Who’s ready for some double-double-toil-and-trouble?? As we begin the trek towards our production of Macbeth in November, we’re going to highlight some fun contextual facts and historical ideas related thematically to the show. Each month will focus on a new idea related to our favorite Scottish murderer, and this month’s topic is one that relates to a number of Shakespeare’s plays: the Great Chain of Being.
Essentially, this was a hierarchy of beings (derived from the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle) with certain links on the chain having more authority and superiority over the links beneath them. Sounds pretty simple right? The concept itself is, but knowing where each particular animal or plant falls on the list is a bit trickier. The links in the chain were ordered as follows, in descending order from beings of pure spirit to beings of pure matter:
- Humans (who straddle the physical and spiritual world; in descending order: kings, princes, nobles… everyone else)
- Animals (in descending order: lions, elephants, dogs, wolves, horses, other primates, avian creatures, piscine creatures, and so on until sessile creatures like oysters at the bottom)
- Plants and vegetables (in descending order: oak trees, shrubs, bushes, cereal crops, herbs, and so on until fungus and moss)
- Minerals (in descending order: diamonds, gems, gold, silver, marble, limestone, and so on until soil and sand)
According to Renaissance beliefs, rational order and divine love are what hold the chain together. The key is for every link on the chain to do their duty to the rest, in either ruling over or obeying the links below and above them, respectively. For example, humans can consume animals but are still bound to follow the will of the angels and God; vegetables take sustenance from the earth, but have no power over the living beings higher up in the chain.
In literary terms, if within a poem or a speech certain characters are compared to different plants or animals, understanding the Chain of Being would allow the reader or listener to realize which character is meant to be subordinate to whom, or who the author or playwright intends to have more power. In the Renaissance, the Lannisters from Game of Thrones would be seen as more powerful than the Baratheons or the Starks because lions are at the top of the animal chain. It’s sort of like a super handy “dominance cheat sheet.”
Of course, disruptions in this chain were believed to be sinful. Morally, if humans acted like animals - being as gluttonous as pigs, for example - they were allowing lower instincts to overpower their divine capabilities, and were therefore guilty of lowering themselves on the chain. This is one of the main medieval idea of sin: when humans value lower attributes on the chain rather than higher ones. It’s all about human willpower. God doesn’t create evil; humans do, when they orient their will downwards and disrupt the proper order of God’s universe. This included attempting to move up the chain as well as downwards. If humans attempted to rise above their social rank, that was seen as an interference with God’s design. If you were a beggar, it was because that was the place in the chain that God decided for you; tough luck trying to improve your station, because to do so would be sinful and criticized.
Most relevant to Macbeth are the political ramifications of the Great Chain. Politically, the monarchy was ordained by God, otherwise known as Divine Right. The king or queen ruled over the rest of humanity because God meant to put them in power, higher on the Chain (and closer to divinity) than their subjects. This divine right can also give the ruler heavenly powers, as Shakespeare alludes to in Macbeth when King Edward of England is described as having divine healing abilities. James I, in power at the time of Macbeth’s composition and performance, surely would have been flattered by such a strong portrayal of the English throne.
Not only does the idea of Divine Right mean that disobeying the monarchy is sinful, but with the wrong person as a monarch, the balance of the world would be thrown out of whack. If the chain works as it should, the world is harmonic, but the opposite is also true - if the chain is disturbed, the result is disorder and chaos. Animals would behave wrongly, weather would be wild, or crops might not grow. These odd and unnatural behaviors are described as happening in Scotland in the play, in the scene after Duncan’s death, as Macbeth is being crowned in Act II, scene iv. The nobles note that “‘tis day, / And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp,” stating that it is dark in the middle of the daytime, and that “a falcon, towering in her pride of place, / Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d.” A mousing owl attacked a falcon; a metaphor for Macbeth and Duncan, perhaps? In any case, the natural order has been toppled over and discord reigns.
That’s pretty much it for the Great Chain of Being. If you learned something from this article, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook to keep updated when we post the next fun tidbit of Elizabethan history and culture.
Sources & further links:
- E. M. W. Tillyard in The Elizabethan World Picture (1942), as well as Arthur Lovejoy in The Great Chain of Being (1936), argue that much of philosophical and religious opinions during the Renaissance can be explained by Elizabethans’ belief in the “Great Chain of Being.” So check out those books for more in-depth content.