Macbeth: Social Structure of the Elizabethan Era

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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. The most famous of these authors and poets was the prolific William Shakespeare, a playwright with many notable works, namely Macbeth.

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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:

In an impassioned appeal to Malcolm, Macduff urges him to rescue their homeland, articulating the torment and hardship unfolding in Scotland. Their conversation also highlights Malcolm’s wrongdoing toward his family and nation by allowing the despotic Macbeth to occupy a throne that is rightfully his. Had such betrayal occurred in the actual Renaissance period, the royal lineage would go to great lengths to keep the throne within the family, thereby preserving the natural balance of the world.

In the Elizabethan era, a king was viewed as God’s immediate servant, chosen by divine will to govern the nation. Shakespeare depicts Duncan’s murder as a disruption of the natural order: “‘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’s abnormal for an owl to kill a falcon, it’s equally aberrant for a thane to assassinate a king to usurp his throne. Any act against a king was deemed an affront to God’s will and would trigger nature itself to retaliate: “Rebellion against a king was not just an offense against the state; it was a violation against God’s will, since the king was deemed God’s earthly deputy with quasi-divine authority,” (Tillyard). The havoc wrought by Macbeth’s tyrannical reign manifests in prophecies from supernatural witches and haunting visions of the people he has wronged to seize the crown. These supernatural signs indicate God’s displeasure at the killing of His chosen leader, revealing Macbeth as neither a rightful nor honorable king. This imbalance is finally rectified when Macduff kills Macbeth, and Malcolm, the legitimate heir, ascends the throne: “Despite Malcolm’s initial reluctance to rule, his taking of the throne restores a certain equilibrium,” (Henchner). This restored balance refers to the reinstatement of a rightful, natural king, purging the tyranny that had plagued Scotland in the Shakespearean tragedy. However, killing a king is not the only rupture Macbeth causes in the Great Chain of Being during his time as both king and Thane of Cawdor.

Macbeth’s defects are not just in the realm of governance but also inherent to his character. According to the Great Chain of Being, humans occupy a unique position; they share attributes with divine beings like angels but also have tendencies akin to animals where greed can dominate:

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 her triumph achieved through her unique blend of charm and assertive political tactics, Elizabeth I quickly set the standard for the quintessential English woman. In Macbeth, female characters are few and predominantly portrayed in a nefarious light, especially the trio of witches who foretell Macbeth’s rise to power in Scotland. In the Elizabethan era, it was widely held that one’s external looks were a mirror of their inner character and origins. For the witches, their physical appearances hinted at something supernatural.

“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 attendants represent Macbeth’s gloomy road to the throne as well as his actions 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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Macbeth: Social Structure of the Elizabethan Era. (2019, May 10). Retrieved from