Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays begin with a state of order or stability, which gives way to disorder or confusion.
That disruption could take place in individuals. Macbeth is told that he is going to be king and as a result of that becomes consumed by ambition; Othello believes his wife to be unfaithful and is overwhelmed by jealousy; Hamlet learns that his father has been murdered by his father’s brother and becomes obsessed with revenge. Other human causes of disruption are love, hatred, the lust for political power or any other strongly felt emotion. The disruption drives the dramatic action.
Disruption could also occur in society – for example civil war or rebellion. Sometimes disruption in an individual will lead to social disruption, and vice versa.
Disruption in individuals is often echoed by disruption in nature. For example, Lear’s madness is reflected in the storms and tempests that take place throughout; Macbeth’s unnatural killing of his king is reflected in unnatural happenings such as the horses in the stables going mad and biting the grooms, earthquakes, unusual downpours etc.
Order is restored in the end. The suffering individual is usually dead by the end of the play, but even in the plays that aren’t classical tragedies the disrupted individual comes to new understandings and a new outlook on humanity, even though that may be minutes before his or her death.
Although order may be restored it is seldom all perfect and harmonious. There are loose ends, such as the treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. On the surface, it looks like the Christian community has triumphed in the face of an attack from an enemy and restored order to their community. As Shylock slinks away in defeat after he is humiliated in his court case against Antonio though, we are appalled by the nastiness of the Christian characters as they mock him, and we also see the seeds of an even worse disruption of Venetian society as its anti-Semitic character is affirmed. Most of the plays have such hanging threads in their show of order at the end. In real life order never lasts and new conditions lead to new threats. Shakespeare’s plays reflect that reality.
Some of the plays deal specifically with the theme of order and disorder, making it almost ‘what the play is about’ (although one can never say about a Shakespeare’s play that it’s ‘about’ one particular thing). A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of those. The social order of Athens demands that a father’s will should be enforced. That is also particularly true for the order of the family. Egeus’ family is threatened because his daughter refuses to marry the husband of his choice and insists on her own choice. When she runs away from the ordered, hierarchical society of Athens, followed by her lover and their friends, to the chaos of the woods, order is disrupted: in the woods the relationships are fragmented. There is also a row going on between the rulers of the forest, the Fairy King and Queen, and even the seasons are disrupted. It is only when Oberon and Titania are reconciled and the natural order of the fairy world is restored that the lovers’ relationships can become ordered once more and their return to human society can in turn restore its order. Egeus’ daughter gets her way regarding her choice of husband, however, and the drama ends with this threat to the social order.
Some of the plays begin with a significant measure of disorder, only to see the restoration of order, which then proves to be a mere illusion of order. Macbeth is one such play. It begins with battle raging between the Scots and the Norwegians, aided by Scottish traitors – extreme disorder and chaos everywhere, accompanied by thunder and lightning. Two great military captains, Macbeth and Banquo defeat the Norwegians and restore civil order. A scene in which the king punishes the traitors and rewards the loyal is all about the restoration of social order. Everything now seems ordered and harmonious, but the rest of the play is a demonstration of how disruption within an individual – Macbeth’s over-reaching ambition – can bring about disorder again, after which order has to be restored once again. This play can also be seen as being ‘about’ order and disorder, although we know that it is impossible to say what any Shakespeare play is ‘about.’ One can only explore some of its ideas, but the idea of order and disorder is central in Macbeth.
The centrality of the theme is reinforced by the language throughout. Macbeth’s comment, ‘so foul and fair a day I have not seen’ echoes the witches’ chant and links him with the chaos of their dark world. As Macbeth and Lady Macbeth talk they frequently invoke the darkness that allows evil and disorder to flourish – ‘come thick night and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell’; ‘stars hide your fires’ and so on.
The contrast between order and disorder is demonstrated in various places throughout the play. The banquet scene is probably the finest illustration of this theme in all of Shakespeare. Macbeth has just become king after murdering Duncan, and is holding a state banquet with noblemen of all degrees, each knowing his place in the seating order. The irony of his welcoming statement, ‘You know your own degrees, sit down’ is striking since he has just disrupted the order by killing his king. This is the scene in which Banquo’s ghost appears.
Macbeth’s guilt makes him lose control and the banquet ends in chaos as everyone runs for the door. Lady Macbeth’s urging, ‘stand not on the order of your going but go at once’ confirms the breakdown of order, and it is from this point that the disruption of Scottish society is worked through, to culminate in its restoration with the defeat and death of Macbeth and the restoration of the rightful king, Malcolm, to the throne.
Again, with the reminder that no Shakespeare play is ‘about’ any one thing, a central theme of The Tempest is the conflict between order and chaos, with order being a fragile thing, perpetually threatened by chaos. In the background of the text is the almost continuous interplay between stormy weather and music, graphically illustrating that wavering interaction. Prospero is like a gardener, tending his garden, continually trying to combat the weeds that keep springing up to disrupt the garden’s order. Caliban, Stephano, Trinculo, Antonio and Sebastian require constant watching and regulating as they attempt to overthrow the order that he has established on the island.
It’s notable that even here, on this magical island, tamed and ordered by Prospero’s arts as a magician, having restored order after the disruption brought about by the royal visitors from the real world of human politics, the resolution is not perfect. He has to return to that world and assume his old life there – a life that was disrupted by political ambition – with all its threats.
Every one of Shakespeare’s plays can be examined from the perspective of the conflict between order and disorder, whatever its other, and sometimes more dominant, themes are.