Parallelism: The Works of Shakespeare Reflecting The Volatile History of Britain

    In any political regime, establishing and maintaining order is of the utmost concern.  Throughout the history of the English Monarchy, order would be sustained for a time only to regress into disorder due to war, political conflict or natural disaster.  This perpetual instability created great concern among the English, who could not even trust the appearance of order of a monarchy for fear it might plunge back into chaos.  This theme also manifests itself in English literature, most notably Shakespeare.  Works such as King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth concern characters involved in order and disorder, either struggling to restore order or nourishing dark desires in spite of the chaos surrounding them.  In both the history of the English Monarchy and the works of Shakespeare, the veneer of order is often transformed into chaos, illustrating that things do not always appear to be as they are.
    To completely analyze the dichotomy of order and disorder in both the historical context of England and the works of Shakespeare, it is imperative to trace the history of England up to the 1700s.  Throughout the discussion, the veneer of order will be shown along with the manifestation of disorder following it, illustrating how stability can easily turn into disorder.  First, the creation of Londinium and the destruction it incurred from the Angles, Saxons and Jutes will be illustrated.  Then, the birth of Roman Law and its influence on ancient Britain will be discussed.  This will be followed by how religion and other institutions were consistently destroyed by invaders, leading up to Alfred the Great who was able to destroy many barbaric tribes. William the Conqueror, who made many significant contributions to British culture, including a more effect way to administer government, will be mentioned.  Furthermore, the origin of common law will be traced along with the Kings of England who either contributed to its development or exploited it for their own selfish gains.  After the appropriate history is analyzed, the essay will delve into three plays written by Shakespeare and contrast how disorder and order affect the characters in each play.  This will end with the period of England history after the Elizabethan Age and end with the period of King William and Queen Mary jointly ruling the monarchy.
    Founded by the Romans in 43 A.D., Londinium became a flourishing city founded on Roman Law.  Founded by Emperor Claudius' army, Londinium enjoyed a brief period of development but was completely leveled by Queen Boadicea's army.  However, a new Londinium would rise from the ashes and gain a great deal of order from, among other things, the law it employed.  During this time, Roman Law became a source from which all spheres of society in Londinium would draw inspiration and reference from.  While prior law had previously been oral, Roman Law was accessible through text as well, reinforcing its power, organization and credibility as a codified body of law.  Whether it was religion, education or literature, the use of Roman Law was as significant to the people of Londinium as the works of the poet Homer were to the Ancient Greeks.  Roman Law also led to a Roman-influenced culture, as citizens of Londinium enjoyed Roman baths, architecture, shops, defense from trained military troops and other luxuries brought over from Rome.  Londinium became a clear satellite of the Roman Empire, which prided itself on its ordered cities, both physically and socially. The innovations enjoyed by the Romanized Britons would never spread beyond Londinium, however, as the rest of Britain would never fully embrace Roman culture. 
    In fact, tribes situated around Londinium became resentful of this society, as they felt the Romanized Britons were traitors to their cultural heritage.  To make matters worse, the Roman Empire itself was in a state of disorder and Roman military troops would be pulled back from Londinium to the Roman capital to defend against invasions from Germanic tribes. As Romans began to leave London, they weakened the stability, order, and most notably defense of Londinium, creating an opportunity for an invasion.  The hatred for Londinium felt by barbaric tribes compounded by the slow decline of the Western Roman Empire led to invasions by the Anglos, Saxons and Jutes in the early 5th century.  Despite the appearance of a stable, Romanized colony, Londinium was thrown into a state of chaos, as barbarians would drive out and kill many of the Romanized Britons.  Centuries later, religion would be used to reestablished society and order in Britain. 
    Roman culture was preserved in Ireland during the dark ages of England, but would eventually be transferred over to England through King Aethelbert of Kent, who came to the throne around 860.  It was King Aethelbert's conversion to Christianity that would open England to regaining its lost Roman culture, as literacy would begin to permeate Anglo-Saxon tribes in Britain, creating a foundation for which civilizations could be constructed on.  By the early ninth century, Anglo Saxon England emerged as a prospering land led by reforms in politics, law and literacy.  Following Aethelbert's rule, under King Egbert's reign there was a confederation of kingdoms in England, which did not employ an army or a consolidated central government.  This would prove to be a harbinger for disaster, as the brief order enjoyed in England, however, would mirror the same disorder suffered by Londinium, as the Vikings would cut down this civilization.  The confederation, though it seemed to be strong enough to hedge against invasions, had thrown England into a state of disorder.  Although randomly invading England at first, the Vikings' raids would become more concentrated and culminate in an extensive invasion around 870.  However, in the midst of this disorder and chaos, a noble King would lead Britain to victory over the Vikings and back to stability.
