Does the (assumed) suicide of Lady Macbeth impact the collapse of the Great Chain of Being? I briefly learned of the Great Chain of Being, and figured many things were connected to the Biblical...

Does the (assumed) suicide of Lady Macbeth impact the collapse of the Great Chain of Being?

I briefly learned of the Great Chain of Being, and figured many things were connected to the Biblical standards of the time, considering the relevance of the Bible at the time Macbeth was written, and the overlapping themes between the guidelines of the Great Chain of Being and the Bible. So in Act 5 Scene 5 when Lady Macbeth is announced dead, does that have any influence on the ultimate collapse of the Great Chain of Being until it is restored in the end of the play?

Obviously her death is relevant because of how little it impacted Macbeth, and the importance of her lonely death on the edge of sanity, but is there any specific evidence, or even an interesting theory on suicide (considered a selfish sin the Bible) and its place in the Great Chain of Being?

Thank you!

Asked on by hanah31

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thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

The notion of the Great Chain of Being in Shakespeare's Macbeth works on several levels. The most important, though, is a structural and hierarchical relationship between the human and divine worlds. Within this structure, God rules over humans as a King rules over vassals. Humans are God's servants and property. Suicide is thus problematic because just as a peasant killing a noble's animals is stealing a possession of a superior to whom he is naturally subordinate, so too is a suicide a destruction of God's property without divine permission.

Next, Renaissance theories of the Chain of Being were dominated by a notion of sympathy, of things or creatures being magically linked both to those directly above and below them in the chain and to those in parallel with them (kings with lions and roses, for example). Any disruption in these relationships destroys the whole fabric of hierarchical relationships. Thus Lady Macbeth, in the way she has, at times, dominated her husband by being "unsexed" and violating gender hierarchy, and then in her suicide, which violates her subordination to God, disrupts the natural order. Although the act of suicide is disruptive, her death is the beginning of the restoration completed in the play's ending.

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althair's profile pic

althair | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

The Great Chain of Being is an Elizabethan concept that supposes that there is a natural hierarchy in the universe that runs from the top down something along the lines of God-angels-kings-nobles-merchants-peasants-slaves-etc.  There are analogous hierarchies in nature, such that the lion is the "king" of beasts, the eagle the king of birds, and so on.  When Macbeth betrays his King by murdering him, Macbeth has broken or disturbed this Great Chain of Being because the nobleman (Macbeth) has sworn fealty (loyalty) to his King and is supposed to serve him, not murder him.  Macbeth is also breaking the ancient law of hospitality which has roots all the way back to Greek Mythology, a law which suggests that a host must never murder a guest in his home.  Macbeth referred to this concept when he stated, "He's here in double trust: First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed; then, as his host, who should against his murtherer shut the door, not bear the knife myself" (I.vii.12-16).  However, it is the murder of his superior, his King, that Shakespeare most clearly intends to represent a violation of the chain of being.  The results of disturbing this chain, of breaking the natural rules that govern this view of reality, is that other unnatural events will be set in motion.  This was seen in Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar, when unnatural events preceded and followed upon the assassination of Caesar by his nobles, but is most clearly seen in Macbeth in two speeches.  The first is by Lennox, who has accompanied Macduff when Macduff arrives to awaken the King who will never awaken again.  Lennox states: The night has been unfuly.  Where we lay, our chimneys were blown down, and (as they say) lamentings heard i' th' air; strange screams of death..." (II.iii.54-56).  The quotations goes on in much the same manner for a few more lines, but what matters is that while Macbeth was engaged in treason, nature was disturbed and unnatural consequences ensued.  The other similar scene depicting similar disturbances to the Great Chain of Being can be found in the lines spoken by the Old Man and by Ross which begin Act 2, scene 4. "Threescore and ten I can remember well, within the volume of which time I have seen hours dredadful and things strange; but this sore night hat trifled former knowings."  Ross replied, "Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man's act, threatens his bloody stage.  By th' clock 'tis day, and yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp. . ."  The old man replies, "'Tis unnatural, even like the deed that's done. . ." and goes on to describe both an owl attacking a hawk and horses eating each other--both unnatural (and the owl hawk attack is analogous to Macbeth's attacking his King).  Of course, the characters are not yet aware of the nature of the unnatural deed that's been done, they suspect the King's guards or his sons to be behind the assassination, both of which would also be breaking the great chain of being.

However, to your question--Did Lady Macbeth's suicide (I have no doubts that we are intended to believe she did herself in) affect the great chain of being? I would say, no, there is no textual evidence to support such a reading--nothing "unnatural" follows upon her death.  However, you did mention another idea, to me a misconception, which is that Macbeth is unaffected by her death, or as you expressed it, "how little it impacted Macbeth."  First, a minor quibble from an old English teacher: Some professors are sticklers for correct usage, and might object to this ever more common, but often frowned upon usage of "impacted."  Might I suggest "affected"?  But more vitally, I have never liked this notion that Macbeth's wonderful "She should have died hereafter; there would have been a time for such a word" reflects a lack of feeling for his wife (except that he has become numb to everything at this point).  In fact, the speech can be read in precisely the reverse way: She shouldn't have died; she was too young to die.  The overall impression of this magnificent speech is that Macbeth has had it with the rotten way his treasonous actions have worked out--he is weary of life.  Consider lines 22-29 of Act 5, scene 3, which begin: I have liv'd long enough; my way of life is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf..." or lines 47-49 of V.v.: "I gin to be a-weary of the sun..."  Everything has gone wrong for Macbeth, his life is spoiled, and now his wife whom he had hoped to make happy through his treachery has killed herself.  He has nothing left to live for.  I find the often heard supposition that the suicide of his wife does not affect Macbeth incorrect. 

hanah31's profile pic

hanah31 | eNotes Newbie

Posted on

Thank you so much for your thorough answer! That clears up a lot, and drew many relevant connections I never noticed. I never thought to see her suicide as the beginning of the end of chaos! 

Thank you!

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