Chain of being

An ordered created world

Heirarchy of angels by BotticiniAt the time Shakespeare was writing, the universe was seen as a hierarchy, with God, the Creator, at the top. Everyone and everything else, having been made by God, was a ‘creature' of God:

  • Next to God in the order of creation were the angelic spirits: there were thought to be nine orders, or ranks: Seraphs, Cherubs, Thrones, Principalities, Virtues, Powers, Dominions, Archangels, Angels.
  • 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). Hamlet comments in Act III scene i that he is

    ‘crawling between earth and heaven'
  • Below mankind came animals, having body but no soul; then plants; then stones.

An ordered political and physical world

Just as God is at the top of the hierarchy in the Universe, so are kings and other rulers within the state, and so is the head, the seat of reason, within the body. Shakespeare often compares the state, or body politic, to the human body; if the ruler is corrupt, this is a parallel to the head losing its reason and the body becoming diseased.

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.

Madness versus reason

The loss of reason, from whatever cause, can lead to madness, which is described in images of disharmony in 'Hamlet':

‘noble and most sovereign reason / Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh'

Macrocosm and microcosm: It means literally a ‘little world' that corresponds exactly to the macrocosm, the greater world of the universe. Usually, man himself was seen as a microcosm: the small human body corresponded exactly to the ‘body of the State', which, in its turn, corresponded to the ‘body' of the universe. There was a sense of order as well as correspondence in this. If the outer universe were to be disordered, as shown in eclipses, falling stars, and so on, this would be a sign of some disorder happening or about to happen in the State. The biblical image of the church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) is a similar sort of concept, though we see it as only an analogy. To the Elizabethans, it was literally true. Donne sees the little world of the lovers as a microcosm, but has no room (no pun intended) for the macrocosm.

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