    Alfred the Great would defend England against the invasions, eventually diminishing the barbaric troops and recapturing London around 886.  Restoring order would become one of the focal points of Alfred's reign, as the cultural identity of England would be reinvigorated during Alfred's last decade of campaign.  Societal institutions such as schools and churches would be built and scholars along with priests would be secured to educate the population.  Law would continue to evolve under Alfred, whose administration would pass laws for the benefit of the English people.  These policies suggested that order would remain and England would be free from any more agents of disorder.  In fact, order was established for nearly several centuries because of the institutions fortified by Alfred and maintained by future kings. 
    After Alfred, Kings such as Edward would continue to preserve the laws and policies enacted by Alfred for the most part. Indeed, Edward was so well-known for his devotion to religion that he was affectionately called “Edward the Confessor.”  Order was also preserved through his reign, as he would begin the construction of Westminster Abbey around 1045, which planted the seeds for future centralization of royal and legal power.  Edward also wanted to be within the proximity of his beloved church, living within the proximity of it and would also be buried in it.  However, the late period of Anglo-Saxon dominated England was slowly unraveling, as underlying cultural differences between the Danes and Saxons, tensions between villages, and the rudimentary level of military science would result in the conquering of England by William, Duke of Normandy, more widely recognized as “William the Conqueror.”
    Under the reign of William beginning in 1066, order was re-established though tensions still existed between the English and the Normans for some time.  Despite initial angst against him, William persevered with his policies and eventually animosity between the English and Normans would be dissolved through intermarriage.  To the evolution of English government and law, the Normans gave English a fresh perspective on how to carry out governmental duties, employing a “flair for administration and strong government” (Pauley, 114).  This method for employing smooth administration of politics was adopted, to some degree, by England, noting it engendered order within society.  After William, although it appeared that England had finally achieved long-lasting order, several kings would take the English throne and law, as with the rest of society, would become disorganized.  However, King Henry the II would take the throne around 1152 A.D. and in turn would usher in a new age for law.
    Under Henry II, the first inklings of “common law” would take shape.  This emergence of a new body of law attempted to, among other things, maintain a level of order in English society.  Additionally, he would hold a council at Clarendon in 1164 to draft a body of the laws relevant to different concerns of the state and church.  He also increased the amount of judges inspecting all sorts of disputes that plagued the countryside, further promoting peace and civility within his jurisdiction.  Creating legislation that was relevant and having judges travel throughout the country asserted a stability and order England had never seen before.  These innovations would act as the skeleton for English jurisprudence for centuries after their introduction.  However, the state of common law would be interrupted by disorder, most notably from a civil war.
    Following the ascension of “common law” in England, its monarchy was convulsed by war and disease, jeopardizing the future of this body of law.  In the beginning of the 15th century, disorder would break out among two rival families vying for the throne, the Lancasters and the Yorks, would culminate in a civil war known as “The War of Roses”, noting the insignia of a rose used to differentiate the clans during war.  However, this war would abruptly end in 1485 as Henry VII's triumph over Richard III at Bosworth Field restored stability to the throne of England.
    Henry VII's greatest hurdle would be to maintain order, as law and its procedures had been purged during the war.  Henry VII was able to regain support from the people through passing legislation in Parliament, illustrating that order was restored in the government.  Secondly, he reinforced the King's prerogative courts in an attempt to meet the needs of the people, which would later prove to be a bad omen since it would create a precedent of less reliance on common law in some future monarchies.  Through the Chancellor's department equity courts, an alternative court to common law court, were used more often.  Since common law courts were seen as having become far too rigid, the increased use of equity courts resulted in speedier and more precise judicial proceedings.  Law was now being exercise and applied in a more comprehensive and ordered fashion; some saw this as a sign that stability might finally be permanent in England.  The court of Chancery would be elevated to serving as one of the major courts in Westminster Hall and initially the union of chancery and common law courts existed peacefully.  However, as illustrated under the reign of Henry VIII, the prerogative courts would retain more power and often be at odds with common law judges. 
