Idea of a “Great Chain of Being” by William Shakespeare

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During the period in which Shakespeare lived and wrote, there was a widely held belief in the idea of a ‘Great Chain of Being’, which asserted that “…every existing thing in the universe had its “place” in a divinely planned hierarchical order…”. With its constant references to hierarchy and social order, the narrative of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ can be interpreted as a discussion of the ‘Great Chain of Being’ – more specifically, a discussion of whether the order inherent in the philosophy behind the ‘Great Chain of Being’ is an accurate or an inaccurate reflection of society. With characters who are constantly vying for power with one another, ‘The Tempest’ is full of disorder, and the disruption of society’s set order is a recurring theme in the play. At the center of the story, however, is Prospero, a character who is bent on restoring order. Throughout the play, he is seen trying to reclaim his role as the Duke of Milan, a higher-up position in the natural ‘order’ of his society, which he has lost to his brother. Due to the nature of Prospero’s actions, and because he is the main character of the story, I contend that, despite chaotic and disorderly occurrences in the play, ‘The Tempest’ puts order above disorder.

Much of the evidence for the play’s advocacy for order comes from Prospero’s dialogue in Scene 2 of ‘The Tempest’. Here, we learn that Prospero created the tempest responsible for stranding many of the characters upon the island. For several reasons, Prospero’s role in the play’s inciting incident points strongly towards the value which the play places on order. In other words, we know that Prospero created the storm in the hopes of reclaiming his role as the Duke. Furthermore, after questioning Ariel thoroughly about the well-being of those who were onboard, Prospero says, “Ariel, thy charge / exactly is performed…” It is significant to note that Prospero did not create the storm to harm those with whom he was angry – he simply wanted to bring them onto the island, where he could attempt to restore himself as the Duke. Therefore, the act of creating the storm wasn’t one of vengeance, but was motivated simply by a desire to reclaim his role in society – a motive which points to Prospero’s sole desire to restore order. Prospero’s motive in creating the storm is, therefore, significant. Perhaps even more significant, however, is Prospero’s ability to create the storm.

The Great Chain of Being’s structure was not based on arbitrary factors – instead, “An object’s “place” depended on the relative proportion of “spirit” and “matter” it contained -”. This put God at the top of the Great Chain of Being. At the end of the play, Prospero delivers a monologue, in which he reveals that he has lost his magical power. During the speech, he asks God to deliver him away from the island, as he no longer has the magical abilities to do so himself, saying, “Gentle breath of yours my sails / Must fill, or else my project fails.” Even though Prospero had power temporarily, his fate is ultimately in God’s hands. Furthermore, even though it is never stated in the play, this loss of power and subsequent prayer heavily implies that the magical powers bestowed upon Prospero came from God.

Looking back at the play’s second scene, Prospero states that his enemies were brought to the shore of the island “By accident most strange.” Taking the epilogue into account, this line seems to imply a divine influence involved in bringing the ship near Prospero’s island. This is significant because it solidifies the structure of the underlying chain of order occuring in the play – God is at the top, directing the events of the play such that the ship ends up near the island. Prospero, through power granted by God, creates the storm. Then, the other men onboard the ship are washed upon the island, where order is restored when Prospero eventually regains the title of Duke. The further down the Great Chain of Being a character in The Tempest is (or in other words, the less ‘spirit’ they possess), the less control over the events of the play they seem to have. Meanwhile, the events of the play, whether directly or indirectly, seem to eventually cause order to be restored. This points heavily to the theme of order in the play.

For the sake of rebuttal, I would like to mention one moment in the play which is disorderly in nature, and show how Prospero’s underlying influence upon it points to the idea of order. This is the opening scene, in which the boatswain argues with Alonso and his men over who is in charge of the situation. Alonso tries to assert himself here as the dominant force in the conflict, giving out orders to the crew and expecting them to be obeyed, presumably because he is the king. The boatswain, however, contends that he should be in charge of the crew, saying, “What cares these roarers for the name of king?” This scene presents disorder in a paradoxical sense – the King is the one with the highest authority according to the Great Chain of Being, because his authority is ordained by God. The boatswain, meanwhile, is the one who knows about boats, and is therefore the person whose authority is likely most valuable in the situation. This means, essentially, that neither party is truly right nor wrong – thus, the situation is inherently one of disorder. In this scene, however, there is an underlying truth: neither party is truly in charge, because both are being manipulated by Prospero, who has created the storm. This means that the power dynamics between the two are irrelevant. Neither is truly right, and their washing up on the shore of the island is inevitable, because Prospero is in control of their fate, and is motivated by the restoration of order. Thus, this scene is a depiction of order. Thus, this scene shows how, even when things are disorderly at the surface level in ‘The Tempest’, they are, in fact, orderly, due to Prospero’s underlying control over the events of the play.

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Idea of a "Great Chain of Being" by William Shakespeare. (2021, May 14). Retrieved from

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