Bubonic Plague, commonly known as the Black Death, hit Europe in the year 1347, and killed over one third of the entire European population. 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 author and poets alike and the world was introduced to an age of literature hitherto undreamt of.
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The most famous of these authors and poets was William Shakespeare who wrote many plays, namely Macbeth. Macbeth explores many themes throughout the course of the story and like any piece of literature was largely influenced by thinking of the world around the author. In Macbeth, the breaking of the Great Chain of Being, a widespread belief during the Elizabethan Era, along with other unnatural forces, send Macbeth and his country into madness 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 that concerns human affairs, there is merit given to a king by God. The thought that they rule by divine right and that the king’s will is also the will of God is partially why monarchs were so successful in the time. In Macbeth, this fraction of being is challenged when the titular hero’s murder of the king sends 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). These words spoken by Macduff in a plea to Malcolm to save his home nation 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 commiting by letting the tyrant Macbeth sit upon a throne that is rightfully his.
In the Elizabethan Era, a monarch is God’s closest servant, as they have been chosen to lead the nation by God himself. The murder of Duncan is rightfully portrayed 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,”(The Great Chain of Being, 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,”(Profane, Steal, Usurp. Henchner). The balance Tillyard refers to is the return of a true or 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 flaw not only lies 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.(The Great Chain of Being. Tillyard).
Macbeth’s “animal instincts” make him blind to God’s will, and he decides that he will kill Duncan in order to fulfill his prophecy himself. “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 lengths in which Macbeth seem willing to extend himself to ensure his rule are almost endless. He doesn’t think twice about murder once he has committed and does not stop with Duncan. Macbeth’s animalistic greed carries him so far away from his once honorable self that he ends his own best friend, Banquo, and makes attempts on Banquo’s 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. 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. This was 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:
Elizabeth manipulated her image to prove that not only was she the rightful and divinely appointed monarch to the English throne, but that she was also a fit warrior and political leader, able to lead and protect the nation… She conducted her relationships at court in the style of a Petrarchan lover: a stereotypical romantic love relationship, in which the woman is an untouchable and perfect beauty. But she maintained her political sway by professing her ‘masculinity’,(Hamlet and Elizabethan England. Open.edu)
With the success that came along with this 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 roll in the play. Notably, the three witch sisters who give Macbeth his prophecy of ruling Scotland often are seen as antagonist type characters. 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 that it would not be a stretch to consider them messengers of the devil.
To conclude, Macbeth’s unnatural path to the crown send 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 noble Macbeth. The breaking of the Great Chain of Being and the events it sets into place which become the undoing of both Macbeth and Scotland show the effects of Elizabethan Era thinking on Macbeth and how the tragedy reflects the thought of the time.
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