The Elizabethans believed that all creatures in the world had an order where they belonged in the “grand scheme of things.” They believed that God had the most power, then his angels, then the king, then the lords and ladies, then the rich people, then the poor people and finally the animals and creatures of the sea. This is known as the great chain of being. They also believed that if one of the “links” were broken, due to unnatural causes, then chaos would reign because the chain will not be able to support the other links.
The Elizabethan worldview was that the universe was strictly ordered. God was at the pinnacle of the “chain of being” and at His feet were His angels. Next in line was the king who was considered to be ordained by God and be His ambassador on earth. As the king is the first earthly figure in the chain, he was deemed to possess a divine right to be at the pinnacle of earthly society. He was also thought to inherit all his power and authority from God and therefore anything that the king decreed was true and indisputable.
Elizabethans believed that if this chain was maintained and upheld, society would be harmonious and orderly, as people would know their position and role in society. If this chain was broken, that is the direct link between God and his ambassador was severed as in the case of Macbeth, God would have no person to carry out his wishes and therefore a state of cosmic chaos would exist within society. In addition, if a person were to seize the throne unjustly, then similarly anarchy and chaos would ensue, as the chain has been broken.
God is believed to be at the top of the chain, which means he has the most power and authority over the people and the way things are controlled. Anything that is performed against the king is performed against God because the king is God’s representative on earth. The greatest crime a man could commit against his country was to commit regicide. This means to kill the king or queen. This is sacrilege and is punishable by excommunication from the church and his fellow people.
The hierarchies and linked because Jesus had been a man but was also the Son of God and man is linked to the animals because we evolved from them.
The kings had everything a man could ever want. He had money, power and a very good, high status. He was also secure in his job as king because God appointed him, and to counter him was unthinkable.
A new king or queen used to be appointed by the system of the divine right of kings. This is that God chose who was to be king and only he had the power to dethrone him. The more modern system used was the system of primogeniture. Primogeniture is when the king or queen passes the crown down to their first-born male son so that it stayed within the family. This system did not operate however during the Elizabethan period so the kings and queens were appointed through the divine right of kings.
Elizabethans believed that all hierarchies were linked and that disturbances in one hierarchy would have an effect on hierarchies beneath that one but not above. So, when there is a disturbance in man’s world, the animal world would have effects on it. This is shown when Macbeth commits regicide. The sun does not shine, an owl kills a falcon and Duncan’s trained horses revert to being wild. A hierarchy was a natural order of things, and to go against it caused cosmic chaos. It did not cause chaos in heaven because earth is below heaven in the chain. As soon as Macbeth commits regicide, his mind begins to disintegrate and his internal harmony is thrown into chaos; he immediately feels a sense of regret.
“Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!”
This burden of regret on Macbeth’s shoulders destroys his contentedness and throughout the rest of the play; the decay of his mind is immediately expressed when he says he his able to turn
“the multitudinous seas incardine”.
Macbeth’s fears and insecurities are also brought to our attention through his disjointed and insane speeches. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth was seen to be very articulate whereas now, his speech lacks all order and structure. This is clearly illustrated when he talks to the ghost of Banquo,
“Avaunt! and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee!”
Similarly, Macbeth fears and suspicions are highlighted when he realises that
“to be thus is nothing; but to be safely thus”.
These points give rise to a drive from Macbeth to create a peace for himself. He acknowledges that he has
“put rancours in the vessel of my peace”
because of Banquo’s future sons and so concludes that Banquo has to be killed as he threatens his kingship. The fundamental reason why Macbeth seeks to be free and safe is because he wishes to be an equal to Duncan and Edward and so lets his ambition run away with him to achieve this goal.
As the play progresses, Macbeth is seen to become increasingly isolated, even from his wife, owing to his repelling personality and his mistrust and suspicion of everyone. He is placed in direct contrast with Duncan and Edward’s magnetic qualities,
“Those he commands move only in command, nothing in love”.
His isolation is evident as, towards the end of the play, the number of soliloquies is quite high. Shakespeare also uses these to make Macbeth’s feelings more apparent to the audience.
Towards the end of the play in Macbeth’s castle, he admits to himself that by his actions, he has denied himself all the good things that should come with old age,
“honour, love, obedience, troops of friends”.
His life is now withered and he has nothing to live for. Macbeth is again envious of Duncan, as he has been throughout the play as he realises that the only thing that can “cure” him and his wife are their deaths. This relates back to the earlier comment that
“Duncan is in his grave; after life’s fitful fever he sleeps well”.
He longs to be relieved from the troubles of this world.
Duncan is however a very trusting person who perhaps, naively, places too much trust in some; he is betrayed by the Thane of Cawdor and then demonstrates justice by condemning him to death. Duncan possesses the ability to inspire courage and loyalty in his people; Macbeth is initially inspired as he fought for Duncan
“as cannons overcharg’d with double cracks”.
This shows how much influence Duncan has on his subjects and how he is able to inspire such fierce loyalty. This also makes Macbeth think about the repercussions that are bound to arise after Duncan’s murder:
“his virtues will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu’d, against the deep damnation of his taking off”.