    Although inheriting an often stable government and legal system, Henry VIII would create disorder and bloodshed through his selfish agenda of obtaining a wife who would rear him a son.  Although relations between the church and state were not perfect, the two institutions co-existed with order and stability.  As greater power was transferred to the English Monarchy through law, the scales of power would be tipped towards the state.  Furthermore, the state would not protect the church from the anti-clericalism that was sweeping the land, becoming more pronounced when Thomas Wolsey assumed the office of Chancellor.  As Wolsey would fail to secure an annulment of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine, disorder began to manifest in the English government.  After Wolsey was beheaded by Henry, his successor, Thomas More, would also prove fruitless in his quest to get the Pope to agree to a divorce for Henry VIII (he too would be beheaded).  The instability and disorder of the office of Chancellor appeared to be solved in 1535, as Thomas Cromwell would be appointed as Chancellor. 
    Although his reputation has survived in history texts, it is usually described as “cold and Machiavellian” (Pauley, 133).  Nonetheless, his particular style of statesmanship won the support of the King and would reconstruct the entire governmental system.  He convinced Parliament to pass legislation enervating the power of the Papacy over the Church in England, such as abolishing the Bill of Annates, which called for payments to the Pope in Rome to cease.  Even more extreme, King Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England, severing ties from the Pope and establishing a new Church.  This was an incredibly radical development, as this had uprooted a religious order that had been in place for over one thousand years. Even more intensive were his disintegration of the monasteries and the transfer of church property to the King.  The radical changes in church policy reflected an incredible amount of disorder, as the Church had been previously seen as an anchor of order in society.  All of this was remarkably done through Parliament and legal channels, meaning Cromwell was able to create disorder through an ordered method of passing laws voted on by a body of councilmen.  This gave the appearance that, even though the state of the Church was in chaos, the law still remained in order, which gave some Englanders hope that their government might still be able to remain stable despite radical church policies.  Perhaps his most significant action was the preservation of the common law, of which Henry VIII wanted to do away with.  Although Cromwell was able to instill a sense of organization in England that had not been seen before, this veneer of order created by Cromwell had begun to unravel with policies of the church, culminating with his arrest and beheading in 1540.  Several years later, the larger Kingdom of England would be thrown into another though disorder would follow Henry VIII's death in 1547. 
    An epoch of religious extremism would ensue within England after Henry VIII, fluctuating between Protestantism and Catholicism for about a decade.  This volatile vacillation would end, for the time being, through Henry VIII's precocious daughter known as Queen Elizabeth I in 1558.  She would subsequently defeat the Spanish Armada and inaugurate a golden age known as the “Elizabethan Age.”  Under her rule, she was able to answer the religious question by subduing it with less attention, in effect quieting it down by not answering it.  Queen Elizabeth herself was remarkably intelligent and would most likely agree with an assessment made by Goneril of King Lear, “men so disordered, so deboshed and bold” (Act I.iv.217).  An incredibly independent woman, she was a shrewd negotiator and prided herself in a profession typically dominated by men.  She was duly recognized as Head of the Church, but did not exploit her power or try to set a rigid religion for the rest of the country to adopt.  The English culture thrived under her reign, most notably in literature with the likes of Shakespeare writing during much of her time.  However, when she died in 1603, England would be thrown back into a volatile state of affairs.  This sporadic switch between order and disorder is captured in three of Shakespeare's greatest works, most notably King Lear.  
    In this drama, a King who enjoys absolute power and makes imperious declarations is slowly stripped of his sovereignty and order.  At first, Lear epitomizes order and structure, holding the throne with a large amount of power.  However, King Lear's sanity begins to slowly unravel as his two oldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, deceive him in professing how much the love him.  His youngest daughter, Cordelia, is honest about the love she possess for her father, but her speech is concise and does not bear the same hyperbole the other sisters’ speeches employed.  As a result, King Lear disowns his daughter Cordelia and naively carves up his estate between his two older unscrupulous daughters.  As the story progresses, King Lear begins to regress further into madness while simultaneously lamenting his broken relationships with his two oldest daughters, who have decided not to keep him at their respective castles, stammering “ No, I’ll not weep/ I have full cause of weeping, but this heart/ Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws/ Or ere I ‘ll weep.  O fool, I shall go mad!” (Act II.iv.285-288).  In this, the appearance and security of order has been destroyed, as Lear is  struggling to keep the order of his monarchy intact.  Not only is his struggle external but internal as well, because Lear is trying to keep his sanity together, but fails to and regresses into madness.  However, through Lear’s madness, an unusual level of wisdom and insight is achieved.
    Despite Lear’s veneer of a deranged state of mind, he unexpectedly begins to become more lucid and perceptive to his surroundings.  One instance of Lear’s enlightenment occurs while he is staggering through the woods in the middle of a storm screaming at it and wrestling with his predicament.  He challenges the storm “ Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!  Rage! Blow!/ You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout/ Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!” (Act III.ii.1-3). Through his diatribe against the storm, it is also directed at the greater universe. Lear realizes that, although the universe appears to be ordered, it really is not.  In fact, disorder has become so apparent that at this point it would appear as if order is the actual illusion.  Ironically, as this storm progresses, Lear continues to delve deeper into his mind and soul, coming to a realization about the human condition.
       Though the storm had much influence on Lear, his priorities are also reshuffled with an encounter of a beggar.  Upon meeting him, there is a great paradox, as opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum are side-by-side.  The beggar’s appearance and circumstance gives Lear much perspective while the storm rages around them.  Lear sees that the storm has the same physical effects on both of them and, more importantly, that they are both human.  Lear tears off his clothes in anguish, yelling “Unaccommodated/man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal/ as thou art.  Off, off, you lendings!  Come, unbutton here” (Act III.iv.98-101).  He grasps a richer definition of the human condition, understanding that when we are all stripped of our earthly titles, there is not much that separates one human from another.  In turn, there are more important things in the scheme of life and King Lear realizes this despite his apparent madness.  This causes Lear to embrace the beggar, in doing so becoming more altruistic and kind-hearted from his rationalization about humanity.  However, for another Shakespeare character, he embodies the evil qualities of humans and never comes to the insight Lear has, as his lust for power produce a great amount of disorder.
    Macbeth becomes nefarious in his quest for power, ultimately leading to his life becoming disordered.  In the first Act, the sense of evil and disorder is established through three supernatural witches who tell Macbeth he will be king one day.  Immediately, everything does not appear as it seems, as supernatural entities are freely able to enter into reality, casting doubt onto what or where reality is in  Macbeth.  Realizing that the King and his son stand in the way of the crown, Macbeth and his Lady begin to conspire to commit murder.  Although this would appear to a focused, ordered goal, once King Duncan is killed, Macbeth's lust for power leads him to stop at nothing to ascertain his beloved crown, even commissioning the kill of his friend Banquo.  The appearance of order unravels because Macbeth becomes so fixated on obtaining the crown.  Also, a further indicator of the appearance of order quickly disintegrating is the motif of nature, as disorder is illustrated though an owl killing a falcon, horses eating each other as well as unexplained darkness during the day.  In effect, Macbeth has unleashed a kind of primal disorder through his fixation for the throne. 
    Throughout the play, Macbeth oscillates between being focused on his goal and his conscience, as he is never able to fully bear the mental consequences of his atrocities.  For instance, he is able to regain his composure and focus after seeing the floating dagger in Act II, killing King Duncan and accomplishing his task.  However, he reacts very vividly to the ghost of Banquo in Act III, a harbinger for further disorder and malign.  When he sees the ghost of Banquo and begins to act strange, Lady Macbeth asks him “Are you a man?”(Act III.iv.59) to which Macbeth replies “Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that/Which might appall the devil.” (Act III.iv.60-61).  In this, Macbeth recognizes that the atrocity he has committed against the noble and courageous Banquo would be appalling even to the devil.  The ghost of Banquo represents Macbeth's guilt for ordering his death.  Banquo also demonstrates the path Macbeth could have taken, an ordered path without the disorder of murder and violence.  The apparitions of supernatural agents are not limited to Macbeth.  In fact, it is the manifestation of a ghostly apparition in Hamlet that sets the stage for the drama's climax while maintaining that things do not appear as they are.    
    Hamlet concerns the plight of a son to exact revenge against his nefarious uncle, who usurped the throne from his father and married his mother.  Hamlet finds out through a ghostly apparition of his father, that his uncle was the cause for his father's demise.  Similar to Macbeth, supernatural entities are not supposed to manifest in an ordered universe, yet in Hamlet they do.  The ghost, however, is never definitively recognized as Hamlet's father, as even Hamlet is never entirely certain that it was his father's ghost, reinforcing the notion of disorder and confusion.  Hamlet even postulates that it could possible be a demonic spirit sent to fool him into committing murder.  However, even Hamlet's own state of mind is not predictable, as he often oscillates between taking action and being passive.
    Hamlet's erratic display of emotion is captured when he resolves to put on a  play portraying his father's death, stating “The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King” (ActII.ii.581-582).  However, the aura of resolve Hamlet casts is quickly shattered in the next scene, as he has once again plummeted into depression and delivers a solitary dialogue concerning whether or not to commit suicide.  He considers suicide, stating “To be or not to be: that is the question” (ActIII.i.58).  Although Hamlet appears to be stalwart and ordered in his quest to catch his uncle at the end of Act II, he is found at the other side of the spectrum by the beginning of Act III, disorientated about what to do and consumed by thoughts of suicide. 
