The Construction of Power and Pride in the Framework of Political Allegory in the Middle English Pride of Life. (Literature)

By Sikorska, Liliana | Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Construction of Power and Pride in the Framework of Political Allegory in the Middle English Pride of Life. (Literature)


Sikorska, Liliana, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies


This paper examines the construction of power and pride in relation to the political allegory in The Pride of Life (c. 1350). The play, although fragmentary, being the earliest existing morality, remains pivotal in our understanding of the dramatic form of morality plays, even though it combines the dramatic potential of both the mystery as well as the morality plays. This morality constructs a character which reveals the subversiveness of medieval thinking; on the one hand, royal power is God given, on the other, one of the most frequently used motifs are related to the idea of corruptive power; kings and nobility are the target of the most severe criticism in all morality plays. It is the humble who are cherished and the powerful who are chastised. Referring to the sin of (worldly) pride the play presents a context for a philosophical and political reading. The greater their social status the greater the spiritual fault represented by their use of transgressive language, and therefore the greater the degree of sin. Rulers who abuse their power are evil, but low status characters who use transgressive language are generally more sinful. "These social distinctions are especially significant in the biblical plays, while social differences are less important in the fifteenth century moralities, which dramatize the corruption of humanity in general. In both genres however, dramatists vary their use of forms, style, and contexts associated with transgressive language to create subtle and didactically pointed characterizations." (Forest-Hill 2000: 26).

In allegorical exposition the moral sense is not a matter of taking events or people from Scripture simply as literal examples of general moral truths, as Cain might be taken as an example of the sin of envy (which in fact is modus exemplificativus). Burrow claims that allegorical significances (in the narrower sense) belong, like the literal events which carry them to time and history (Burrow 1982: 101). Hence, although the literal level of allegory stands for the actual events, one has to agree with the medieval philosopher Hugh of Saint-Victor that history follows the order of time, while allegory follows the order of knowledge (Minnis 1988: 82). Being more or less a conscious hypostatization of ideas, allegory is related to medieval cosmology. The four levels of meaning (literal, allegorical, tropological or moral and anagogical), illuminate and rationalize the structure of authority, both spiritual and temporal, within its society providing working analogies (1) in both a literal and non-literal framewor k, and as such allegory remains essentially related to the sense of concern about man's duties and destiny that had inspired it. Authority and hierarchy were frequent preoccupations of theologians and political writers (if one may force such a distinction).

The bragging King (2) sees his office and place in the hierarchy primarily in the literal sense. He is wealthy and powerful, surrounded by skillful flatterers. Consciously, he remains careless whereas unconsciously he wrestles with the unknown opponent who he, at the time, cannot place in the hierarchy of beings. The unknown (to him) force, Death however, is inevitable and stronger than his reign. The whole Christian life-pattern is set forth in cosmic terms inviting the spectator to acknowledge the existing hierarchies and his own human insignificance: "Qwhen pou art grauen on grene/per metis fleys & molde;/pen helpith litil, I wene,/pi gay croun of golde" (ll. 443-446). The moral allegory offered here is chiefly concerned with virtue. What at first appears to be an entirely pragmatic account of the corruption of vice gradually becomes a deeper concern with human choices and freedom offered by unadulterated faith and enslavement in the hands of the vices. In The pride of life power is conferred by wealth , and wealth in turn signifies demonic control, both in the sense of being immersed in the world as well as one's flesh.

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