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The Great Chain of Being
Shakespeare and Elizabethan
Philosophy
The Basics
• An Elizabethan philosophy popular in
Shakespeare’s time
• Worked its way into literature and entertainment

•...
The Great Chain
God
God

The most heavenly beings
placed at the top of the
chain (seated at the Foot of
God)

(Perfection)...
Links in the Chain
Each separate link (or sub-class) in the Great
Chain bears its own inner hierarchy

Angels
Angels
(Intu...
The Human Link
• Most important was the hierarchy in the
Human chain
• A chain of social status and power

• Status in the...
The Human Link
The monarch (Queen Elizabeth) sat
atop the human link, closest to the
Angelic and thus closest to God.

•

...
Okay, great - so what?
• It is in this human chain which we find many
of the elements of interest to Shakespeare ’s
plays
...
O, when degree* is shaked,
rank
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
D...
Don’t Mess With The Chain…
• This chaos fits in with the Elizabethan ideas of
status mobility (or the lack thereof)
• In o...
Don’t Mess With The Chain…
• This chaos fits in with the Elizabethan ideas of
status mobility (or the lack thereof)
• In o...
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Great chain pp

  1. 1. I O I O I O I O I O I O The Great Chain of Being Shakespeare and Elizabethan Philosophy
  2. 2. The Basics • An Elizabethan philosophy popular in Shakespeare’s time • Worked its way into literature and entertainment • Primary focus of Great Chain: • Everything on earth and in heaven is linked and orderly • All people and things have their place in a grand scheme • Gave sense, order and meaning to life
  3. 3. The Great Chain God God The most heavenly beings placed at the top of the chain (seated at the Foot of God) (Perfection) (Perfection) Angels Angels (Intuition) (Intuition) Man Man (Existence, (Existence, Growth, Passion, Growth, Passion, Reason) Reason) Animals Animals (Existence, (Existence, Growth, Passion) Growth, Passion) The basest creatures are at the bottom, furthest away from God Plants Plants (Existence, (Existence, Growth) Growth) Minerals Minerals (Existence) (Existence)
  4. 4. Links in the Chain Each separate link (or sub-class) in the Great Chain bears its own inner hierarchy Angels Angels (Intuition) (Intuition) { • • • • • • • • • Seraphim Cherubim Thrones Dominions Powers Virtues Principalities Archangels Angels Roses are the greatest in the Plant hierarchy; gold, silver, diamond in the Mineral, etc.
  5. 5. The Human Link • Most important was the hierarchy in the Human chain • A chain of social status and power • Status in the Great Chain is immutable, being forged by God, especially at the top • Royal Absolutism
  6. 6. The Human Link The monarch (Queen Elizabeth) sat atop the human link, closest to the Angelic and thus closest to God. • The lowliest serf would be at the bottom of the hierarchy, closest to the Animal link and thus furthest from God.
  7. 7. Okay, great - so what? • It is in this human chain which we find many of the elements of interest to Shakespeare ’s plays • Especially as the plays apply to royalty • Often, displacement within the chain (a king giving up his God-given power) leads to suffering • King Lear • In turn, tampering with the Great Chain (through betrayal, murder, etc.) can lead to chaos • Hamlet
  8. 8. O, when degree* is shaked, rank Which is the ladder to all high designs, Then enterprise is sick! How could communities, Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities, Peaceful commerce from dividable shores, The primogenitive and due of birth, Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels, But by degree, stand in authentic place? Take but degree away, untune that string, And, hark, what discord follows! From Act I, Scene 3 of Troilus and Cressida
  9. 9. Don’t Mess With The Chain… • This chaos fits in with the Elizabethan ideas of status mobility (or the lack thereof) • In other words, serfs remain serfs and do not become nobles, etc. • God has established the Chain, and since God is perfection, so is the social order • Chaos is punishment for tampering with the Chain, and is not limited to the monarchy • The King and Kingdom are one; as the monarchy suffers, so do the people and vice versa (a theme of Oedipus the King and Hamlet)
  10. 10. Don’t Mess With The Chain… • This chaos fits in with the Elizabethan ideas of status mobility (or the lack thereof) • In other words, serfs remain serfs and do not become nobles, etc. • God has established the Chain, and since God is perfection, so is the social order • Chaos is punishment for tampering with the Chain, and is not limited to the monarchy • The King and Kingdom are one; as the monarchy suffers, so do the people and vice versa (a theme of Oedipus the King and Hamlet)
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