Definition and Explanation
- Concept: “everything in the world has its own place”
- No matter what you do, you cannot make your way up in the chain
- You are all that you are born with, for the rest of your life, no matter what you do to try and change it
- The English society depended on a certain “order”:
- Hierarchical: The Great Chain of Being dictated everyone’s social station and standing
- Obedience: The lower classes were to submit to the upper classes. The upper classes, in turn, were responsible for the welfare and upkeep of the lower classes.
- In the Elizabethan times, everything in the universe was said to have a place in this hierarchy
- Less spirit and more matter an object had, the lower down on the chain it was
- Italian philosopher, Pico della Mirandola, believed human beings were capable to rise to the angel level through philosopher contemplations
- Aristotle: thought the universe was completely perfect, so was the “Great Chain of Being”
Presented in the Play
- Lear is the King he is, a man of great power
- Relinquishes the kingdom to his daughters, as a reward, to test their love for him
- Lear surrounds himself with people who use him (i.e his daughters (except Cordelia) )
- Edmund is considered low on the chain because of the circumstances that surrounds his birth
- Father treats him poorly because of his illegitimacy
- i.e.: King acknowledges his intent to abdicate his thrown
- By surrendering the throne to fuel his ego he disrupts the Great Chain of Being because he is challenging the position that God has given him
- Chaos occurs later in the play
- Lear banishes those around him that genuinely care for him.
- Mental -> King Lear divides his kingdom, Edgar holds onto letter to keep & attain his Father’s attention
- Psychological -> King Lear divides his kingdom to rid himself of burdens and responsibilities
- Philosophical -> “Greed for power”
Elizabethans believed that God set out an order for everything in the universe. This was known as the Great Chain of Being. On Earth, God created a social order for everybody and chose where you belonged. In other words, the king or queen was in charge because God put them there and they were only answerable to God (the Divine Right of Kings). This meant that disobeying the monarch was a sin, which was handy for keeping people in their place! It also led to the idea that if the wrong person was monarch everything would go wrong for a country, including whether the crops would be good, or if animals behaved as they should. The Elizabethans were very superstitious.
The Great Chain of Being includes everything from God and the angels at the top, to humans, to animals, to plants, to rocks and minerals at the bottom. It moves from beings of pure spirit at the top of the Chain to things made entirely of matter at the bottom. Humans are pretty much in the middle, being mostly mortal, or made of matter, but with a soul made of spirit. The theory started with the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, but was a basic assumption of life in Elizabethan England. You were a noble, or a farmer, or a beggar, because that was the place God had ordained for you.
The Great Chain of Being is a major influence on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth disturbs the natural order of things by murdering the king and stealing the throne. This throws all of nature into uproar, including a story related by an old man that the horses in their stables went mad and ate each other, a symbol of unnatural happenings.