Macbeth: Social Structure of the Elizabethan Era

Bubonic Plague, commonly known as the Black Death, hit Europe in the year 1347, killing over one third of the entire European population (History of the Plague). In the centuries following, Europe would undergo transformation or rebirth in a time period known as the Renaissance. With new life came new inspiration for authors and poets alike, and introduced the world to an age of literature hitherto undreamt of.

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The most famous of these authors and poets was the prolific William Shakespeare, a playwright with many notable works, namely Macbeth. Macbeth explores many themes and, like any piece of literature, was largely influenced by world around the author. In Macbeth, the fracture of the Great Chain of Being, a universal belief during the Renaissance , along with other unnatural factors, thrust Macbeth and Scotland into a dark time of derangement and chaos.

One of the most influential schools of thought during the Elizabethan Era was the Great Chain of Being. This hierarchy of existence contains several classes of life and being, including that of the divine, humans, animals, plants, and matter. Within the link of this chain concerning human affairs, God gives the king merit on Earth. The beliefs that they rule by divine right and the king’s will is also the will of God are partially why monarchs were so successful in the time. In Macbeth, the titular hero challenges the chain when he murders the king, sending his nation into chaos and calamity:

O nation miserable!/ With an untitled tyrant bloody-sceptered,/ When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again,/ Since the truest issue of thy throne/ By his own interdiction stands accursed,/ and does blaspheme his breed? (IV.iii.103-108)

Macduff in a plea to Malcolm, begs him to save his home nation and express the anguish and suffering taking place in Scotland. The dialogue between the two characters also illustrates the misdeed to his family and country that Malcolm is committing by letting the tyrant Macbeth sit upon a throne that is rightfully his. If this sort of treachery were to occur in actual Renaissance times, the royal family would go to any length to keep the throne within the family and thus keep the balance of the natural world.

In the Elizabethan Era a monarch was God’s closest servant, because they were chosen to lead the nation by God himself. Shakespeare portrays the murder of Duncan as unnatural throughout the play: “‘Tis unnatural,/ Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last/ A falcon, tow’ring in her pride of place,/ Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed,” (II.iv.10-13). Just as it is unnatural for an owl to slay a falcon, it is equally abnormal for a thane to murder a king in order to take his place. Attacks against a king were perverse and would cause great retaliation from nature itself: “Rebellion against a king was not challenging the state; it was an act against the will of God itself, for a king was God’s appointed deputy on earth, with semi-divine powers,” (Tillyard). The rot brought on by the rule of the tyrant, Macbeth, begins to haunt him in the form of prophecies given to him by unnatural witches and ghastly phantoms of those whose lives he trampled upon to take control of the crown. This retaliation of the natural world is a certain indicator that God is unpleased with the murder of his anointed servant and that Macbeth is not king in either right nor honor. The plague of Macbeth’s unnatural kingship is resolved when he is eventually killed by Macduff and succeeded by the rightful king Malcolm: “Despite Malcolm’s original resistance to the office, he is the rightful king and thus a certain balance has been restored,” (Henchner). The balance Henchner refers to is the return of a true and natural king to the throne, and the purging of the tyranny which befell Scotland in the Shakespearean tragedy. However, regicide is not the only link in the Great Chain of Being that Macbeth effectively breaks during his time as king and Thane of Cawdor.

Macbeth’s flaws not only lie in the nature of his rule but also the nature of his character. The Great Chain of Being addresses humans as being lucky, as they are related to angels and can be divine, yet also unfortunate as they also have similarities to animals where greed can take control:

A human who eats like a pig, or as randy as goat, has allowed the lower, animal instincts in his nature to override his awareness of God’s divine will. He is guilty of fleshly or carnal sin, and he denies spiritual aspect of his nature. Likewise, a human who attempts to rise above his social rank does so through arrogance, pride, or envy of his betters. Here, the error is an intellectual or spiritual sin. (Tillyard).

Macbeth’s “animal instincts” make him blind to God’s will, and he decides that he will kill Duncan to fulfill his own prophecy: “I am settled, and bend up/ Each corporal agent to this terrible feat./ Away, and mock the time with fairest show:/ False face must hide what the false heart doth show,” (I.vii.79-82). The length to which Macbeth was willing to extend himself to ensure his rule were almost endless. Once he has committed the murder, he does not stop with just Duncan. Macbeth’s animalistic greed carries him so far away from his once honorable self, that he ends his best friend Banquo’ life, and makes an attempt on his son. Banquo begins to suspect Macbeth’s involvement in the untimely death of Duncan, a suspicion he pays for with his life only because of Macbeth’s greed and near-insane thirst for absolute power. Banquo was also a target because of the prophecy given to his children, promising them the throne. Macbeth also justifies the murder of his friend by labeling it in his mind as a means to an end, or securing his place at the top of society. While the Great Chain of Being was a topic of great exposure during the Elizabethan Era, there was another thought that was being heavily addressed at the time: women’s role in society and how they fit in.

Before Queen Elizabeth, the last female monarch was Mary I. Queen Mary had a short and unsuccessful reign as queen due to her marriage with the Spaniard King Philip II, along with her reuniting England with the Roman Catholic church. Mary I’s shortcomings, coupled with the patriarchal society of England, left Queen Elizabeth with little room to operate successfully as monarch of the nation. However, she used her sex to her advantage, yet was not afraid to show how kingly of a queen she could be. With the success that came along with her flirtatious yet dominant style of politics, Elizabeth I soon became the image for what an ideal English woman should be. In Macbeth, there are only a handful of female characters, almost all of which are given a sinister role in the play. Notably, the three witch sisters who give Macbeth his prophecy of ruling Scotland are antagonists. During the Elizabethan Era, another common belief was that one’s outward appearance reflected their inward personality and origins. For the three witches, their appearances suggested something unworldly about them:

“What are these/ So withered, and so wild in their attire,/ that look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ earth,/ and yet are on’t? Live you, or are you aught/ That man may question? You seem to understand me,/ By each at once her choppy fingers laying/ Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,? And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ That you are so.”(I.iii.39-47).

When describing these witches as “withered” and “wild”, Banquo hints that the witches may be closer to the animalistic side of humanity in the lens of the Great Chain of Being. This unnatural source of knowledge of the future only furthers the extent to which Macbeth betrays God, his king and Scotland when he allows himself to be filled with greed. The contrasts between Elizabeth I, a monarch anointed by god, and the witch sisters are so vast it would not be a stretch to consider them messengers of the devil. This impure messenger and his servants illustrate the dark journey Macbeth took on his way to the throne and also his deeds as an unfit monarch.

To conclude, Macbeth’s unnatural path to the crown sent his country into turmoil. The belief in the twisted witches’ prophecies and the murder of his noble king and friends show the dark descent of a once honorable Macbeth. The breaking of the Great Chain of Being and the events it sets into place have profound effects on the fate of both Macbeth and Scotland. The importance of this higher being element or belief gives great insight into the effects of Elizabethan Era ideology on Macbeth and the ways the tragedy reflects the Renaissance and Shakespeare’s beliefs. 

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