The dynamics of order and disorder in Shakespeare's tragedies

Essay, 2010

4 Pages


How do Shakespearean dramas confront the opposed dynamics of order and disorder?

In this essay I will argue that one general concept of order and disorder based on binary oppositions does not apply to Shakespeare’s tragedies. Instead it has to give way to a plurality of “orders” and “disorders” or even to the collapse of such a concept. Order can only be deduced from its counterpart and from the characters’ actions to restore it; for instance, on a political or moral level. Order also alludes to the mental order and, respectively, to the mental disorder of the disjointed protagonist. Mental disorder, however, covers a range of “disorders” including Hamlet’s “antic disposition”, Ophelia’s clinical madness, temporal rage and passionate love. The reader has either to accept the absurd situation, in which the disjointed individual attempts to restore his notion of “order” or instead face the fact that clear-cut categories are no longer applicable. This was all the more valid for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who found themselves in times of transition; a transition from feudal state to the absolutist monarchy of James I, from one religion to another, where the Act of Supremacy of 1534 marked a radical break with Catholic Rome; from the collective identity of the Middle Ages to Renaissance Humanism, which established a self-dependent individual. In this light, Shakespeare’s protagonists do not really seek to restore order, but rather attempt to find some meaning in their disjointed universe and are thus children of their age.

The world of the Shakespearean tragedies – of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear – is “out of joint”. This phrase runs like a leitmotif through these dramas. In Hamlet it is uttered by Claudius: “Or thinking by our late dear brother’s death / Our state to be disjoint and out of frame” (1.2.20) as if in anticipation of Hamlet’s “The time is out of joint” (1.5.188) and Macbeth installs his foul state in act three using these words: “But let the frame of things disjoint.” (3.2.17). The “disjointed” quality of Shakespearean tragedy initially concerns political disorder: the abolition of patriarchy or women’s rule. Politics is entwined with sharp gender constructions, where political power is related to aggressive masculinity. Femininity entails a binary concept: the demonic and lascivious female who challenges male political power and her obsequious, silent counterpart who refrains from political power and thus remains virtuous. These oppositions, however, are pervaded by anomalies. The characters are unstable in their roles. They appear effeminate, masculinised and mad (also in a queer sense). This infirmity is further undermined by the permeability of reality. Apparitions and ghosts are not only harbingers of decline but pinpoint a space where clear-cut categories cease to exist.

The starting point of the tragedies is the cessation of political order. Following this, the action takes place in a time of political transition marked by the death of the king, which lasts until the protagonists’ death and the restoration of the old order or the establishment of a new one. It is the protagonists’ desire to restore their notion of order, which propels the narrative.

In Denmark, King Hamlet dies and his brother Claudius ascends the throne and marries the widowed Gertrude. As the reader later finds out Hamlet was murdered by his very successor. The Elizabethan ideal of the sovereign is therefore split; where the old king combined “body natural” and “body politic”, Claudius merely represents the exertion of power and young Hamlet, the legitimate successor to the throne, is an effeminate humanist and as such insufficiently virile to avenge his father. Hamlet’s vengeance is not only an emotional but foremost a political act to restore the old order with him as king. But the protagonist rails against his duty and questions the moral quality of the expected deed: “I must be cruel only to be kind.” Vengeance, it must be said, was a pliable concept in the Elizabethan period. In the aftermath of the “Wars of the Roses” it increasingly came “out of fashion”, at the same time, it was considered positive due to the influence of continental codes of honour. In this light, Hamlet’s hesitation to avenge his father elucidates a normative crisis.

The “Weird Sisters” at the outset of Macbeth induce and presage an inverted order: “fair is foul and foul is fair”. (1.1.12). This “prelude” is followed by a beginning proper, an in medias res introducing a blood sullied man reporting of the war with Norway and of “the brave Macbeth”. Scotland is about to end a successful war against Norway and the murder of King Duncan and his sons’ stampede leaves the country leaderless. The fact that Macbeth ascends the throne suggests that the Scottish monarchy was elective. Once Malcolm and Donalbain were were disqualified due to possible parricide, Macbeth’s claim be as triumphant general. We face a similar situation in Hamlet, where in act five Denmark too turns out an elective monarchy: “He that hath killed my King and whored my mother, / Popped in between th’election and my hopes.” (5.2.66ff). This puts the aspect of political disorder in perspective: since no one is aware of their murders (no one but the public), by law Macbeth and Claudius are legitimate kings. In this regard Sabine Schülting remarks that a country without a king or with a rebel as leader presented a thread to order and the question of tyrant murder (parricide) was considered a just cause by some contemporaries. Paradoxically, Macbeth’s ascendancy is fully legitimate and his murders can be interpreted as attempts to restore order. In a sense his mainspring is peace: “Better be with the dead, / Whom we to gain our peace, have sent to peace (…)” (3.2.22)


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The dynamics of order and disorder in Shakespeare's tragedies
Free University of Berlin  (Englische Philologie )
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Jagoda Kamola (Author), 2010, The dynamics of order and disorder in Shakespeare's tragedies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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