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… by E M W Tillyard  (London, 1958).

A long essay (100 pages) by a Cambridge scholar, arguing that late Tudor literature was not an oasis of humanist rationality in a desert of religious fervour, but a refinery for the medieval view of the world.

My reviews are usually of contemporary books, but I chose this modern interpretation because it seems useful in figuring out the mystery that separates us from a true understanding of the Tudors.

Tillyard was a student of Tudor literature, particularly of the golden years from 1580-1605, the era of Shakespeare. He cites many earlier writers, and even sneaks in a passage from 1687, but his hunt for the secret theme concentrates on that central period.

Tillyard’s thesis is that all educated Elizabethans were familiar with a model of the cosmos that has become obscured to modern readers. The model is best represented by the concept of the Great Chain of Being, which accounts for creation and existence, top to bottom.

Genesis provided the narrative, but the Platonic idea of God was deeply influential. So, in the bible there is God, and man was separated from Him by the Fall, when Lucifer was cast out of Heaven. In the Platonic version, the separation is from the One, which occurs because the heavenly idea can only be approached imperfectly through human perception.*

Under the influence of neo-Platonism the model works on the universe through a hierarchy, from God down to the lowest creation, including the planets and the stars. Everything is elaborated through many divisions, with various planes of existence that correspond with each other. Plus some dancing (I’ll get back to that). Overall, it’s highly schematic and a bit … exhausting.

The interesting point is at the middle of the hierarchy, where Man reaches up to the pure reason of Angels while sharing the base instincts of beasts. What makes Man special is that he has freewill and the capacity to learn, to attain to Heaven.

For Tillyard this is where literature makes its mark, imbuing the dry connections with metaphor and drama. The emotion that seems to have been stirred up in Elizabethan audiences was fear of chaos, of the breaking of order, when nature is undone. And because monarchy and the commonwealth were part of the hierarchy, the need to prevent that undoing had social implications, even political.

Tillyard refers largely to Shakespeare, but his pantheon of great writers includes Spenser, Sidney, Raleigh, Hooker, Jonson and Milton (he quotes Donne a few times, but doesn’t seem too keen). From these he selects obscurities that would have struck a chord with a contemporary audience.

For example, he quotes part of a cracking speech by King Lear (2: IV):

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beasts’.

The king is just realising the degree of contempt due to him after he has thrown away his power, and his rage is pitiful. Tillyard’s point is that, however thoughtful our interpretation of this passage, an Elizabethan audience would sense what we cannot – the king appeals to a natural hierarchy, distancing himself from beings lower down the chain. The model was unspoken but understood.

Tillyard does his best in a clear, unpretentious style to open up the wonders of the Great Chain by making the abstract concrete. He also gives a coherent explanation of the four humours, and dips a toe into astrology. In the end he insists that Elizabethans weren’t simply accepting an intellectual exercise handed down from medieval scholastics: they tested the model with the same irony and worldliness they used in their scientific and colonial discoveries.

I don’t warm to his theory, and the book has been dismissed by many literary theorists. The counter argument seems to be that the Great Chain of Being was an instrument to preserve an unjust social order … and Shakespeare couldn’t have been in favour of that, could he? I don’t care for that argument either.

My view is that, as a good student of literature, Tillyard sought a theory to explain the dramatic tension of the age, a theory which remains unproven. What interests me more is the exchange between Christianity and Platonism during the Renaissance, and its influence over English religious thought.

Finally … The Dance. The last chapter is devoted to an unfinished poem composed by John Davies in 1596, Orchestra, which uses the Great Chain concept to choreograph  a cosmic dance. Tillyard says the poet was aware of the Copernican revolution in our knowledge of the universe, but that he continued to draw inspiration from the established hierarchy and, “like most of his contemporaries refuses to allow a mere inconsistency to interfere with the things he really had at heart“** …

Yet, though the earth is ever stedfast seen,
On her broad breast hath dancing ever been.


* This youtube animation of Plato’s Parable of the Cave  (3:11) is well worth a look:

** Tillyard p.99.