The culture of Shakespeare’s England reflected the long-standing medieval vision that the universe was created by God to be a perfect unity, within which every aspect of creation had its place. This “great chain of being,” as it later came to be called, encompassed all of existence, from inanimate objects to the angels, and placed each in what were judged to be natural places of subordination. Within this order was a series of correspondences. As God was the highest among the angels, so the sun was the highest of the stars, fire the highest of the elements, the king the highest of human beings, the lion the highest of beasts, and the eagle the highest of birds. Furthermore, order within the political and social realm corresponded to that within the human body. Just as the surrounding world, the macrocosm, was said to be composed of four elements (fire, air, water, and earth), so human nature contained four parallel humors (choler, blood, phlegm, and melancholy). Any imbalance of these forces within an individual could lead to disorder that extended into the political and social realms, then into the universe itself.
During Shakespeare’s lifetime, however, this medieval vision was challenged by the forces of the Renaissance and the Reformation, both of which inspired dispute about religious, political, social, and intellectual rights and freedoms. Each movement in its own way shifted responsibility away from institutions and more to the individual. In addition, the growing awareness of new lands and societies, especially throughout the Americas, caused European civilization to reflect upon the very nature of the human species, as well as on fundamental questions of morality and theology. All this turmoil was reflected in the central subject of Elizabethan literature: the struggle for order between individual lives and the social structure.
Shakespeare’s plays dramatize this tension between old and new visions, between the world as a closed, structured system, and the capacity and responsibility of individuals to find their own way. Thus the plays