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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436

It is not hard to trace a line from the Christian humanist philosophy of Pico's Oration on the Dignity of Man to the literary work of such figures as Shakespeare and Milton—and even C.S. Lewis.

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Pico envisioned the universe as a hierarchy. Every creature had a place on an ascending and descending ladder to heaven. Humans, for instance, were slightly lower than angels but were higher than animals. God was at the top of the chain.

This idea of a hierarchical universe is both affirmed and sometimes critiqued in Shakespeare's plays. Many of his dramas deal with the unfortunate consequences of people getting out of their place in the great chain of being. Brutus, for example, oversteps himself in assassinating Caesar, a disruption portended in strange physical signs in nature. Likewise, Macbeth disrupts the order of being by assassinating Duncan, and Claudius does the same by assassinating the elder Hamlet, his king and brother. In the latter cases, this disruption of the order of being brings invading armies into the land, whereas the assassination of Caesar causes a civil war.

In other cases, most notably his treatment of women, the gender-bending Shakespeare challenges the notion that females are lower in the chain of being than men. Both reason and the embrace of Christianity were important to Pico as distinguishing humans from beasts, and a character like Portia in The Merchant of Venice shows an ability to express both a reasoned argument and a plea for mercy that rivals—or even outdoes—male abilities.

Pico believed that indulging the physical over the rational (which centrally involved obeying God's laws) lowered humans in the chain of being. In Paradise Lost,

(The entire section contains 436 words.)

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