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The Great Chain of Being: Themes of Order in Shakespeare's Plays

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Themes of order and disorder in Shakespeare's plays

Themes of order and disorder in Shakespeare's plays

The Great Chain of Being

Universal order imbued all aspects of the Elizabethan period. Taken from the second-century astronomer Ptolemy, this system of order reassured the Renaissance era that despite the often-chaotic appearances of plagues and wars, order did exist if man would follow its prescribed hierarchy. Within this hierarchy the Great Chain of Being ranked five categories, each with its own hierarchy. The Great Chain of Being is as follows.

  1. God
  2. Angels
  3. Humanity
  4. Animals
  5. Plants
  6. Minerals

God and the angels were listed first, followed by the king and pope, man, woman, animals, and plants. In this patriarchal hierarchy, the family was considered to be a microcosm of the king and his court, with the husband/father as lord of the household.

How Shakespeare Disrupted Oder

Mankind did not always follow the wisdom of the Ptolemaic system, and Shakespeare often capitalised on this by creating disorder within his plays to illustrate the order of the accepted. Yet, his use of disorder for comic effect always ended with a re-establishment of the societal norm, perhaps something he felt compelled to do so as not to ruffle royal feathers.

Shakespearean Examples

From Beatrice’s almost shrewish behaviour in Much Ado About Nothing to Hermia’s defiance of her father’s authority in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare directs many of his characters in disorderly conduct. Yet he balances these instances of aberrance with other characters that are equally ordered. The use of disorder to illustrate order gives the reader/viewer a larger reference base from which to see this notion of degree, or what is generally accepted as order in the Renaissance era.

Order in Much Ado About Nothing

In Much Ado About Nothing, challenges to order are clear. The play opens with Don John’s challenge to his brother’s rightful rule being thwarted. The order of this rule states the titles will be given to the oldest son. Yet if the oldest son is a bastard, then the titles go to the next legitimate heir. Even though order is reasserted with Don Pedro winning against his bastard brother (Act 1, Scene 3), Don John continues to strive against the system by using the system.

In the line, “ …He is enamoured of Hero. I pray you, / dissuade him from her, she is not equal for his birth” (Iii 162-163), he points out a tradition which contends that marriages should be relatively equal in finances and/or station. One should not marry below one’s station, as that would upset the order.

Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing

Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing


Hero’s cousin, Beatrice, often goes against the grain or order simply through her speech. When faced with the future possibility of a husband Beatrice answers, “No, uncle, I’ll none: Adam’s sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match with my kindred.” (Iii 65-66).

She creates an atmosphere of disorder by placing herself on equal terms as a man. Yet Hero’s response to the accusations of Claudio are very much in keeping with the Renaissance, which advised women to be patient and demure. Beatrice, however, will not stand by and allow her cousin to be treated thus, and enlists Benedick to “Kill Claudio.” (Ivi 290).

Prior to asking Benedick to champion her cause, Beatrice rails about the quality of men: “But manhood is melted into curtsies, / valour into complement, and men are only turned into tongue,…” (Ivi 320-322). She even goes so far as to wish herself to be a man, but even she realises the order of things, and nature, will only stretch so far, and relents, “ … I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.” (Ivi 323-325).

Again Shakespeare illustrates order by using disorder and comparison. Beatrice’s behaviour borders on the shrewish, which was not the ideal, and Hero in comparison was the picture of the Renaissance woman. On the male end of the spectrum, Shakespeare uses the brothers Don Pedro and Don John to demonstrate the Ptolemaic system. In the end, order comes to rule as Don John’s plans are discovered, Claudio relents, and Beatrice is brought into order by marrying Benedick.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Order in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Disorder rules throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream as magic, fairies, and mayhem take over the lives of the human characters. Shakespeare achieves this by setting his story during the June 24th celebrations of midsummer madness when spirits were set free by the people’s imagination and expected to cause all manner of mischief. He also mixes together the ingredients of real life, mythology, and folklore, which gives great potential for a dish of disorder. But even before the magic of Midsummer’s Night Eve can achieve disorder, once again a main female character, Hermia, initiates disorder within the play.


