In Elizabethan drama and Elizabethan thinking in general, what are the microcosm and macrocosm, and how do they relate to one another?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Many people in the Renaissance believed that God had created the universe (the macrocosm) as a perfectly ordered and well-balanced mechanism in which every part functioned smoothly and contributed to the greater whole. The planets moved in perfect circles; the cycles of day and night were perfectly predictable; the movement from one season to the next was perfectly ordained. In short, almost everything in the physical universe functioned perfectly; any disturbances in this anticipated perfection (such as the unexpected appearance of a comet or the unexpected event of an earthquake) were sometimes interpreted as indications of God’s wrath or punishment or as warnings of his displeasure.

Many people in the Renaissance also believed in an idea known as the “great chain of being,” with God at the top, angels next in order, then humans, then animals, then plants, and then inanimate objects. The further one moves away from God on this chain, the less like God a thing is. Humans are in a pivotal position because they resemble God in some ways and resemble animals in others. God, the angels, and humans all possess the crucial ability to reason; everything lower than man cannot reason in the fullest sense of that term. Animals possess a crude kind of reason but operate mostly according to instinct; plants have no ability to reason, and neither, of course, do things like stones.  Another way to understand the great chain is to move upward from inanimate objects toward God. Inanimate objects are literally lifeless; plants are alive; animals are alive and possess feelings and consciousness and a crude kind of reason; human beings are alive and possess the ability to reason (just as they also possess eternal souls); angels are alive eternally and possess the ability to reason on an even higher level than man; God is the source of all life and reasons perfectly (unlike the angels and humans, who sometimes make errors).

The human sphere (many believed) should also reflect this kind of order. For example, at the top of the English human order was the monarch, then the dukes, then the earls, then other aristocrats, then the superior members of the commons, then the general order of the common folk, etc.  The church was also ordered hierarchically. The hierarchy of the Anglican church consisted of the king as God’s representative on earth, then the archbishops, then the bishops, and so on. Ideally, human hierarchies and human societies should function as smoothly and perfectly as the macrocosm, but because humans are fallen and sinful, no such perfection is possible in the human sphere. Humans can strive for perfection, but they cannot achieve it. They can strive to be like God, but obviously they can never be God (except, of course, for Jesus Christ).

The speech by Ulysses in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, a speech which begins as follows, is perhaps the most famous statement of some of these ideas in all of Shakespeare’s works:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre 
Observe degree, priority and place, 
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form, 
Office and custom, in all line of order; 
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol 
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered 
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye 
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king, 
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets 
In evil mixture to disorder wander, 
What plagues and what portents!




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