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The Elizabethan World Picture

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This brief & illuminating account of the ideas of world order prevalent in the Elizabethan age & later is an useful companion for readers of the great writers of the 16th & 17th centuries: Shakespeare, the Elizabethan dramatists, Donne, Milton etc. The basic medieval idea of an ordered Chain of Being is studied by Prof. Tillyard in the process of its various transformations by the dynamic spirit of the Renaissance. Among his topics are: Angels; the Stars & Fortunes; the Analogy between Macrocosm & Microcosm; the Four Elements; the Four Humours; Sympathies; Correspondences; & the Cosmic Dance--ideas & symbols which inspirited the minds & imaginations not only of the Elizabethans but of all of the Renaissance.
The Chain of Being
The Links in the Chain
The Corresponding Planes
The Correspondences
The Cosmic Dance

116 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1942

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About the author

E.M.W. Tillyard

36 books10 followers
Eustace Mandeville Wetenhall (E. M. W.) Tillyard OBE was an English classical and literary scholar who was Master of Jesus College, Cambridge from 1945 to 1959.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 78 reviews
Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.3k followers
September 26, 2019

If you are new to the study of Shakespeare and wish to acquire a comprehensive conception of the map of ideas the Bard of Avon carried in his head, you could do worse than rely on this old warhorse of Renaissance Studies, The Elizabethan World Picture (1942) by E.M.W. Tillyard.

Eustache Mandeville Wetenhall Tillyard (no wonder he preferred his initials!) was—above all else—a Cambridge man. He was born there (his father was the mayor), went to day school there (the Perse School), university (at Jesus College), and when he returned from WW I (with an O.B.E.) he began to teach in Cambridge at the recently established English School. (Before the 20th century, English literature was considered a hobby, not a serious subject for scholarship; serious reading was done primarily in Latin and Greek.)

Tillyard was a loyal promoter of the new discipline of English Studies, and was a Fellow (later Master) of the English School at Jesus College from 1926 to 1959. He wrote much, particularly on Shakespeare and Milton, but The Elizabethan World Picture is the book he is known best for today.

Tillyard sees the Elizabethan intellectual world not as a flowering of secular humanism before the Puritan frost, but rather as an extension of what was a medieval Christian consensus:
. . . the Puritans and the courtiers were more united by a common theological bond than they were divided by ethical disagreements. They had in common a mass of basic assumptions about the world, which they never disputed . . . . Coming to the world picture itself, we can say that it was still solidly theocentric, and that it was a simplified version of a more complicated medieval picture. . . . Those who know the most about the Middle Ages now assure us that humanism and a belief in the present life were themselves powerful by the twelfth century and that exhortations to contemn the world were themselves powerful for that very reason.
And what was this world picture? It was “that of an ordered universe arranged in a fixed systems of hierarchies . . .”

Tillyard’s book can be dry at times, but it is a fun book too, and the real fun comes with his descriptions of the “fixed systems of hierarchies,” particularly the ranks in the “Great Chain of Being”: the choirs of angels (seraphim first rank, angels last rank) , the stars and their influence, the elements and their associated “humours,” man (the king or queen is paramount, of course), the other animals (king lion or elephant at the top, the lowly oyster at the bottom), and stones (the ruby and diamond rule, for their hardness and brilliance).

There is much here that is useful to Shakespeare studies. Tillyard’s treatment of astrology is all you need to evaluate astrology deniers like Cassius and Edmund (theirs is a minority, suspect position, although free will of course may override astrology). And the treatment of the Great Chain of Being itself, and its correspondence to the political state, casts doubt on any violently revolutionary interpretation of Shakespearean politics: earthly order reflects heavenly order, and must—with remarkable exceptions—be maintained.

Although Tillyard may overemphasize the conservative elements of Elizabethan thought, he is still a good place to start. It is useful for contemporary readers to know what past writers like Shakespeare grew up thinking—those thoughts as much a part of them as blood and breath, the thoughts they seldom bothered to write down.
Profile Image for W.B..
Author 4 books109 followers
May 17, 2009
This is a really well-written and interesting monograph. But (boredom alert here) it's a monograph on Elizabethan poetry and the prevailing philosophies and naturalistic theories of the average, educated Elizabethan. So if you are not into poetry, this book will probably bore you more than Martha Stewart on the many uses of Kleenex. If you are a poet, though, you might want to read this. Because it's sort of fascinating if you like Shakespeare, Milton and all the other sugar peeps of Elizalit. It's funny all the odd things they believed about the world back then, when physics was just a toddler. But then somebody's going to be typing the same thing about Stephen J. Hawking and Richard Feynman on Goodreads in 2699 C.E., no doubt. This is a small book written in the middle of the last century by a guy who spent his life studying these authors. And he gives you the benefit of all that digestion...drools knowledge into your mouth like some sort of mother bird with a chick. Good pea soup. Don't read it in public or people will run from you. Or mug you.
Profile Image for Cindy Rollins.
Author 20 books1,961 followers
March 16, 2020
Helpful book in understanding the Elizabethians and the even the medivals before them. Their view of the cosmos was comforting and mysterious. It almost seems absurd to think, after pondering this book, that Christians today do not dance :)
Profile Image for Rosemary Atwell.
354 reviews19 followers
May 18, 2020
This 1943 study of the ways in which the great writers of the late fifteenth century were shaped by their inheritance of medieval thought and understanding remains remarkably fresh and makes for illuminating reading.

Tillyard’s clarity of vision and persuasive tone, combined with plenty of contemporary references and quotations, portray the Elizabethan mindset and its agile passions with warmth, playfulness and scholarly attention.

And at just over a hundred pages, this is no mean feat.
Profile Image for Phillip.
1,063 reviews48 followers
September 4, 2013
This is one of those old school scholarly pieces, clearly inflected by the Enlightenment/Modernist project of constructing master narratives. Tillyard's project is fundamentally descriptive, but in the course of describing he also delimits and calls into being the idea he has ostensibly found in Renaissance English culture. I mean by this that Tillyard's description applies itself retroactively to defining THE Elizabethan world, rather than identifying one component of the a complex and contradictory society in which multiple ideologies competed. He may be right that notions like the Great Chain of Being, the four elements, and planes of correspondence may have influenced Anglican, Catholic, Puritan, and Deist thought in the period, but it is now accepted (post-Althusser and other 20th century Marxists) that ideology is never as monolithic as it is sometimes pretended to be. And while Tillyard gestures toward other elements at play in the Elizabethan era, his work suggests a monolithic conception.
139 reviews12 followers
February 23, 2021
This book was a hard read for me. I have a passing familiarity with some of the topics, but much was tough going because I don’t have much of the frame of reference. The poetry he quotes is also hard to understand. I fought through because I want to begin to build a framework of understanding. I had to laugh when I realized at one point I had spent 45 minutes trying to understand 5 pages. I bought the book a decade ago, so I am glad to have finally read it through. I’m sure I will reference it again as I delve more into literature of that era.
Profile Image for William.
107 reviews19 followers
April 8, 2019
An introduction to the 'Medieval Model' inherited by the Elizabethans. In a tradition stretching back to Pythagorus and Plato (in his Timaeus), and refined by his followers and the medieval Scholastics, the nature of the universe is explained in terms of hierarchies. Thus we have a hierarchy of the planets, from lowly earth to the blazing sun; a hierarchy of beings, from God, the Seraphim, the lesser angels, man, beast, plant, water and stone; even a hierarchy of the supposed elements: fire, air, water, earth etc. We on earth inhabit the sublunary region, subject to the flux and decay of time. Beyond the moon's orbit the planets, probably occupied by Souls spurred by the love of God, revolve in eternal and perfect motion.

The Elizabethans were last age to take any of this seriously. But there was already tension. As Tillyard says, 'in spite of Copernicus and a wide knowledge of his theories through popular handbooks, the ordinary educated Elizabethan thought of the universe as geocentric.' By the time the later Metaphysical Poets like Marvell were having their fun, references to the great Chain of Being have become prettified, have lost their solemnity. (Milton is arguably an exception).

Tillyard quotes abundantly from poetry and prose at the time to exemplify his point, giving meaning to passages in Shakespeare, Spenser and Donne which might otherwise be lost to modern audiences. How else to get the multilayered pun in Twelfth Night when Sir Toby Belch mistakenly identifies legs and thighs as the body-parts assigned to Taurus (wrong), which thus makes it the perfect sign to be festive under (right: actually it is the sign of neck and throat, and they will probably drink more than they will dance. Sir Toby has said more than he meant). Tillyard suggests that what might seem most strange in much of this poetry is actually what makes it common place for its age. Shakespeare et al were only drawing from those same materials inherited by every half-educated man in England.

I might have enjoyed this book more if I hadn't read it hot on the heels of another written on same topic: C.S. Lewis' The Discarded Image. The two were contemporaries at Cambridge and actually co-authored a book together (albeit one in which they argued opposing viewpoints). Both were writing for the same general audience, but Lewis succeeds in making his subject come alive and feel exciting. I don't think this is purely because I read his first. I would recommend anyone interested in a better understanding of English renaissance literature read Lewis' book over this. His includes an entire chapter dedicated to fairies.
Profile Image for Jessica Snell.
Author 7 books32 followers
February 28, 2012
This little book is an invaluable aid to understanding not only Elizabethan literature, but also its close follower: the work of the metaphysical poets.