    Murder becomes the catalyst by which disorder consumes the drama of Hamlet.  Driven to avenge his father's death, Hamlet’s course of action winds up killing Polonius, his mother Gertrude, and Ophelia, among other characters of whom he bore no negative sentiment towards.  Hamlet sees there is disorder because of his uncle and he seizes control back at the very end by killing Claudius.  He laments that, in recovering control and order at the throne, many people died, stating “Heaven make thee free of it!  I follow thee./ I am dead, Horatio.  Wrecthed Queen adieu!...Thou livest.  Report me and my cause aright./ To the unsatisfied (Act V.ii.334-335, 340-343).  Upon learning from Laertes that he is about to die, he desires to be liberated from the atrocity that has happened to the royal family.  However, he asks Horatio to tell Fortinbras, the new King of Denmark, of what happened to preserve his legacy.  Fortinbras personifies the order that was excluded through much of the play, hinting that there will be a restoration of control in Denmark.  However, the restoration of order does not always occur in monarchies.  As indicative of these three plays, at the End of the Elizabethan Age, despite speculation of who the heir would be to the throne, there was a great deal of order.  Despite the appearance of this stability, it would quickly be dissolved through the Stuart line of Kings.
    With the advent of James I after the Elizabethan period, “the ill-fated English Stuart line” would signify a disintegration of the apparent order established previously.  Although he attempted to maintain peace for a while, King James I quickly eradicated it by his increased use of the Royal prerogative courts over Parliament.  His son, King Charles I would take the throne in 1625 and proceed to inflame relationships with Parliament even more than his father.  Rejecting a compromise crafted by Parliament, Charles imprisoned members of Parliament and further exacerbated relations.  This culminated into complete disorder, as the first complete English civil war commenced.  In the end, despite two attempts by Charles to destroy the forces of Parliament, Oliver Cromwell would successfully suppress Charles' army.  However, even though Cromwell appeared to be a just ruler, he quickly began to manage England in a dictatorial fashion, closing down Parliament and replaced it with a selected body of men known as “”Barebones Parliament.”  With the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1685, Charles II would be restored to the monarchy, taking England in an unprecedented direction and causing greater concern for the future.  
Cromwell would die in 1658, creating further speculation and uncertainty for the future.  By this time, there was no constitutional monarchy and the inclination to rule without Parliament's consent continued.  Hence, disorder continues to ravage England, as citizens have little certainty for the future.  Charles II would be restored to the throne, nicknamed the “merry monarch”, convincing the people of England that he would establish order and even generate a golden age of prosperity.  However, this too would unravel, as London fires and a foreign policy convulsed by wars and tension in English government would plummet England further down into a state of disorder.  James II would take the throne after, known for his belief in absolutism, would maintain the disorder carried over from Charles II. 
However, during the Glorious Rebellion which was an attempt to overthrow King James the II, stability would finally be regained to some degree.  William III of England and his wife Queen Mary were able to settle the conflict between the Crown and Parliament that had existed since the ascension of the House of Stuart.  Of course, England would have much work ahead to ensure the order that appeared would become a kind of expected order. 
    In both the historical context of the English monarchy and literary works of Shakespeare, the appearance of order and structure unravel and transform into disorder.  Throughout the English Monarchy, the facade of order in society was often destroyed by a war, policy or political conflict that would create disorder.  In every attempt to restore order, the regime in place would never be able to ascertain the same kind of order experienced prior.  For centuries in England, the idea of order for some appeared as an illusion, never existing long enough to be significant.  Indeed, the same sentiment is shared in Shakespeare’s works, most notably King Lear, where disorder, to a degree, becomes the reality and the only predictable factor in the play.  Macbeth is similar to the dynamics of the English monarchy, as there were periods where multiple rulers would fight over the crown, sometimes having fatal consequences.  Hamlet, on the other hand, that there is order in the universe that not only be seized but maintained as well.  


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Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor

And then there are all the other Shakespeare plays (about 33 of them) in which order is regained, maintained, reinforced, and recommended. . .

I enjoyed reading this, and find the parallel interesting, although it is coincidental rather than anything else.

anthony31587 profile image

anthony31587 7 years ago Author

These plays were written at specific points that marked the downturn of Britain towards or at the end of the Elizabethan Age. All were written between 1602-1606, as Queen Elizabeth I passed in 1603.

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