The concept of the Great Chain of Being and its offshoot the Notion of Correspondence occupied a central position in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres. Dr. Geoffrey A. Grimes of Navarro College in his web page Basic Concept says that the "Great Chain of Being" Theory can be attributed to Plato. The web article General Characteristics of the Renaissance published by Brooklyn University says, “(The) major premise (of the Great Chain of Being) was that every existing thing in the universe had its ‘place’ in a divinely planned hierarchical order, which was pictured as a chain vertically extended. An object's ‘place’ depended on the relative proportion of ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’ it contained.” Plato called the relationship between the objects ‘justice’”.
In Book I of The Republic which deals with the nature of justice, Plato draws an analogy between the human being and society. According to this view, a human being has three souls: the rational soul related to intellect/ wisdom, the spirit soul related to volition and courage, and the appetitive soul related to emotions. Justice within an individual is achieved when the rational soul is in control over spirit soul and the appetitive soul.
Plato stratified society into three classes that correspond to the three souls: the philosopher-king - the rational soul, auxiliaries - the spirit soul, and the farmers, artisans, and merchants - the appetitive soul. According to Section 433e of The Republic, society would function harmoniously and exhibit ‘justice’ only when the three classes perform their allocated roles without trying to usurp what is not rightfully theirs. Unhealthy ambition endangered ‘justice’ at both personal and societal levels.
In the light of this thesis, the two Jacobean plays The Malcontent (1603) and A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1625) reflect a society in turmoil. The main theme of both plays is justice in the platonic sense. In both plays, the protagonist who used to occupy a position of honour/power has been brought down by the mechanizations of a socially inferior usurper: Altofront by Mendoza and Wellborn by Overreach. As a result, individuals are out of their natural places, and this leads to a social upheaval. So, those who have been usurped have a personal as well as a social obligation to restore justice; both A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The Malcontent subscribe to this lofty concept.
In The Malcontent, Mendoza, not Pietro, is the main threat to social justice. It is Mendoza who has brokered the marriage between Pietro and Aurelia so that he could rise to prominence through them. The duke and the duchess are mere puppets in the hands of the power-hungry minister. Later Mendoza makes use of the opportunities presented to him by chance and the caprice of the new rulers to further his ambitions and ultimately seize the throne. At a personal level, Mendoza’s rational soul is overwhelmed by his lust and appetite for power. As a result, instead of following the leader, he peruses private interests abandoning the virtue of moderation in the process. According to the Platonic analysis of the soul, in Mendoza, the three souls are in constant turmoil resulting in a disintegrated personality. Unlike Pietro and Aurelia, Mendoza shows no remorse for the destruction he has caused, so in the end he is banished in order to restore justice.
In comparison to diabolical Mendoza, though guilty of threatening justice, Pietro appears a sympathetic figure. Pietro does not enjoy bloodshed and does not act the tyrant even when he is confronted with his duchess’ infidelity. As a result Pietro is forgiven by Altofront/Malvole when he repents his crimes and offers to redress the wrongs he has committed in the final act. Aurelia too repents her crimes and accepts her role as a dutiful wife; therefore, she is forgiven by her husband. Both Pietro and Aurelia whose earlier actions were governed by their appetitive souls learn to bring them under the control of their rational souls. They have learnt the bitter repercussions of such a way of life and are determined not to repeat their mistakes. Thus, as individuals as well as social beings Pietro and Aurelia attain harmony- in another word ‘justice’.
In Altofornt, the rational soul is dominant; thus, he is the ideal ruler. His rule “stood like a point in midst of a circle” (I. iv 11). When Mendoza begs for his life in the end wise Altofront says: “ ‘tis the heart of slaves/ That designs to triumph over peasants’ graves” (V.vi 125-131). In contrast, when Mendoza came to power he banishes the former duchess and employs Malvole and the ‘Hermit’ to poison each other. George K Hunter, in the introduction to The Malcontent says that Altofront and Malvole are “simultaneous aspects of a unified view of the world. The protagonist as Malvole is committed to a world whose day-by-day reality is that the just and the innocent do not succeed and cannot be expected to” (lxviii). But as the play moves on, one sees the noble duke Altofront (rational soul) increasingly replacing the Machiavellian Malvole (appetitive soul). Ultimately, Altofornt takes over restoring justice at an individual level. According to Hunter, Altofront “reassure(s) us that this day-to-day world …will in the end be brought into order” (lxvix). But the world of Altofront is too deeply steeped in vice for him to restore justice on his own. As a result “restoration of Altofront has to be a matter of faith, hope and providential intervention rather than intrigue” (lxvx).
In A New Way to Pay Old Debts, the antagonist Sir Giles Overreach (as implied by his name) is obviously an upstart who has married into the gentry and obtained a knighthood through his ill-gained wealth. Overreach’s ultimate aim is to be assimilated into the nobility. Sir Giles aims to achieve this by marrying Lady Allworth and giving his daughter in marriage to Lord Lovell. Yet, he is not unaware of the difficulty of achieving his dream: “…there having ever been/ More than a feud, a strange antipathy/ Between us and the true gentry” (II. i. 86-88). Despite this he believes that an offer to buy an earldom and to foot the bill for Lovell’s supposedly wasteful lifestyle would allow him to bounce a young Lord Lovell on his knees. According to Norman N Holland in The First Modern Comedies, “Overreach’s deviltry takes two forms. First he tries to reverse the traditional social structure by replacing the landed aristocracy…Second, while Overreach seeks material wealth and titles, he denies the spiritual wealth of virtue and nobility” (226).
All the ‘good’ characters refrain from threatening ‘justice’/ the Great Chain of Being. Wellborn the rake-hero of the play is a member of the gentry who realizes his mistakes and wants to atone for them. He goes as far as to offer to serve under Lord Lovell in order to redeem his stained honour. The scheme that ultimately ruins Overreach is the brainchild of Wellborn who has lost his wealth to the Sir Giles ‘Cormorant’ Overreach. The other members of the nobility/gentry become enthusiastic accomplices to the plot set in motion by Wellborn in order to restore justice to a community made a wasteland through the insatiable greed of a single man.
Lord Lovell, like his prototype Earl of Essex who served James I, is a noble soldier who serves God and his king faithfully. Lovell is not ambitious as seen by his refusal of Overreach’s offer to buy him an earldom. As a soldier-courtier, Lord Lovell shies away from marriage to beautiful and wealthy Margaret because he “would not so adulterate (his) blood/ By marrying Margaret, so leave (his) issue made of several pieces, one part scarlet/ And the other London Blue” (IV.ii 226-7). But he shows an ardent willingness to marry Lady Allworth who has “descended nobly and aligned so” (V.i 62).The marriage between Tom Allworth and Margaret Overreach could be taken as a threat to Platonic concept of justice; yet, Margaret is ever so conscious of her station and suitably apologetic for her father’s vices. Her reluctance to employ the members of the upper class and rejection of Lord Lovell partly stem from this innate sense of ‘justice’. Therefore, such a humble yet wealthy wife conveniently left guardianless by her father’s insanity would be a tolerable mate for Tom Allworth who “scare munumiz’d from the porter’s lodge” (I.i.136).
In contrast, the ‘bad’ characters are socially ambitious and indulge in deplorable activities. [y1] Their appetitive souls overwhelm the other two souls in their psyche. The coarser material of Sir Giles’ psyche is incapable of an act of self-realization. Overreach is a predatory beast with his eyes trained on his kill. His all encompassing absorption in the act makes him oblivious to all other considerations. In fact whether he is capable of ethical consciousness is questionable. In his reply to Lord Lovell if he were moved by the plights of his victims Overreach says: “Yes, as rocks are/ When foamy bellows split themselves against/ Their flinty ribs” (IV.i.111-117). Overreach’s lack of sense of justice is further highlighted by the detailed description he makes of how he would ruin Master Frugal. Such a man is clearly incapable of reformation and therefore cannot be allowed to be at large as he would endanger the newly restored and therefore still fragile social order. As a result he is made to go mad. Using madness in the neutralization of the overwhelmingly diabolical figure of Giles Overreach, while catering to the pre-occupation of Massinger’s audience with madness, sends out a powerful message. Giles (whose name rhymes with ‘guile’) prospered through the insidious mechanizations concocted by mind, and in losing his mind he loses everything. Marrall, Greedy Tapwell and Froth are made to forfeit their ill-achieved ‘statuses’ as punishment fro their crimes. Thus, in the end, the collective forces of the nobility and the gentry manage to restore justice.
Fredson Thayer Bowers in Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy says that between the first and the second decades of the 17th century revenge plays were more concerned “with the depiction of villainy and horror” than ultimate revenge (145). In essence they had become tragic-comedies. So, unlike the older revenge plays which disintegrate into a series of murders, the playwrights of The Malcontent and A New Way to Pay Old Debts were satisfied with only a kick on the rump of the evil Mendoza and making Overreach go mad. Yet, most importantly, at the end of the two plays ‘justice’ in the form of restoration of the Great Chain of Being is achieved.
“Basic Concept: The "Great Chain of Being" Theory” <http://www.distancelearningassociates.com/eng2327navarro/BC-GreatChain.html>
”General Characteristics of the Renaissance” <http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/ren.html>
”General Characteristics of the Renaissance” <http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/ren.html>
Bowers, Fredson Thayer. Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642. Princeton: Princeton, 1940.
Holland, Norman N. The First Modern Comedies. Massachusetts: Harvard, 1959.
Marston, John. The Malcontent. Ed. George K Hunter. Chathem: W & J Mackay, 1975.
Marston, John. The malcontent. Ed. George K Hunter. Manchester: Manchester, 2000.