William Shakespeare And The Great Chain Of Being


By Larry Fyffe

Bob Dylan in a number of his song considers that he’s trapped in a physical world that’s an imperfect reflection of an external ideal One – as the philosopher Plato claimed it to be. That is, the eternal, supposedly good, Absolute Monad or God (if you like) is too far off to be knowable to mere mortals while the relatively observable “Demiurge”, creator of the physical world in Time, is a flawed emanation therefrom.

In a number of other songs, Bob Dylan appears to agree with the more recent NeoPlationists’ claim that the Creator and the Absolute God are not fragmented even though they get in trouble deep when trying to explain the existence of ‘evil’, or at least ‘ignorance’, in the world inhabited by human beings.

Dylan ponders William Shakespeare’s NeoPlationist outlook; according to old Bill, the physical world is composed of a clear order. It’s all there in the code of the ‘great chain of being’, set down by the Absolute God Himself, and this God makes sure that it is known to Mankind – ie, king, queen; husband, wife; son, daughter, etc.

Furthermore, according to this code, the disruption of this divine order leads to trouble. In the play below, a king demands that his daughter express loyalty to him above and beyond her obligations to others in the chain:

Lear: Nothing shall come of nothing; speak again

Cordillia: Unhappy that I am, I can not heave my heart into my mouth
I love your majesty according to my bond, nor more nor less

Lear: How, how, Cordillia!, mend your speech a little lest you mar your fortunes ….

Cordillia: Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters to love my father all
(William Shakespeare: King Lear, Act I, sc. i)

A theme that’s repeated in the following song lyrics. Tension is created in the social fabric by the possibility of straying off the narrow brick road by ignoring the sign that has its arrow pointed in the direction of the ‘great chain of being’:

We carried you in our arms
On Independence Day
And now you cast us all aside
And put us on our way
Oh what dear daughter beneath the sun
Would treat her father so
To always wait upon him hand and foot
And always tell him 'no' ?
Bob Dylan: Tears Of Rage ~ Dylan/Manuel)

The NeoPlatonists also run into the problem of how time and change is created by a supposedly timeless, eternal God:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty place from day to day
(William Shakespeare: Macbeth, Act V, sc. v)

An issue that does not go unnoticed in the following song lyrics:

Today, tomorrow, and yesterday too
The flowers are dying like all things do
(Bob Dylan: I Contain Multitudes)

Things get rotten in the state of Denmark for sure – apparently ‘unnatural” events happen, but somehow the ‘natural’ order manages to restore itself:

Ghost Of King Hamlet: Murder most foul, as in the best it is
But this most foul, strange and unnatural
(William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act I, sc. v)

It’s all enough to make a skeptic out of anyone who’d like to believe in the regenerative outlook of the NeoPlatonists:

What is the truth, and where did it go
Ask Oswald and Ruby, they ought a know
(Bob Dylan: Murder Most Foul)

Seems that all one can do is dream, or imagine that there is a better place than the real world of existence where death abounds:

Mercutio: Her chariot is an empty hazel nut
Made by the joiner squirrel, or old grub
Time out of mind the fairies' coach-makers
(William Shakespeare: Romeo And Juliet, Act I, sc. iv)

Not so claims a latter-day Romantic Transcendentalist. Walt Whitman in his poems’, or at least in those written in his pre-Civil War days, welds the soul to the flesh of the body; this techno-romantic outlook epitomizes the philosophy known as NeoPlatonism; the goodly Spirit of the Absolute God pervades the natural world:

Served those, who time out of mind
Made on granite walls rough
Sketches of the sun, moon, ships, ocean waves
(Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass; 'Song Of The Broad Axe')

Poet Robert Frost solves the problem for himself by taking a middle-of-the of the road approach. As far as songster Bob Dylan goes, it’s difficult to tell whose side he is on.

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