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The Great Chain of Being


Payne and Stevens. Arrangements of Shakespeare's plays for the 1934 Chicago World's Fair

Elizabethans were great believers in structure, balance, and order. One example of this is the sumptuary laws of the time, which, among other things, insisted that certain colored clothing could only be worn by certain of classes of people. Offenders of this law were usually fined. The popular Elizabethan belief that the body is made up of four humors – Sanguine, Choleric, Phlegmatic and Melancholic – that when unbalanced could cause instability in mental and physical health shows that balance in one’s personal demeanor was also important.


The Comedy of Errors is a play full of disorder, seemingly caused by forces both natural and supernatural. Elizabethans believed that everything from rocks and minerals to the highest celestial beings were a part of a great order of things called the Great Chain of Being. Luciana references this concept in her speech in 2.1: "There nothing situate under heaven’s eye / But hath his bound in earth and sea and sky." She goes on to cite the female’s place below her male counterpart’s in this chain, not only as humans but also within the animal kingdom:


"The beasts, the fishes, and the winged fowl, / Are their males’ subjects and at their controls.

Man, more divine, the master of all these… / Are master to their females and their lords"


In the Great Chain of Being, when everything was set in its proper place there was great harmony. However, if one thing was out of sorts it could set off a chain of chaotic events. The chain reaction in The Comedy of Errors starts with a storm that separates the members of Egeon’s family, followed by laws broken in Egeon’s attempt to mend that situation. Identities are mistaken, a marriage is seemingly ruined by a browbeating wife (another disturbance within the chain), and reputations are lost. Once the order is violated, it is difficult even for the person in authority, Duke Solinas, to set things straight. Divinity, taking the form of the Abbess, must finally step in and reconcile all.


What other systems of balance, order, and structure are evident in our society today? What are the consequences for disruptions in these systems?


Next: Elusive Allusions


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