In Macbeth, the theme of the great chain of being—the whole concept of hierarchy in society—is said to be in the play. It is evident that the society starts to break down, and everything is in disorder. What are some of the aspects, if any, that go into disorder as Macbeth rises in power/corruption?

Aspects that reveal the disorder in Scotland as Macbeth rises in power and corruption include the turmoil in nature as Macbeth murders Duncan, Macbeth's increasingly bloodthirsty tendency to have his perceived enemies murdered, Lady Macbeth's madness, and the civil war that erupts in the land.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Great Chain of Being held that all of existence was hierarchical in nature, with power and authority radiating downwards from God. This hierarchical vision of the universe was reflected in a hierarchical social and political structure. Just as God reigned in heaven, it was understood that kings reigned on Earth, and subjects owed them their allegiance. This vision certainly applies to Macbeth, whose act of usurpation is an act of rebellion against the entire hierarchy, throwing it out of order.

I think the political dynamics of the play have already been covered, but I think Macbeth's status as a corruptive influence seems to go even deeper than his regicide and act of usurpation alone would attest. In fact, I think that two of the most interesting elements of this analysis would actually lie in the characterization of Lady Macbeth and the role of the witches in the play.

Ultimately, analyzing Lady Macbeth in this context requires grappling with Early Modern gender expectations (especially if we are speaking within the context of the Great Chain of Being). Keep in mind that virtually every aspect of human society was understood as fitting within this hierarchical structure, and this applies also to men and women, with each having specific roles and expectations that they were expected to uphold. What is interesting, then, is that Lady Macbeth is herself as much a rebel as her husband is, given how she disowns her own femininity, desiring to "unsex" herself (act 1, scene 5).

Furthermore, Early Modern political thought was framed simultaneously in a bottom-up as well as a top-down manner: the basis of the political structure was seen as either descending from God above or ascending from the family unit (in which case kings were often understood in a paternal role). Seen with this in mind, it is interesting that the temptation towards regicide coexists with Macbeth's own disordered household, especially given the influence that his wife wields in the murder of Duncan. This is certainly an angle worth discussing. Finally, there are the witches.

I think there's a strong argument that the witches, more than anyone else in the play, represent the source of all the corruption that follows. Note that, seen from an Early Modern mindset, even more than Macbeth (an usurper), it is the witches who distort and undermine the Chain of Being. Macbeth seeks power and in so doing disobeys the will of God, but witches were believed to have actually been in league with the Devil and would thus be opposed to God by intent and on an existential level. The witches actively seek to distort the Natural Order, and, in this respect, their influence over Macbeth is a powerful image of his corruption.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Behind the great chain of being lies the concept that authority is top-down and everyone must obey the person above them, as this is what God has ordained. Most significantly in terms of Macbeth, God has chosen and anointed the person who is king, giving this individual semi-divine authority. (This is the opposite of democratic systems in which power is bottom-up: the people decide through an election who will rule them.)

The murder of Duncan upsets the order of nature. For instance, as the murder occurs, Lady Macbeth says,

I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry.

Later, Lennox will describe the disturbing unrest of nature as Macbeth is killing Duncan:

The night has been unruly. Where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i' th' air, strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatched to the woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamored the livelong night. Some say the Earth
Was feverous and did shake.
As Lennox says, the winds howled and blew down chimneys, strange "screams" were heard in the air, and some people say that they felt an earthquake. This represents God's distress with the murder of Duncan, which was a great evil that rips the very fabric of nature because it is so violates the natural order of things.
Aspects of the disorder that arises after Macbeth becomes king include his increasingly bloodthirsty tendency to have anyone (even children) whom he perceives as his enemies killed, his own hallucination of seeing the dead Banquo, and Lady Macbeth's madness. Another chief sign of disorder is the civil war that breaks out in Scotland as Malcolm, the rightful heir to the throne, arrives with an army to take back the kingdom. We learn that Macbeth has been behaving like a tyrant, and people are deserting him to be with Malcolm. The murder of a king, one of the very worst crimes in Shakespeare's time, leads to chaos and destruction.
Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Here is a brief outline of how regicide inverts the Great Chain:

Worst Crimes in Elizabethan England

1.Regicide: murder of king (equivalent to killing God)

2.Parricide: murder of a parent or family member

Regicide: Inverting the Great Chain

Murderers become King/Queen.

•Witches become advisers.

•Earth becomes tied to hell, instead of heaven.

•Thanes kill rather than protect.

•The good become evil.

•The eloquent lose voice.

•Plants, animal kindgoms affected.

Great Chain of Being – Natural Order (what should have been)

Highest in Macbeth (beginning of play):


2.Prince of Cumberland (Malcolm)


4.Thanes of Cawdor (traitor)

5.Thane of Glamis (Macbeth)


●Lowest: Witches

●The Very Lowest: Those who commit Regicide

After the Murder (the natural world revenges and restores itself against the unnatural)

the lowest reigns (Macbeth) and seeks advice from the second lowest (Wtiches)

● Division of labor: Macbeth no longer seeks advice from Lady Macbeth (her descent into madness, death is quicker)

● No one sleeps

● "No tomorrow": time is disrupted

● Lady Macbeth's mental illness / suicide

●Horses eat each other

●Thanes fly from Macbeth

●The Christ-figure Macduff ("supernatural birth") revenges his family

●Nature takes revenge on Macbeth (Birnham Wood marches to Dunsinane Hill)

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the first conventions to break down in the society represented in the playMacbeth by William Shakespeare, is that of social etiquette and aristocratic courtesy. In Shakespeare's time and well before (as can be seen as far back even as Beowulf) it was customary for clansmen and chieftains to entertain loyal and worthy thanes and lieges in the great hall of the lord they served in battle and politics. Here they would be courted, feted and praised and rewarded with wine, women and song and a sumptuous banquet in order that the overlord could strengthen bonds and ties of allegiance. Lady Macbeth is therefore keen to make a good impression on the nobility and not to give the game away. Yet the banquet falls into disarray, the chain is beginning to break and Lady Macbeth sees the weakest link as being Macbeth. All ends in rudeness, inhospitality and bad etiquette as the guests are actually sent away.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial