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Elizabethan world view and the Great Chain of Being

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1 Elizabethan world view and the Great Chain of Being
Macbeth - Context Elizabethan world view and the Great Chain of Being

2 Elizabethan World View – the basics
During Elizabethan times, people believed that everyone and everything was arranged in a certain order – a hierarchy It was this order, known as the Great Chain of Being, that was threatened by new and exciting discoveries in science and astronomy. Elizabethan World View – the basics

3 According to this idea, everything in the world had its position fixed by God:
The Earth was the centre of the universe and the stars moved around it in fixed routes.  In Heaven God ruled over the archangels and angels.  On earth there was order everywhere. Society reflected this order with its fixed classes from the highest to the lowest – kings, churchmen, nobles, merchants, and peasants.  The animals had their own order too, the lion being the “king”.  Plant life and minerals also reflected this order.  Among the trees, the most superior was the oak; among flowers, it was the rose. Among the minerals, gold was the most superior.

4 Star controllers of Destiny
God Cherubs Archangels, Angels Star controllers of Destiny Moon King Church Princes Nobles Man Outside of chain: Nothingness/chaos Lion Other Animals Oak and Rose Other Plants Gold Other Minerals

5 The Chain of Being served to create social stability – everyone knew their place on the chain and interacted with the other levels: The people higher up on the chain were responsible to provide for or care/protect those below them The people lower down had a responsibility to obey and serve those above them

6 The Chain of Being world view created the beliefs and values for individuals and the society of Shakespeare’s time The chain was a transactional sort of system – “I do this for you if you do this for me” If someone in the chain doesn’t fulfill their responsibility they are considered to be ‘breaking the chain’ Any attempt to break the Chain of Being would upset the established order and bring about universal disorder

7 The Chain of Being represents the social order of the time.
Anything that is outside the chain is considered to be chaos/nothingness/ madness/evil. Therefore, by implication, if the chain is broken the order in the world is broken, and it can descend into chaos. Nothingness, chaos, madness, evil – all of these things are outside the chain and are not considered to be made by God.

8 Everything within the chain is created by God.
Therefore everything within the chain is good. Therefore there is no evil in the chain. As evil doesn’t exist within the chain, it can only enter if the chain is broken. It is essential that you understand the Chain of Being world view in order to understand the play Macbeth

9 The Divine Right of Kings
It was believed that the King was divinely chosen by God. As God’s chosen representative on earth, the King was the supreme upholder of order on earth. If his position was violated it would destroy the perfect order in the universe and bring strife and chaos to the world. Any act of treason or treachery against the King was considered indirectly to be a mortal sin against God.  The penalty was death. The Divine Right of Kings

10 Macbeth and the Chain of Being world view

11 In the opening scenes we are introduced to the characters of the witches.
In Shakespeare’s time witches and witchcraft were believed to be evil – they were associated with the dark and death. Witches were considered to be the agents of Satan, doing his business. Witches were believed to be able to see into the future; that they could create storms, hail, thunder and lightning; that they could sink ships; dry up springs; stop the sun and change night into day and day into night. The Witches

12 As the witches are introduced in the opening scene, Shakespeare’s audience are immediately aware that the Chain of Being has been disrupted, as evil is present. Shakespeare uses this as a device to get the audience involved in the play – remember, they believe in the Chain of Being world view, and so the witches are a sign to them that something is wrong. The audience then looks for why the chain has been broken. “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” (Act 1, scene 1)

13 King Duncan is murdered – remember this is considered an act against God.
As soon as the audience knows Macbeth has killed the King, they also know that he will ultimately fall, as the punishment for killing a king was death. Shakespeare reinforces the Chain of Being world view by ensuring Macbeth is punished at the end of the text. King Duncan’s Murder

14 Within the Chain of Being, within the hierarchy of men, there is another hierarchy:
Women Children

15 Consider Lady Macbeth at the start of the play – she shows masculine traits such as a hunger for power, strength, ambition, a ruthlessness and forcefulness. She is assertive and decisive This upsets the chain in the sense that she in fulfilling her proper role as a wife and woman (and mother): “I… know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me. I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this.” (Act 1, scene 7) Lady Macbeth

16 Macbeth suggests that she should not bear children that are not males because of her fearless, masculine spirit. She does not deny this: “Bring forth men-children only, for thy undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males” (Act 1, scene 7) Lady Macbeth

17 Also consider Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 1 scene 5, where she deliberately calls upon the power of evil to help her: “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty” (Act 1, scene 5) This disrupts the chain again as Lady Macbeth asks for chaos so she can become ‘a man’ (or at least not a woman) to take charge of the situation. This creates a role reversal between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth – which can only come about in a world of chaos where the chain is broken Lady Macbeth

18 Now consider Macbeth at the start of the play – he is weak and shows nurturing, feminine qualities, such as when he has doubts about killing King Duncan: “I’m afraid to think what I have done … to know my deed, ‘twere best not know myself” (Act 2, scene 2) This upsets the Chain of Being as Macbeth is not fulfilling his role as a ‘man’ as he is not the strong, ambitious person his wife is and wants him to be (at least not yet) and she is the dominant, powerful person in their relationship Macbeth

19 Also remember that Lady Macbeth constantly questions her husband’s masculinity:
“When you durst do it, then you were a man; and to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man” (Act 1, scene 7) And he has to defend his masculinity later in the text: “What man dare, I dare. Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear… Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves shall never tremble. Or be alive again, And dare me to the desert with thy sword. If trembling I inhabit then, protest me the baby of a girl. Why so, being gone, I am a man again.” (Act 3, scene 4) Macbeth

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