The Elizabethan Chain of Being Violation
The collective minds of people in England during the time of Shakespeare struggled to explain the unexplainable; they struggled to understand randomness and human nature. They believed that from the beginning of time a certain cosmic order had emerged. This order was expressed in the Elizabethan Chain of Being. When something or someone stepped out of place it would send the universe into total chaos. There would not be mere confusion, as the modern definition would imply, it would send the cosmos into a downward spiral destroying all life unless this natural order was restored. “We lose some of the immensity of Elizabethan tragedy, the irony of its comedy and the insult of its raillery,” (Elizabethan World Order; Cynthia Fuhrman) because this mindset is unknown to modern readers. Shakespeare uses the element of Elizabethan chaos to emphasize the tragedy of Macbeth.
Shakespeare carefully illustrates the violation of the Elizabethan Chain of Being through symbolism in nature that runs parallel to events in the play. The common thread is the chaotic element. The witches’ opening line ” Fair is foul and foul is fair” (Act I, Scene I, line 12) summarizes the plot before it is even laid out. Shakespeare played on the Elizabethan peoples’ fear of the unexplainable powers of evil acting to reverse a natural order. The witches represented evil and by speaking those words they foreshadowed destruction. The oxymoron in the words does not exist for the purpose of confusing the reader and adding an air of mystery. The purpose is to strike the reader with the importance of the events that would continue forward in the play.
The natural world in Macbeth followed a cyclical pattern. At the beginning there was a semblance of order in nature.All beings fit nicely in their niche. However the weather carried foreboding on the wind that gave way to chaos. When Macbeth disturbed the order by destroying a life he left a gap in the chain, he became the stone that caused a ripple to spread from shore to shore. Duncan’s unplanned removal created a space that had to be filled. Naturally his sons would be next in line. The disturbance of his untimely death could be resolved by the next logically sequential move. There could not be an empty spot, yet by Macbeth, rather than Malcom, stepping in, it created a space that had to be filled. This would continue down the chain until the order of the universe was in shambles.
At the peak disorder, one sees nature in an uproar. For example, a natural herbivore turned cannibalistic without warning; horses that were docile in captivity escaped in a rage and devoured one another. The folly of a man’s greed and thirst for power affected the stables, however indirectly. It caused confusion and terror in the hearts of the characters. Darkness fell when it should have been daylight. ” By the clock ’tis day, and yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp. Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame, that darkness does the face of the earth entomb when living light should kiss it?” (Act II, Scene 4, lines 5- 11) Without a proper understanding of the Elizabethan mindset the reader cannot grasp the intensity or see a cause for it. The wind screaming with shrieks of death and the unlikely defeat of the mighty falcon were Shakespeare’s other prominent incidents in nature. In addition, the weather was increasingly terrible leading up to the climax of the play. With the gradual restoration of order the phenonema in nature was eliminated.
The development of the characters was a direct result of corruption in the Elizabethan Chain of Being. Each individual emerged and was deeply affected by the displacement due to Duncan’s murder. There was chaos within each person. Macbeth was neither honorable nor trustworthy from the start and amidst the confusion he traveled down a darkened road to insanity. The terrific horror that he should have felt at his deeds was absent, an unnatural occurrence. ” Not in the legions of horrid hell can come a devil more damned in evils to top Macbeth” (Act IV, Scene 3 ,lines 66-68) He became increasingly paranoid and delusional. His soul was muddled beyond recognition at the time of his demise. Lady Macbeth was clever and her ambition prompted her to stand out of her natural place by shirking the patriarchal power of the day. She too was destroyed as the Elizabethan Chain was restored.
Shakespeare designed his play with careful purpose. Almost every mishap in the play could be linked back to the original disturbance caused by the murder of Duncan. According to Fuhrman, with an amateur understanding of the Elizabethan Chain of Being the correlation becomes obvious. It evokes a sense of fear and empathy for the characters. The true plight was not the brutal murder of a beloved king by a conniving noble, it was widespread disorder and destruction that endangered the world as it was known.
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