Here, he implies that if Duncan is murdered, his virtues will have the power of angels, and voices like trumpets, to cry out against the deed. The association with angels reinforces the fact that God ordains Duncan as well as Macbeth considering his murder to be “sacrilegious”.
Duncan is seen to embody all the kingly qualities listed by Malcolm in Act 4 Scene 3. This is evident through Duncan’s actions seen throughout the play and other character’s attitudes towards him. Duncan has a very magnetic personality that attracts people to him; people obey him, not because they are forced to, but because they respect and admire him. This is best illustrated when the sergeant eagerly rushes to tell Duncan the news of the battle, despite his injuries. Duncan is also a compassionate character as he orders the sergeant to be treated for his injuries.
“Go, get him surgeons”.
In the same speech, Macbeth recognises Duncan’s humbleness as he
“has borne his faculties so meek, hath been so clear in his great office”.
This quality is further expressed when Duncan himself says,
“The sin of my ingratitude even now was heavy on me.”
Edward the Confessor, although he doesn’t actively appear in the play himself, is portrayed in a similar light to Duncan. He is clearly governing on God’s behalf as he “solicits heaven” and all references to him indicate that he is a fair and noble king. In Act 3 Scene 6, a Lord is discussing England’s and in particularly Edward’s response to the crisis in Scotland. The most important point to note is the fact that the Lord is just a common Lord; this shows that his views represent the general population’s opinion of Edward. Phrases such as “holy king”, “miraculous work”, “holy prayers” and “heavenly gift of prophecy” show Edward’s holy God-given gifts.
Edward’s magnetic personality is most clearly addressed by Malcolm when he says that
“sundry blessing hang about his throne”.
This indicates that Edward’s subjects are pleased under his rule and love him. His ability to cure the “King’s Evil” also shows his connection with God and how he uses his heavenly powers to serve his people and not abuse his position as a means of power. It is clear that he is God’s ambassador and that his power will pass down through his lineage.
Both Duncan and Edward represent the ideal Elizabethan kings and are placed in direct contrast with Macbeth. In the chain of being, the king is above all the inhabitants of earth and so is responsible for their welfare. Therefore, he is there to serve his people justly and not exploit his position for power. This is precisely how Macbeth views kingship, which ultimately leads to his downfall.
Subsequent to Macbeth’s regicide, both he and his wife are unable to sleep. Earlier in the play, Macbeth dreamt that he heard a voice say that
“Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more.”
Macbeth and his co-conspirator Lady Macbeth are denied the restorative powers of sleep as they forfeited the right to it when killing Duncan and setting the world into chaos.
Macbeth’s internal harmony is not all that is thrown into disarray, but the harmony and order of the country also disintegrates.
“our suffering country under a hand accurs’d!”
Everything is seen to eminate from the king and so as Macbeth loses harmony within himself, so the chaos of the country ensues. Everyone under Macbeth’s rule becomes fearful and suspicious of each other; Scots are unable to “sleep to our nights”. The only hope for Scotland is the “holy king”.
Macbeth’s banquet is a recognition of his recent coronation and begins according to plan in a dignified way with the guests sitting down in their “own degrees”. He wishes to be seen as an equal to Duncan and so tries to play the “humble host”.
As the scene progresses, the banquet starts to lose order with Macbeth accusing his guests of conspiring against him.
“Which of you hath done this”.
Macbeth is terrified upon seeing Banquo’s ghost as he realises that even in death, he may get no peace. This is contrary to his belief that the dead sleep well and so Macbeth comes to realise that he will never be an equal to Duncan. Eventually the banquet ends in chaos as Macbeth has
“displac’d the mirth, broke the good meeting with most admir’d disorder”.
The outcome of the banquet is similar to the outcome of Scotland, which is chaotic and disordered.
The metaphor of a sick country is brought to our attention further on in the play, and is continued throughout the scene. Macduff says,
“Each new morn new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face”.
The repetition of the word “new” gives the impression that this is a recent development brought about by Macbeth’s tyrannical rule and that this problem is on a national scale. Macduff believes that the only hope for Scotland is its legitimate heir before it “sinks beneath the yoke” and descends into hell. This point clearly illustrates the fact that the country is a reflection of its king and that the legitimate heir is needed to restore order and harmony to Scotland.
As the scene progresses, Macduff damns Macbeth by listing some of his flaws as a king.
“I grant him bloody, luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful…”
And yet in the same breath he praises Edward the Confessor as lists his divine qualities:
“justice, verity, temperance, stableness, bounty…”
This point illustrates that although Macbeth strives to be an equal to Duncan and Edward, he will never come close as he has broken the chain of being and stepped into the realm of evil
Macbeth’s regicide also produces repercussions is the cosmic world. Nature is turned upside down as described by Lennox the morning after the murder;
“Then night has been unruly”,
“Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death”,
“The earth was feverous and did shake”.
All these cosmic reactions to Duncan’s murder symbolise the severing of the chain of being.