Academic Writing

The Mask, the Shield, and the Compass

Pride is the mask behind which we hide from our true nature and emotional burdens. This basic principle on...

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Pride is the mask behind which we hide from our true nature and emotional burdens. This basic principle on the human condition has remained consistently true as literary authors across generations have portrayed through tales of varying origin, the sunken destiny of the prideful. William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Othello, John Milton’s extraordinary epic Paradise Lost, and Jonathan Swift’s exhilarating adventure Gulliver’s Travels each portray pride as a primary component, and consequence, of the antagonist’s ambitions. Shakespeare develops a subtle pressure throughout his plays that forces his characters to either evolve and develop into better people or strengthen the mask that covers their true intentions. This pressure comes to a climax in Othello, where pride takes on the roles of both mask and shield as the antagonist Iago manipulates the intentions of the protagonist Othello. Whereas Shakespeare focuses the destructive influence of pride on man, John Milton examines the impact of pride on a much larger, metaphysical scale through Paradise Lost. While themes such as sin and death are embodied as physical characters, pride takes on a much more crucial position as the lens in which we view the life itself; the sinful are unable to view God in a positive light as their vision is obscured through their pride. Jonathan Swift provides a unique angle on the opaque lens of pride through the interactions between the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms. I believe that while pride is mandatory for the establishment of society, the literary works of these authors and many others unveil an established strengthening of evidence that condemns excessive pride as an agent of chaos encouraging destruction of intellectual society.

William Shakespeare believed pride to be the silent weed that tangles and ensnares those who become lost within their self-indulgence. Stemming from the fear of forces greater than ourselves and out of our control, pride is the shield we bare against the unknowns of the world, but when we give ourselves to our pride rather than using it, pride can become a suffocating mask. Shakespeare was masterful at weaving emotion into words; his ability to recognize human psychological conventions, such as pride, as momentum for complex development was phenomenal. “He that is proud eats up himself: pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle.” (Shakespeare). Through excessive pride, one is driven to self-obsession, fear, mistrust, and destructive tendencies towards others. This quote is quite intriguing as it can be reimagined configured to any individuals’ vice; the glass may be a goblet, cup, or mug- the trumpet, any means of amplifying voice- and the chronicle, their own perspective, but the convention remains to be pride.

Othello by William Shakespeare is a curious piece indeed, as both the actions of the protagonist and antagonist are motivated through the indulgence of their pride. Othello’s pride towards the beginning of the tale is stable, but fragile. He is well respected among his men, comfortable in his position, and confident in his relationship with Desdemona, but he holds a fear of his racial heritage which undermines his ability to rationally maintain his composure. In accordance to Shakespeare’s tragic plotline, Othello surrenders this weakness unwittingly to Iago quite early on in the play, “But that I love the gentle Desdemona, I would not my unhoused free condition put into circumscription and confine– Not I; I must be found. My parts, my title, and my perfect soul- Shall manifest me rightly. Is it they?” (Shakespeare 1.2-577). Through this conversation with Iago, Othello reveals his feelings of unworthiness grown from fear of others judging his ethnicity; Othello quickly combats these feelings with a towering shield of his pride built from his achievements, righteousness, and ability. Iago catches on to and recognizes the turbulence Othello is struggling to overcome, and as he is already consumed by his pride, uses this seed of turmoil to nurture chaos within Othello and those around him.

It is curious that Iago remains in every scene in which Othello speaks of his pride and accomplishment, including those with his lover, “Amen to that, sweet powers! I cannot speak enough of this content; It stops me here; it is too much of joy. And this, and this- They kiss, the greatest discords be that e’er our hearts shall make!– News, friends; our wars are done. The Turks are drowned. How does my old acquaintance of this isle?- Honey, you shall be well desired in Cyprus; I have found great love amongst them.” (Shakespeare 2.1-594). Iago and Othello as characters may be likened to two sides of the same coin. Pride comes naturally for the both of them, while Othello manipulates it for the betterment of himself, Iago is manipulated by it to destroy the balance of those around him. Iago represents the side of Othello’s pride that remains dormant; he lies in wait, allowing Othello’s pride to grow and consume his every thought, until no longer is Othello guided by the tranquility of his righteousness, but rather by the fear of losing his pride. Through this interaction, Shakespeare draws attention to the fine balance between using pride as a motivation for strength in character, and allowing pride to grow beyond achievement as proof of righteousness.

