Degree and Order in Shakespeare’s History Plays
In Shakespeare’s England, degrees and orders prevailed. E.M. Tillyard addressed these issues in his work, The Elizabethan World Picture. Shakespeare incorporates Tillyard’s “chain of being,” cosmic order and the internal balance of the four humors into Richard II, I Henry IV, and Henry V.
Tillyard’s chain of being metaphor “served to express the unimaginable plenitude of God’s creation, its unaltering order, and its ultimate unity. The chain stretched from the foot of God’s throne to the meanest of inanimate objects” (Tillyard, 25-6). This order and unity is a hierarchy with many suborders, each with a primacy within the order. Tillyard references Richard II to exemplify these primacies with: “Be he the fire, I’ll be the yielding water” (III.iii.58). Then, “See, see King Richard doth himself appear, / As doth the blushing discontented sun / From out the fiery portal of the east, / When he perceives the envious clouds are bent / To dim his glory and to stain the track / Of his bright passage to the occident” (III.iii.62-7). York then adds, “Yet looks he like a king; behold, his eye, / As bright as is the eagle’s, lightens forth / Controlling majesty” (III.iii.68-70).
Shakespeare makes examples with “four of the traditional primacies: fire among the elements, the sun among the planets, the king among men, the eagle among the birds (Tillyard 31). This complex system was specific and allowed for the concept of divine right. A king was perceived as a degree between God and common man. Ignoring this order would not only bring chaos to the kingdom but to the entire “chain of being” in Shakespeare’s England and in his plays.
King Richard refers to his kingship as “my sacred state” (Richard II, IV.i.209. He believes his ascension to the throne is his divine right. This concern with lineage to ensure the rightful heir is continued in Henry V. Both scenes of the first act of Henry V are concerned with Henry’s inheritance of the throne. Henry calls on the archbishop of Canterbury to assure him that he is not wrongly assuming kingship. One could believe his is because Henry is unselfish but it is because he does not wish to defy what Tillyard refers to as the “chain of being.” The Duke of Exeter refers to his nephew’s kingship as one of “the borrowed glories that by gift of heaven” is bestowed upon Henry (Henry V. II. iv.79). Gaunt’s deathbed speech gives England a degree of her own. As “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England / This nurse, this teeming womb of the royal kings,” England is considered a degree between kings and God. (Richard II, II.i.50-1). This belief shows the order of importance in regards to his country. His allegiance to England ranks second only to God.
Shakespeare incorporated this order into his history plays with allegiances. His characters each defend who they believe to be the rightful heir to a throne or rightful rulers of kingdoms. This “cosmic order was yet one of the master-themes of Elizabethan poetry” (Tillyard, 14). Shakespeare’s characters reflect the strong feeling of Elizabethans in regard to cosmic order at the time. “If the Elizabethans believed in an ideal order animating earthly order, they were terrified lest it should be upset, and appalled by the visible tokens of disorder that suggested its upsetting. They were obsessed by the fear of chaos and the fact of mutability; and the obsession was powerful in proportion as their faith in the cosmic order was strong” (Tillyard, 16). If kingship was a divine right, the people of the Elizabethan era were very concerned regarding which king was the rightful heir to the throne. The wrong choice could upset the cosmic order and lead to chaos.
This macrocosm of chaos is also present in the microcosm of the human body. Tillyard quotes the Pythagorean doctrine “Whence, being an amalgam of many and varied elements, we find our life difficult to order. For every other creature is guided by one principle: but we are pulled in different directions by our different faculties. For instance at one time we are drawn towards the better by the god-like element, at another time towards the worse by the domination of the bestial element within us (Tillyard 66-7). Elizabethans wanted to maintain a balance within themselves that would in turn make the cosmos themselves balanced. This belief would understandably be driven by a great amount of guilt. This “correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm, if taken seriously, must be impressive. If the heavens are fulfilling punctually their vast and complicated wheelings, man must feel it shameful to allow the workings of his own little world to degenerate” (Tillyard 93).
This internal balance was exemplified by humours with “a proper mixture of the humours being as necessary to bodily growth and functioning as that of the elements to the creation of permanent substances” (Tillyard 69). Elizabethans believed that “each humour has its own counterpart among the elements” (Tillyard 69). The element Earth corresponds to the humor melancholy, water with phlegm, air with blood and fire with choler. “When they used the words temperament or complexion they had consciously in mind the tempering of one humour…by another, or the intertwining of the humors that was the cause of character. If a man was of a phlegmatic temperament, they meant that the four humours were mixed in a way that allowed phlegm, the cold and moist humour, to be the most emphatic” (Tillyard 70). The belief of humours causing human moods or personalities was carried over into Shakespeare’s writings.
Shakespeare incorporates the use of humours to emphasize the need for balance within a character just as Elizabethans believed they themselves should have balanced humours. Prince Henry jokingly calls Falstaff a “trunk of humours” to emphasize Falstaff’s lack of balance in his life (I Henry IV, II. iv. 449). King Richard refers to humour when he exclaims: “Let’s purge this choler without letting blood” in regard to the dispute between Bullingbrook and Mowbry. (Richard II, I.i.153). This statement refers to the belief of the time that bleeding a patient would relieve them of excess bile, which caused one to have an angry disposition. Choler is Bardolph’s excuse as to why he is quick to anger and dangerous. He justifies his anger with: “Choler, my lord, if rightly taken” (I Henry IV, II.iv. 324). Kate tells Hotspur that “a weasel hath not such a deal of spleen” (I Henry IV, II.iii.78) because he has nervous energy and is being impulsiveness, both characteristics thought to be controlled by the spleen. King Henry validates his impulsiveness by “the start of spleen, / To fight against me under Percy’s pay” to refer to his ill temper (I Henry IV, III.ii. 125-6).
Johnson, Dean, ed. Shakespeare Riverside Anthology. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1997.
Tillyard, E.M.W. The Elizabethan World Picture. New York: Random House.