"Degree"--A Rage for Order and Hierarchy

Read this speech from Shakespeare's play Troilus and Cressida. In it, wily and clever Ulysses (Odysseus), one of the Greek leaders during the Trojan war, berates his comrades for being factious, each trying to lord it over the other. He explains the horrific, terrifying results, both in human life and in the cosmos, of acting without regard to order or hierarchy. This speech is often cited as a clear example of the Renaissance rage for order as well of its sense that chaos lurks just around the corner. (As for a definition of chaos, click on the word here and go back to the illustration at the beginning of this lecture!

Ulysses’ speech on "Degree" from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:

78: The specialty of rule hath been neglected,
79: And look how many Grecian tents do stand
80: Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions.
81: When that the general is not like the hive
82: To whom the foragers shall all repair,
83: What honey is expected?
Degree being vizarded,
84: Th' unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.
85: The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
86: Observe degree, priority, and place,
87: Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
88: Office, and custom, in all line of order;
89: And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
90: In noble eminence enthron'd and spher'd
91: Amidst the other; whose med'cinable eye
92: Corrects the [ill aspects] of [planets evil],
93: And posts like the commandment of a king,
94: Sans check, to good and bad. But when the planets
95: In evil mixture to disorder wander,
96: What plagues and what portents, what mutiny!
97: What raging of the sea, shaking of earth!
98: Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors
99: Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
100: The unity and married calm of states
101: Quite from their fixure! O, when
degree is shak'd,
102: Which is the ladder of all high designs,
103: The enterprise is sick. How could communities,
104: Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
105: Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
106: The primogenity and due of birth,
107: Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
108: But by
degree stand in authentic place?
109: Take but
degree away, untune that string,
110: And hark what discord follows. Each thing [meets]
111: In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
112: Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
113: And make a sop of all this solid globe;
114: Strength should be lord of imbecility,
115: And the rude son should strike his father dead;
116: Force should be right, or rather, right and wrong
117: (Between whose endless jar justice resides)
118: Should lose their names, and so should justice too!
119: Then every thing include itself in power,
120: Power into will, will into appetite,
121: And appetite, an universal wolf
122: (So doubly seconded with will and power),
123: Must make per force an universal prey,
124: And last eat up himself. Great Agamemnon,
125: This chaos, when
degree is suffocate,
126: Follows the choking,
127: And this neglection of
degree it is
128: That by a pace goes backward with a purpose
129: It hath to climb. The general's disdain'd
130: By him one step below, he by the next,
131: That next by him beneath; so every step,
132: Exampled by the first pace that is sick
133: Of his superior, grows to an envious fever
134: Of pale and bloodless emulation,
135: And 'tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot,
136: Not her own sinews. To end a tale of length,
137: Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.

Look particularly from line 101 onward. Note that Ulysses is arguing that throwing out the order of hierarchy completely destroys a society, just as he said in the first column that, if the planets and sun left their orbits (their own kind of hierarchy), life itself would be threatened. Finally, Ulysses said that, without "degree," (hierarchy), what would be left of life would be "appetite" alone (what Sir Philip Sidney termed "infected will")--"an universal wolf [that would]...make perforce an universal prey,/And last eat up himself." Later in the 1600s, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes echoed this when he wrote: "...without government, human life is solitary, poor, mean, nasty, brutish, and short."

On to the next link, Hamlet's famous soliloquy, "To be, or not to be"


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