While Shakespeare examines pride through the lens of humanity and takes use of it as momentum for tragedy, John Milton uses pride as the metaphysical lens through which his antagonists view the world. In writing Paradise Lost, Milton’s conventions are aimed to depict the governing forces of reality, the ethereal compass (a divine moral compass), rather than those forces that drive our individual will. I believe that Milton chose to examine the nature of humanity in this way due to his blindness; although he is unable to see those around him, their emotions, their mistakes, he can still survey societal constructs such as religion, history, and culture in order to develop thematic conclusions about the nature of existence.

John Milton writes Paradise Lost with relatively accurate coherence to the Bible, drawing attention to the existence of a thematic canon within human nature, rather than the importance of biblical truth. “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit. Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death into the world, and all our woe, with loss of Eden, till one greater Man restore us, and regain the blissful seat.” (Milton 1-823). Milton explores the downfall of mankind through the perspective of our own innocence to pride and arrogance. It is quite the curious detail, that before Eve bit into the forbidden fruit, before Satan was cast from Heaven for his pride, it was God who created mankind in his own image. In this way is not God himself prideful? To create an existence that mirrors your own for the simple purpose of worshipping and having faith is in definition an incredibly prideful act. As pride is contagious, this leads the thinking mind to ponder the origin of Satan’s pride, and furthermore, God’s reason for casting him out. Through God’s perfection, he is able to realize the folly of his pride and the danger if it were to become an epidemic, and so to protect all of heaven from obtaining this knowledge, he casts Satan out. “But he who reigns monarch in Heav’n, till then as one secure sat on his throne, upheld by old repute, consent or custom, and his regal state put forth at full, but still his strength concealed, which tempted our attempt, and wrought our fall.” (Milton 1-838). Satan is unable to recognize the mistake in his own pride as it has consumed him, so he rampantly spreads chaos to those around him as he mistakes his own pride for the fault of God. He eventually reaches the Garden of Eden and persuades Eve take part in the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Mankind becomes self-aware of God’s pride and their own (as they are made in the image of God) and is cast out by God to preserve the integrity of the ethereal compass. In order to maintain a tranquil balance in the universe, God must cast aside those who threaten to escalate chaos, however, in realization that his own folly of pride has caused this seed to take root, God sacrifices his son, a piece of himself, to give us an anchor of faith to build order within the chaos. Through this interpretation of evidence, Milton investigates how the seed of pride has taken root, if not grown, from the societal conventions of religion.

Rather than focusing on the chaotic implications of pride like Shakespeare and Milton, Jonathan Swift provides yet another interesting perspective on how the convention of pride affects society through the relationship of the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms in his adventurous novel Gulliver’s Travels. “While he and I were thus employed, another horse came up; who applying himself to the first in a very formal manner, they gently struck each other’s right hoof before, neighing several times by turns, and varying the sound, which seemed to be almost articulate.” (Swift 4-1216). Swift draws close attention to the detail of formality that the Houyhnhnms display compared to that of the Yahoos. The Houyhnhnms’ pride in their superiority to the Yahoos creates a societal frame of moral intellect which governs the way they act and uphold themselves. The Houyhnhnms’ pride does not reach past their basic self-classification, as their humility towards one another and outsiders proves superfluous. Swift recognizes in his writing that pride forms the lens in which society is built, but to use it for further self-magnification only obscures the ability to discern the intellectual from the chaotic. The Houyhnhnm culture is built upon their pride of intelligence over the Yahoos, but the horses maintain a level of grace, respect, and humility for the world and each other that keeps their pride from becoming anything more than the foundation in which their society is built.

William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, John Milton’s masterful epic Paradise Lost, and Jonathan Swift’s moralistic adventure Gulliver’s Travels, each portray pride as a fragile and deadly, but crucial truth that has guided the conventions of mankind throughout history. Shakespeare draws attention to the delicacy of Othello’s character, whose righteousness was built upon a foundation of pride. Milton highlights the infectious nature of pride on the ethereal compass and man’s corruption through knowledge, that even God, despite recognizing the epidemic, may fall victim to the ensnaring thicket of pride. Jonathan Swift reminds us that despite the dangers of excessive pride, the indulgence is necessary for intellectual society to exist. Through the works of each of these authors, pride is established as the foundation on which society is build, the infection that weakens the structure of intellectual society, and the fire that brings about chaos and destruction. Pride exists as both the justification of the righteous, and the bane of the intellectual.

Works Cited

Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The 17th Century: Topic 2: Overview,

Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” Features | The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors | W. W. Norton & Company,

Swift, Jonathan, et al. Gullivers Travels. W.W. Norton, 1970.

Written by Keefer Hurley
Writing, games, and anime. Words forge worlds. Passionate at networking, communications, writing, and esports. Profile

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