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Renaissance Humanism

Renaissance humanism considers man to be the sole most significant entity in the cosmos. Order within the Renaissance era had paramount importance and any disruption in this order was professed to lead to anarchy and chaos. The great chain of being was hugely significant to the Elizabethans; this refers to a hierarchical structure perceivably constructed by god. Should everything occupy its correct position and this great chain be maintained, humanity would perceivably flourish and reach its true potential. Rebellion against this however, would allow misery to encapsulate mankind.

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Order during the renaissance, is the source of all virtues. ’This era was guided by an ideal of human totality, of trying to develop all sides of human nature harmoniously’’(Paul A. Cantor, Shakespeare; Hamlet, 15). Historical figures within the era celebrated this ideal of synthesizing all the humane values of understanding, benevolence, compassion, fortitude, judgement and eloquence. The latter, considered being the most important quality to possess. Attaining all of these traits would generate a ‘renaissance man’ or ideal man, adroit in all areas of human endeavor.

The influence of this is depicted in the most famous Shakespearean texts King Lear and Hamlet, as ultimately these tragedies ‘arise out of a shattering of the renaissance ideal of totality’ (Paul A. Cantor, Shakespeare; Hamlet, 16). In each of the two texts the hierarchical structure is rebelled against with disastrous consequences. In the hypothesis of the great chain of being, everything conceivable in the universe has its own divine location. It is arranged as thus; stars, planets, earth, stones, plants, animals, man, angels, archangels, god, with inanimate objects situated at the bottom and animate objects at the top.

Within each of these categories there is a specific hierarchical location for every type of entity within the category, e. g. the lion is at the apex of the animal chain, while a diamond is at the top of the stone chain. The human hierarchical structure consists of slaves, followed by citizens, then ensue nobles and the king is situated at the zenith. This great chain of being is evident to be hugely influential at this period from the reading of both plays. The villain in the Shakespearean play Hamlet is the character Caius, as Laertes apprehends during his final moments in death, ‘’The King- the King’s to blame’’.

Caius’s rebellion against the great chain of being initiates a series of cataclysmic events. Caius commits the sacrilegious murder of his brother Hamlet, in order to ascertain Hamlet’s power of the kingship and marry his spouse, Gertrude. In murdering the legitimate king of England he is going against gods will, and so disorder ensues throughout the land as gods punishment. The king is God’s representative on earth. A noble and just king will reflect a good country. The kingship has potential for good and evil.

The welfare of the state is seen to depend on the legitimacy and character of the king. A lawful and trustworthy king’s rule brings order, stability and prosperity. An unlawful corrupt king threatens the health and welfare of the state. Denmark becomes a nation ruled by a usurper, causing the government to have a paranoid court and ultimately creating an unstable kingdom that is susceptible to invasion and being plagued by a destructive ghost. Elizabethans believed that the crown was a right bestowed by god on a chosen individual.

Any corruption involving the crown would lead to disorder in nature and the ultimate destruction of man. The killing of a king was no ordinary crime but a sacrilege. ‘’Claudius’s actions as king are violations of gods law. Hamlet’s refusal to kill Claudius / is not motivated by fear of breaking any religious or ethical code, but by the desire to prevent the victims soul from ascending to heaven, and so escaping damnation. ’ (Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare and renaissance politics, 94), which would not avenge the death of his father.

The ghost of Hamlet justifiably haunts the royal castle seeking vengeance for his murder. Reinforcing the humanists desire for justice. ‘’King Lear, like Hamlet represents the consequences of an undesirable succession and shows the disastrous events precipitated by the advent of the new reign’’ but ’’strange as it may seem, King Lear is an optimistic work unlike Hamlet, because the ways and means of avoiding tragedy are explicit within the play’’(Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare and renaissance politics, 97 and 110).

The renaissance reader is expectant of the mayhem that follows in the forthcoming scenes when King Lear rebels against the will of god and the great chain of being in announcing his retirement at the beginning of the play. This sets the tone for the subsequent scenes. Lear’s arrangement to divide his kingdom into three sections and share it amongst his daughters is a sacrilege. If god appoints an individual to be king, then only god can remove the individual from this position. Subsequently the play ends apocalyptically with Albany, Kent and Edgar remaining the only survivors.

Every other character has tragically suffered because of King Lear’s single sacrilegious proposition to retire his kingship, allegorically retiring from gods command. Gloucester is arrested and has his eyes gashed out by Cornwall. His servant in outrage, consequently kills Cornwall, Regan then kills this servant. Oswald, while trying to murder Gloucester is murdered by Edgar. Goneril poisons Regan in jealousy and then commits suicide in angst. Edgar fatally stabs Edmund. Lear dies while avenging Cordelia’s killer.

All these horrific deaths caused by one selfish act that contradicts the great chain of being. Lear represented stable hierarchical power and once he gives this away to his two undeserving daughters, a state of calamity engulfs Britain and leads to the demise of every character, whether they are wholly corrupt or indirect agents of evil. The abuse of power has led to murder, betrayal and conflict. The evil must suffer for their wrongdoings. Renaissance humanists believe in the concept of the great chain of being.

Humanists aspire to obtain the humane values necessary to reach their full potential, but in order to do so the great chain of being must be in order. If god is unhappy with the order of the great chain of being he will punish the kingdom and prevent the inhabitants from gratifying their ideal selves. This view of life is evident in Shakespearean dramas when the great chain of being is rebelled against and chaos ensues. It highlights the importance of the concept in the renaissance era, as it is palpable that the plays culminate fear in anyone considering rejection of the concept.


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