How is The Great Chain of Being used within this play?

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katwood001 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In order to understand this question you first must understand the Elizabethan Great Chain of Being.  The Chain of Being is a hierarchical list of power descending from God down through rocks.  It is also referred to more commonly as the Divine Order.  The chain of being was first theorized by the Greek philosophers- Plato and Aristotle (among others) and eventually becomes cannon by the Church of England.

The basic divisions are: (In descending order) God, Angels, Kings and Queens, Archbishops, Dukes/Duchesses, Bishops, Marquises/Marchionesses, Earls/ Countesses, Barons/Baronesses, Abbots/Deacons, Knights/Local Officials, Ladies-in-waiting, Priests/Monks, Squires, Pages, Messengers, Merchants/Shopkeepers, Tradesmen, Yeoman Farmers, Soldiers/Town Watch, Household Servants, Tenant Farmers, Shepherds/Herders, Beggars, Actors, Thieves/Pirates, Gypsies, Animals, Birds, Worms, Plants, and Rocks.  

Within each basic division there are subdivisions that were not only known but the basic makeup of Elizabethan culture.  For example: Within the family unit on each level there was a familial order: (Father, Mother, Sons, Daughters, Servants)  These breaks were based upon the level of "spirit" each person or object.  The more spirit- the more power.   Every person in England was aware of their station in the Divine Order and were completely aware of those who were above and below them on the caste system.  To them this was God's order that he meant to be followed.  If you decided to betray or go against the Divine Order, you betrayed God.  And the larger the level of the betrayal, the larger the punishment from God.  For example if a gypsy betrayed a pirate, it would be less of an affront than if a Peasant betrayed a Duke or the King himself.  

Shakespeare uses the Divine Order in many of his plays as a central theme or integral plot point.  Macbeth oversteps and is met with tragedy, Taming of the Shrew deals with Kate and Petruchio battling and eventually putting Kate in her divine place, and Hamlet's Uncle's betrayal and social overstep leading Hamlet's father to charge him to avenge his death.  

In All's Well that Ends Well there are several interesting pieces of the Great Chain of Being-  First: Bertram is made a royal ward of the King.  He does this and the Countess gives him up because of the King's divine right to request his presence.

 Helena follows him.  She is an orphan, a woman, and a peasant.  Fortunately she cures the King with the knowledge she knew from her dead father- a doctor.    

Second is the marriage of Helena to Bertram.  Helena is lower that Bertram on the Chain of Being.  She is so low that no marriage is possible.  (Commoner vs Noble.)  Once again the King uses his Divine Right through the Chain to elevate Helena as a thank you for saving his life.  Bertram, while he follows the King's order and marries Helena, he refuses to accept her as his wife and runs off to the war in Italy  

This is a betrayal of the Divine Order.  Not only is he ignoring the King, but he is also ignoring his commitment to Helena that was put together by God.  His statement that he will only recognize her if she is pregnant with his child (impossible because he refuses to sleep with her) and has his ring.  (Also impossible because he is in Italy.

Helena through the use of the "bed trick" is able to force Bertram into accepting his place in the Divine Order.   She goes to Italy as a peasant and finds her husband trying to seduce another woman (Diana).  She switches places with Diana and obtains his ring and his child. When at the end of the play, this is revealed, Bertram is forced to accept his position as husband to Helena and Helena in turn recognizes him as her lord.  

Similar to Taming of the Shrew modern views regarding gender equality have left this play with severe criticism despite Helena's obvious overstep of station throughout the play.  Most of this can be attributed to the Great Chain of Being and the Elizabethan fundamental belief that it was the Divine principle of existence.

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