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You can't understand Macbeth without understanding...
The Great Chain of Being


Point 1
People in Shakespeare's time didn't think like us. We live in the post Darwinian age. Things are supposed to improve over time as the weak die out. Before Darwin people assumed that the further we lived after the date of Creation the worse things got because we lived more distantly from the perfect time.

Point 2
The Earth was the lowest point of Creation. (It was known to be spherical, and as early as the 6th century it was recognised that things didn't fall off the 'underside' because 'down' was 'down' there too.). The Earth sat still, surrounded by a series of hollow and transparent crystal sphere. To each sphere was attached a planet: first the Moon, then Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Beyond the sphere of Saturn was the Stellatum to which were attached the fixed stars, and finally there was an outer sphere, the Primum Mobile (pr. preemum mob-i-lay) or First Movable which carried no planet but imparted motion to all the other spheres. Why did it move - Aristotle tells us it was moved by its love for God. (If you have any knowledge of Hinduism, many of these ideas will seem familiar.) Some people believed planets moved because they were pushed around by angels. In the 'sublunary' (below the Moon] sphere, life is imperfect and prone to accidents and death. Elsewhere in the universe, life is perfect and pure. The spheres ground against each other, producing perfect musical notes, known as the 'music of the spheres'.

OK, you're very clever and they were very stupid. But you got your knowledge, just like they did, out of books (or worse, some ill-informed tv programme!). And one day we might find your books are wrong too!

Point 3
All the creatures of the Universe were arranged in their proper order. God sat at the top of the pyramid. Around Him, in a perpetual dance of burning adoration, whirled Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones. Beyond them, likewise absorbed in adoration, were Dominations, Powers and Virtues (virtue meaning strength, not moral virtue). In the next rank came Princes, and at last beings with some concern with humankind: Archangels and Angels.

Then came Man, inhabiting the corrupt, sublunary, territory. At the top of the human hierarchy sat the King, the only fully (in modern terms) individualised human. The importance of the King cannot be over-estimated: on him rest the fate of the state. If he is efficient and lucky then the state and all its people are successful. Below him, and deriving their power from him in proper feudal order, came Earls, Dukes and all the rest of the aristocracy, all the way down to the peasants and the beggars. It was not unlike the Indian caste system. If you were born a tenant farmer you expected to die a tenant farmer: there was none of this get yourself a degree and claim social mobility stuff of our times.

Below humans came the animal kingdom, with the lion, king of the beasts, at the top and the worm at the bottom; then the plant kingdom, each plant in its proper station, and on to the very rocks and stones. Everything had its proper place, its proper role to fulfill. We shouldn't think of people wanting to rise above their social station according to their ability, as we do, that is a much more modern idea.

All this theology gave rise to the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, which is taken from St Paul (Romans X111,i) "The Powers that Be are Ordained of God.." which basically is taken to mean, the King is on the throne because God wants him to be and if you try to oppose him you won't half cop it from God when you die.

Now, Shakespeare is the arch conservative. For him, when people move out of their rightful place on the Chain of Being, the whole of Nature is upset and in turmoil. In Julius Caesar portents and omens arrear, in Lear the Earth is shaken by violent thunderstorms. This is the theme of so many of his plays. When the rightful king is displaced Nature cannot function properly until things are put right.

Best book on all this is C.S.Lewis' "The Discarded Image"






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Margaret Stewart-Zimmerman
May 22, 1998 - 2010