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Elizabethan Views of Kingship

The Great Chain of Being

• The principle was held together by (1) rational order – as suggested in Ovid’s
Metamorphosis or (2) divine love –as evidenced by the writers of the Enlightenment such
as Pope.
• The order was pre-ordained – allows for harmony and unity
• Higher rank – greater intellect, mobility, and capability; considered superior to those of
lower rank and given authority over lesser beings.

The Great Chain of Being (the condensed version)


• Man’s place on chain is unique –between the spiritual and animal (emphasizes the duality
of man’s nature)
• The state/nation = microcosm of universe, so king corresponds to God, nobles to angels,
• A hierarchy within categories – i.e. sun is the noblest star (Elizabethans saw all the
planets as stars except the earth); reason is the noblest of man’s faculties
• Emphasis on interconnectivity – every being has a place on the Chain with its attendant
authority and responsibility; if each being knows its destined place, the Chain will
function properly
• Disorder in the chain results in disease (within the body) or chaos (in the state or

Moral Ramifications: each being must fulfill its function in the Chain without striving to rise
above its station or debasing itself by exhibiting behavior characteristic of lower ranks.
Overreaching was viewed as arrogance and debasing behavior was viewed as bestial, a denial of
the spiritual, rational side of one’s nature.

Political Implications: Body = microcosm of state (the king as the “head” of state) Belief in the
Great Chain of Being meant that monarchy was established by God. This gave rise to the
doctrine of the divine right of kings (from Romans 13:1 “The powers that be are ordained of
God.”) The king was God’s appointed representative on earth and endowed with semi-divine
powers and absolute authority. Rebellion, then, was not merely a crime against the state, but a
sin against God. Conversely, the king has a moral responsibility to God and his people.
Although his power is absolute, he is expected to rule with love, wisdom, and justice. Failure to
do so would be seen as a perversion of divine order. James I extended to the idea of the divine
right of kings to the doctrine of nonresistance or absolute obedience, arguing that men have no
right to rebellion and that even tyranny can be divinely ordained to punish or purify the state.

Literary Implications: creates a complex catalog of instant symbols and connotations, all ranked
in order of status. If two characters are vying for position, and one character is compared to a
lion, the other to a boar, the comparison implies something about the legitimacy of each person’s
claim. The idea of the Great Chain permeates the literature, art, politics, theology, philosophy,
and cosmology of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The King’s Two Bodies

• The body politic and the body natural

• Allows for unbroken chain because the body politic passes to the new monarch (The
King is dead. Long live the King!)

A Mirror for the Magistrate

History can be seen as a mirror for current leaders. Reflects both bad and good governance to
guide leaders in how to rule.

Machiavelli’s Lion and Fox

• Written in 1513, it reached England by Elizabeth’s reign and profoundly influenced

attitudes by the time of James I.
• Pragmatic rather than idealistic
• Emphasis on need to achieve and maintain power through courage and cunning
• Metaphor of man as an animal – a long way from medieval thinking
• The English condemned his ideas (officially), but strong influence on political thinkers
o Cruelty may be justified.
o It is better to be feared than to be loved.
o A leader need only appear to be good.

How is all of this reflected in Macbeth?

Disturbances in nature
Macbeth’s tyranny
The restoration of order