An Elizabethan View of the Universe

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An Elizabethan View of the Universe
Julius Caesar
Mrs. Dobson-Efpatridis
Elizabethans believed in an absolutely ordered universe in which all things could be clearly ranked in order of
superiority. This common sense view corresponded with their religious beliefs, political system and limited
scientific understanding.
General Being could be divided and ranked as shown below:
GOD
ANGELS
MAN
ANIMALS
PLANTS
INORGANIC MATTER
CHAOS
This was known as the “Great Chain of Being”. Within the categories above, further subdivisions could also be
made. For example, within the category of MAN - Sovereign Nobility (Kings), and Knights were considered
superior to Servants and Women, and the general public and the poor. The highest animal is the lion, chief metal is
gold, and the superior planet is the sun, etc.
The Chain of Being is polarized by the Aristotelian Theory of Form and Matter. ie. Items high on the chain were
“pure form”. As you descend, items lower on the chain were composed of more and more material. This chain is
structural. It represents a structure of authority. The places are fixed. Everything is implanted by its creator with
the innate tendency to return to Him. This structure of authority is reproduced on earth.
Note that man is in the middle of the chain. He is half spiritual and half material. He is a microcosm (the small
universe) within the macrocosm.
So, how does the Chain of Being, and ordered view of the universe apply to Julius Caesaar?
The play reflects the Elizabethan concern with seeing and maintaining order. When Cassius plots the murder of
Caesar, and Brutus delivers the fatal blow along with many other conspirators, they violate the “natural” order of
government by removing the Head of State. Cassius’ constant manipulation of events and Brutus, and his plotting
of Caesar’s death also violates that natural chain of command. When Brutus follows through with their corrupt
plan, it creates more disorder within a country that was already facing political turmoil. Thus, order cannot be
restored until the end of the play when the men responsible for murder face their own demise. All injustice is
“righted”, and a rightful man of power will take his place to rule Rome. Thus, killing Julius Caesar is not just a
personal, political, or social action; it is a cosmic crime reflected by the universe, which is depicted through the
imagery and pathetic fallacy that Shakespeare utilizedsto depict the storms, portents and strange events that are
alluded to in Calpurnia’s dreams and referred to after Caesar’s death.
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