What is a Human?

The nature of humanity

All human beings are creatures – that is, they are created. Shakespeare's audience believed that everything and everybody was created by God, the all-powerful and loving father of the universe.

An ordered created world 

Great Chain of BeingAt the time Shakespeare was writing, the universe was seen as a hierarchy, known as the Chain of Being:

As spirits, these were unchangeable, bodiless intermediaries between God and man; although they did not have bodies, they were thought to be able to create themselves bodies out of air so that they could appear to humans.

  • Below these spirits were human beings, who were thought to be unique in having both a body, like animals, but also a spirit (or soul)
  • Below mankind came animals, having body but no soul
  • Finally were plants; then stones.

The state as a body

Parallel orders

  • Just as God is at the top of the hierarchy in the Universe
  • So are kings and other rulers within the state
  • So is the head, the seat of reason, within the body.

Shakespeare often compares the state, or body politic, to the human body.

  • For example, just as the physical body may be subject to disease, so the state may be riddled with corruption
  • In many of his plays, Shakespeare uses images of disease metaphors for the corruption seen in Elizabethan society.

Reason versus passion

Shakespeare frequently stresses that it is reason which informs the soul of man and makes humans higher than animals:

  • Because people have a soul, they can aspire to reach beyond their body and mortality
  • If they debase their soul, and lose their reason – especially through drunkenness or by giving way to extreme passion – then they are no better than animals.

Getting the balance right

Shakespeare shows also us that it is possible to go to the other extreme. Those who forget that they are not angels, but instead have human weaknesses, are just as unaware of their own humanity as those who behave like animals.
Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed.
I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death;
No word to save thee.
Many of Shakespeare's protagomists have to learn what it means to be a fallible human being.  

Creation and new life

Part of human nature is sexual activity. Shakespeare shows that, here too, it is important to get the balance right:
  • Characters for whom sex is merely sensual, involving no commitment, are rarely respecte
  • For Shakespeare's audience, marriage under the previous Roman Catholic regime had been regarded as a sacrament – a special sign of spiritual grace
  • Even though Protestants did not accept marriage as a sacrament, it was nevertheless an important ceremony involving vows made in the presence of God
  • Although there was inevitably sexual activity outside marriage, it was very much frowned upon, and the woman would usually be considered disgraced. Shakespeare himself got Ann Hathaway pregnant, and had to marry her hastily before the child arrived, so he would be well aware of this. (See Author section: 1564 - 1592: Stratford Beginnings.)

The blessing of procreation

However, in many plays the arrival of a child is described in terms which suggest it is a right and natural part of the creative process.


At the other extreme is convent life. Nuns were expected to take a vow of chastity:

  • This means abstaining from all sexual activity
  • When she is a nun even a conversation with a man could be strictly limited.
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