The Great Chain of Being

Elizabethans believed that God set out an order for everything in the universe. This was known as the Great Chain of Being. On Earth, God created a social order for everybody and chose where you belonged. In other words, the king or queen was in charge because God put them there and they were only answerable to God (the Divine Right of Kings). This meant that disobeying the monarch was a sin, which was handy for keeping people in their place! It also led to the idea that if the wrong person was monarch everything would go wrong for a country, including whether the crops would be good, or if animals behaved as they should. The Elizabethans were very superstitious.

The Great Chain of Being includes everything from God and the angels at the top, to humans, to animals, to plants, to rocks and minerals at the bottom. It moves from beings of pure spirit at the top of the Chain to things made entirely of matter at the bottom. Humans are pretty much in the middle, being mostly mortal, or made of matter, but with a soul made of spirit. The theory started with the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, but was a basic assumption of life in Elizabethan England. You were a noble, or a farmer, or a beggar, because that was the place God had ordained for you.

The Great Chain of Being is a major influence on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth disturbs the natural order of things by murdering the king and stealing the throne. This throws all of nature into uproar, including a story related by an old man that the horses in their stables went mad and ate each other, a symbol of unnatural happenings.