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“Contending with the Fretful Element”: Shakespeare and the (Gendered) Great Chain of Being

György E. Szönyi
Published Online: 2013-02-08 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.2478/v10320-012-0025-6


E. M. W. Tillyard’s short but seminal book, The Elizabethan World Picture made its appearance as a ground-breaking work in the mid-1940s. It successfully adapted Arthur O. Lovejoy’s discovery of the Great Chain of Being as the central idea and metaphor of the premodern world picture for English Renaissance culture and literature, offering a key to understanding the often unfamiliar and obscure natural philosophy and metaphysics behind its works of art and literature. The concept of the Great Chain also led to Shakespeare being seen as a supporter of a conservative order in which religious, moral, philosophical, and scientific notions corresponded with each other in a strict hierarchy. The poststructuralist turn unleashed a severe attack on Tillyard and his legacy. As Ewan Fernie in a recent book on the Renaissance has diagnosed: “Now, after the theoretical overhaul, the notion of an ultimately authoritarian Renaissance has been thoroughly revised. In place of Tillyard’s full-fledged and secured physical, social and cosmological system, more recent critics tend to posit a conflicted and constantly negotiated culture with no essential pattern”. But what has happened to the idea of the Great Chain of Being, which, without doubt, played a major role in the Renaissance world picture and provided a basic knowledge about the elements? In my paper I am going to revisit some aspects of this world picture and examine how Shakespeare related to this (more often than not) in a subversive way, while still remaining within the boundaries of this organic and proto-modern system. Since the concept of the elements had gender aspects, too, I will also focus on the question of how proto-modern natural philosophy theorised about the dichotomy, antagonism, and the cooperation of male and female principles.

Keywords: gender; Great Chain of Being; premodern natural philosophy; romances; Shakespeare; theology

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About the article

Published Online: 2013-02-08

Published in Print: 2012-12-01

Citation Information: Gender Studies, ISSN (Online) 2286-0134, ISSN (Print) 1583-980X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.2478/v10320-012-0025-6.

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