William Shakespeare and the Great Chain of Being
When I was in high school and I learned about the Middle Ages and Robin Hood and then the Renaissance and artists like Raphael, I wondered why anyone would stay a peasant. I thought, “If I were a peasant, I would try to be something other than a peasant, like a wine merchant or a nobleman.” I later learned about The Great Chain of Being, and once I had internalized that particular dynamic, one of Shakespeare’s recurrent themes became available to me.
The Great Chain of Being states that the reason why you are a peasant, and even as important, why you should not try to be anything other than a peasant, is because the peasant station in life is where God put you. The entire universe was depicted as a great pyramid, with God at the top, below God are the Angels, below the Angels, etc. Medieval thought held that once placed in a particular level in that pyramid, a being should be satisfied to stay on that level. The story of Lucifer, one of God’s perfect angels, leading a rebellion against his Master is the primordial lesson about over-reaching. God wins the war and tells Lucifer, now Satan, to, well, go to Hell. The serpent in the Garden of Eden tempts Eve with superior knowledge.
We can extract one level, that of Mankind, and create another Great Chain of Being flow chart with the King at the top. The clergy and the noblemen were in constant conflict about who belonged on the second tier, the clergy claiming they were closer to heaven because of their religious status and the noblemen arguing birthright. Peasants are on the bottom tier. During the Renaissance, another tier evolved as the middle class formed. Merchants bought their way into nobility by offering cash to money starved nobles who were willing to marry their daughters to more plebian individuals in order to offset their wanton spending.
We can apply that Great Chain of Being pyramidical structure to the family. Father is at the top followed by the eldest son. Upon the father’s death, the Eldest Son inherited the estate and became a gentleman farmer like dad. The other sons had to fend for themselves, usually by entering the military or ministry. That is why even a notably successful general is not at the top of the heap at social gatherings. He may be a general, but he is not the eldest son. Mom, the widow, lives perhaps on a stipend and on the monetary mercy of the eldest son. Daughters, hopefully well sought after daughters, are dowry chips.
The Great Chain of Being also made sense in the middle ages in terms of life spans. If the average peasant lived to 35, if lucky, then why spend so much time in being successful in this life (moving up) when compared to eternity. Spend more time on prayer than in building a better mousetrap.
Somewhere in the late nineteenth century, the Great Chain of Being was placed on its side. What level of society you were born into did not mean as much as other criteria, especially in the self-made man mythology of the United States. Perhaps wealth became the Great Stratifier. Ask students to consider if a Great Chain of Being exists in modern society, and, if so, what are the different levels? This became a good discussion question.
One of the explorable themes of William Shakespeare’s work involves the consequences of violating the Great Chain of Being. Brutus oversteps his boundaries by assassinating Julius Caesar and likewise Macbeth when he kills the king. Notice that all of nature is in rebellion when these murderous acts occur. Horses eat each other, rabbits chase hawks, earthquakes and “fearful nights” all occur because in committing those deeds, Brutus and Macbeth have upset the apple cart. Othello and Desdemona violate the Great Chain of Being by marrying outside their class (General and Woman of Nobility) and race. Cassio consorts with prostitutes. Hamlet’s uncle assassinates the king, Hamlet takes the law into his own hands, Lear’s daughters overreach, etc. Modern day teenagers would have a hard time swallowing this, but Romeo and Juliet also violate the Great Chain of Being by eloping without their parents’ consent. In short, if you violate the Great Chain of Being, you must pay.
Jamake Highwater in his book, The Language of Vision: Meditation and Metaphor, compares Dante to Shakespeare. Jamake argues that both authors reinforce their culture’s views on the structure of the universe and society. But while Dante does not go beyond the traditional concept of reward and punishment in the Inferno, Shakespeare, while reinforcing through his themes the Great Chain of Being, takes a colossal leap beyond those themes through metaphor. His protagonists ponder the great questions about the meaning of life, “It is a tale told by an idiot,” “All the world’s a stage…” etc. And he creates magnificent metaphors that marry those questions to concrete realities. Othello equates the snuffing out of a candle with the snuffing out of the life of Desdemona. Lady Macbeth and the “damned spot.” Hamlet and the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” The use of light as metaphor could be a source of class discussions or class project involving interpreting Shakespeare’s themes through figures of speech. One of the major reasons why so many people around the globe still read Shakespeare is because of the power of his metaphors.
Obviously, the Bard is so good that there are a number of approaches a teacher can take that would be effective. I found that the Great Chain of Being and the power of metaphors were two points of emphasis, especially used in conjunction with each other, that worked well in the classroom.