the law. All these characters eventually receive justice by the pleading and accepting of forgiveness from others by proxy: "The charity which makes possible the happy ending of Measure for Measure has as its source the knowledge and acceptance of our common humanity" (Hunter 226).
Eventually, all these various threads are resolved; Angelo marries Mariana, Claudio maintains his marriage to Juliet, and the real Duke marries Isabella. All of this ties these numerous plots up in a nice happy bow. However, like Bertram in All's Well, Angelo would rather stay a bachelor, making his marriage to Mariana (which he refused to acknowledge in the first place) somewhat against his wishes. This results in some interesting questions about whether or not the play values marriage, or sees it as a stifling ritual for those who wish to remain single. Marriage could be seen as a punishment in many ways for the characters; even at the beginning of the play, marriages not met under certain conditions (like Claudio's initial marriage to Juliet, which would lead to death if he had sex with her) are harshly punished.
The character of Angelo, in particular, is the most complex character in the work, often behaving cruelly and impetuously, but with his own interests in mind. Angelo's debauchery is something he refuses to take responsibility for: "Is this her fault or mine? The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?" (II.ii.162). This allows him to maintain his hypocritical high standards of chastity and virtue of his subjects, while abandoning those principles himself. He constantly lies to himself and redefines what he needs, often not holding up his end of the bargain (particularly with Isabella).
Hunter, Robert Grams. Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1965. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The complete Pelican Shakespeare. ed. Orgel, Stephen. Penguin, 2002.