Hermia refuses to marry Demetrius who is her father’s choice for her husband. Egeus, Hermia’s father, petitions Theseus the king to “ …beg the ancient privilege of Athens: / As she is mine, I may dispose of her; / which shall be unto this gentleman, / or to her death; according to our law…” (Ii41-44).

The order of the system gave the father the final say in all marriage arrangements, and whatever direction his children’s future would follow. Egeus’s confidence in his right comes out clearly in “… she is mine, and all my right of her / I do estate unto Demetrius.” (Ii 97-98). Yet Hermia decides she will take the initiative; “… he no more will see my face: /Lysander and myself will fly this place.” (Ii 203-204). Soon all the lovers and guildsmen are in the forest where fairies and magic throw all into confusion.


Not even the fairy-kind can escape the notion of order. Once again Shakespeare perverts order to demonstrate accepted order. Titania, the queen of the fairies, refuses to hand over a changeling child which Oberon desires to have. In his anger of her refusal, he reminds her “Am I not thy lord?” (Iii 64). Titania will not change her mind, and Oberon enlists the help of Puck to “..torment thee for this injury.” (Iii147).

His plan is to cause her to fall in love with the next animal she sees after being drugged with the “Love-in-idleness” flower. Puck aids him by changing Bottom, one of the practising guildsmen, into an ass’ head. Here we see two violations of order. Mixing half man and half beast goes directly against the concept of order because beast and man are two separate hierarchies. The fairy Titania falling in love with a human/beast Bottom also mixes the hierarchies and is almost blasphemous to the order.

Yet, emblematic to disorder is the character of Puck. Shakespeare writes Puck’s character as if he were the quintessential definition of disorder, and in doing so, gives us a vivid feel of what order should be. Through Puck, we see how order can be tampered with, yet it is only a temporary state of affairs. In using a fairy to demonstrate utter disorder Shakespeare mollifies the adherents of order by demonstrating complete disorder is only a myth and a dream. He leaves his audience with a distinct and comfortable impression that order, of some kind, will always win out.

Order and Disorder From Shakespeare

While no one can know how or what Shakespeare thought, conjecture might say he was winking at the accepted system of order, and using his entertaining plots to found, or introduce, a new manner of thinking. His use of a number of female characters challenging the patriarchal system, especially in a comedic venue might suggest his reluctance of accepting the system. Perhaps he was an artist far more modern in his philosophy than his Elizabethan period would allow, and this was his way of expressing that philosophy.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


E. Nicolson (author) on June 04, 2010:

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Kendall and Immartin. The Bard has always struck me as someone who lived on the edge, and we are the richer for it.

Kendall H. from Northern CA on May 16, 2010:

You've chosen two of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I appreciate how you bring light to an area that can be glossed over by scholars. Order is immensely important in Shakespeare's plays, though as you say how much fun would it be to act like Beatrice and ignore the rules? Of course with Shakespeare at the mercy of Elizabeth I and then James I he had to make sure that he did incite the masses to think 'disorder.' Excellent and a throughly enjoyable read!

lmmartin from Alberta and Florida on May 07, 2010:

All good plots require disorder pitted against order -- in modern times as well. It is a universal theme. Thanks for an interesting read.

E. Nicolson (author) on May 05, 2010:

Thank you for your comments, satomko and John. They are greatly appreciated.

John Yeoman from Story writing land in the centre of England on May 04, 2010:

An excellent essay! We forget today how rigidly the Jacobethan society was still structured around the medieval concept of subordination, figured in the Great Chain of Being. Henry VIII exploited that doxa by endowing himself with the divine right of kings, so edging himself further up the Chain toward the angels. To challenge 'order' in society was a heresy as much theological as secular.

Seth Tomko from Macon, GA on May 04, 2010:

Good hub. Just about every one of his tragedies work around this theme. Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth all have upset political orders that must be restored. Romeo and Juliet and Othello are both about disorder in personal life. The resolution of these plays requires a movement back toward order and stability because those are the only conditions in which life can rightly function.