Thursday, June 11, 2009

In reference to book by Tillyard, E.M.W. The Elizabethan World Picture. New York: Vintage Books, 1959.

In lieu of following the structure of the previous entries, I am going to summarize Tillyard’s book with interpretations interspersed in an attempt to procure an understanding of the text. Tillyard organizes the book in a succession of ideas that build upon each other, much as the concepts discussed.


Elyot in Governor explains that order prevents chaos, maintaining stability (11-12). Hooker defines human law as a derivation of God’s law (divine law) and reason (14). Elizabethan chaos is defined not as “confusion on a large scale,” but as “cosmic anarchy before creation and the wholesale dissolution that would result if the pressure of Providence relaxed and allowed the law of nature to cease functioning” (16). After finishing the book, I can see the freakish pressure that this would have placed on people of the time – if one link in the chain is “off,” then the entire chain is in danger of nonexistence. In his work, Shakespeare defines order in terms of the chaos threatening to destroy it (17). Shakespeare relates life to a cosmic order: sun – planets – life forms = royalty – kingdom – citizens.


In a phrase that sums up the Elizabethan view on sin, Tillyard pens, “It was far easier to be very wicked and think yourself so than to be a little wicked without a sense of sin” (18). Immediately Iago comes to mind – he is wicked and knows it. The perception, as I understand it, was that God created all, man fell through Adam, man rose through Redemption (Christ). Stability (order) appears achieved through a balance of religious faith (believing) and sinning (living). I am still a little fuzzy on this Elizabethan ideology.

Universal Order:

1. Chain of Being – “unimaginable plentitude of God’s creation, its unfaltering order, and its ultimate unity” (26)

2. Series of corresponding planes

3. Dance

Chain of Being:

The chain of being was best related through Jean Martin’s translation of Raymond de Sebonde’s Natural Theology. The chain as conveyed in pages 27-28 is as follows:

1. existence (inanimate class – elements, liquids, metals). Virtue of components is present as water is nobler than earth, gold is nobler than brass, and ruby is nobler than topaz.

2. existence of life (vegetative class). Virtue: oak is nobler than bramble.

3. existence of life and feeling (sensitive class)

a. creatures that have touch, but no hearing, memory, or movement (shellfish, parasites)

b. creatures that have touch, memory, movement, but no hearing (ants)

c. higher animals – have all four (dogs, horses)

4. existence of life, feeling, and understanding (man – “little world or microcosm”)

5. spiritual class (angels)

6. God

All classes have quality that exceeds the class above it except for angels. The noblest forms of each class are identifiable, such as fire – inanimate, rose – vegetative, lion – sensitive. Abundance is key to the chain.

Links in the chain:

The Elizabethan notion of the chain of being is that every level of the ladder is made up of the elements and of the entities or parts below it in the chain. Tillyard mentions that a fiery heaven would have been the highest perfection because fire was the noblest element. As a means of rationalizing the connection between the elements and the divine, ether became known as the fifth element. Although the Elizabethans referred to the “air” between the clouds and heaven, it was difficult not to think of ether in terms of its nickname for hard liquor – as if you could “drink” your way to spiritual place (I know, warped).

Astrology and Fate worked on the chain additionally in “that the stars sway the mind to certain states by acting on our physical predispositions” (57). Conversely, “’Fate will be overcome, if thou resist it; if thou neglect it, it conquereth’” (57). This implies that the stars ply on a person’s weaknesses to control our feelings and attitudes that drive our actions. If he resists passionate feelings and utilizes reason, he will not become “fortune’s fool” as Romeo does.

As a visual aid to assist me in remembering the connection to the elements, I am including the chart. The “personality” portion of the chart is from







Cold & dry

Introspective, sallow, thin



Cold & moist

Sluggish, pallid, corpulent, lazy



Hot & moist

Optimistic, red-cheeked, corpulent, irresponsible



Hot & dry

Short-tempered, red-haired, thin, ambitious

Tillyard summarizes the scale of creation as:

· Beasts – “excel in sensible capacity . . . ,” are “. . . content with the mere necessities . . . ,” and “. . . have an instinctive sensuous perception”

· Angels – “instinctive intellectual perception”

· Plants – “excel in the faculty of growth”

· Stones – “excel in durability, and the best of them are the hardest and the most brilliant”

Corresponding Planes:

There are five planes in the chain of being:

1. divine and angelic

2. universe or macrocosm

3. commonwealth or body politic

4. man or microcosm

5. lower creation

Elizabethans looked for correspondences within the same plane (numbers, items, etc.) Correspondences were also made within the chain of being where noble equality of an item in the chain existed when compared with an item of equal nobility in a corresponding plane (for example in Three Moral Treatises, a poem by Thomas Blunderville, God – sun – prince – reason – justice).

Cosmic Dance:

All parts of the chain and corresponding planes are in continuous harmonious motion (a dance) with each other. I see this as creation and order.

In a final note, playgoers of the Elizabethan era had the pleasure and advantage of knowing and living the information Tillyard conveyed. A lot of Shakespeare that I have difficulty understanding would have been second nature to the Elizabethan person, allowing that person to give more attention to other qualities of the play. By applying the ideas in Tillyard’s book in my studies of Shakespeare, I am able to obtain that same advantage of the Elizabethan playgoer.

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