Every page of Tillyard's book is an enlightenment. He lays open the world as the Elizabethans saw it, from the most minute of the elements to the great dance of the stars in the firmament above.

And he makes that world infinitely attractive. There is an appealing order in the world the way the Elizabethans saw it, in the way that the kingdom of plants was a real - and not an imaginary - parallel to the kingdom of the animals, which paralleled in turn the kingdom of men. To understand a truth about one part of the world was to understand something true about the rest of the world because there were real correspondences throughout all of creation, and all created things were part of one long "chain of being", rising from the elements to the plants to the animals to man to the angels to God himself, from whom it all came. One part of creation mirrored the others. If you knew something about lions, you knew something about kings.

And along with those macrocosms, you gained knowledge of the microcosm of man himself. To know about kings was to know something about the role that reason ought to play in your own self - reason being the proper monarch of the well-ordered self. Everything was connected.

The connections were not mistakes, and not happenstances. They of necessity existed in a world that was ordered by an intelligent creator. As it says in Proverbs, "It is the glory of God to hide a thing; it is the glory of kings to seek it out." The Elizabethans sought out that order to the full.

Fascinating book; I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
614 reviews758 followers
March 31, 2010
Mr Tillyard was writing at a time before deconstructionism, so this is a nicely unselfconscious, academic and eminently readable short work on the world view of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age. Tillyard stakes out a position against those who tend to focus on the humanism and individuality of Renaissance thinking, placing Spenser, Shakespeare and Donne firmly in a tradition that continues directly from the Middle Ages rather than breaking with it. The dynamism of the conflicts between this world and the next, between free will and destiny, between nature and nurture are rendered clearly and succinctly in a well-structured, tight piece of writing.
Profile Image for Matthew Hudson.
62 reviews11 followers
August 21, 2019
A perfectly servicable book on the normative worldview of the Elizabethan Era. It moves briskly, wastes no time, and covers all of the essential subjects in 109 small pages. You will gain a basic understanding of the ideas of the Elements, the humours, the hierarchy of the universe and the Great Chain of Being, among other things.

Its only faults are two. One, that it can be quite dry, but the shortness of the book alleviates that issue. Second, it is a bit too short, where I would have liked more examples and refrences. Yet if it had been any longer, I likely would have gotten tired of it. As such I think the author knew the precise amount of information needed and the precise length the book would be before it overstayed its welcome. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a better grasp of the authors of that era.
Profile Image for Charles.
238 reviews30 followers
January 18, 2015
E.M.W. Tillyard's 'The Elizabethan World Picture' helped herald in a new era of a New Historicism movement around the world. In its pivotal study and interpretation of Elizabethan concepts and texts in their context, this brief book still remains today an indispensable companion to the student of English literature and scholar alike.

Tillyard elaborates on the book's intentions; "The province of this book is some of the notions about the world and man which were quite taken for granted by the ordinary educated Elizabethan, the utter commonplaces too familiar for the poets to make detailed use of except in explicitly didactic passages..."

Therefore, this study will influence the way one regards Elizabethan texts and some later poetical examples, such as Milton, as well. It will also illuminate the reader to some specific terms and concepts, such as the analogy between the Macrocosm and the Microcosm; the Four Elements and Humours; and so on. Moreover, it strives throughout to eradicate some of the more common misconceptions, especially in its treatment and description of the ordered Chain of Being.

Through its many interesting references to popular and neglected texts alike, its brief but charming commentary, this study will undoubtedly change the way you look at the majority of Elizabethan texts, including most of Shakespeare's poems.
Profile Image for Aaron Meyer.
Author 2 books41 followers
June 4, 2011
A short and interesting introduction to the Elizabethan way of thinking. Through poetry and other writings of the era Tillyard shows how commonplace and intertwined many of the following ideas were to the average intellectual; Sin, Order, The chain of being, Planes, Correspondences, and the Cosmic Dance. Definitely helps one to understand many of the political ideas of the era, at least for me it did. Worth having on the shelf for quick reference.
195 reviews
July 11, 2022
Reading this book helped me understand I’m more medieval in my thinking than I realized! Everything about this was beautiful: they order, the purposefulness, the beauty and harmony.. The Elizabethan World Picture beautifully reveals the mindset of the time. It was a short little book, quite dense and a little dull at times, but Worth the effort.
Profile Image for Dominika.
79 reviews10 followers
December 30, 2020
I often feel like I can't handle the greats like Shakespeare without being back in one of my undergraduate classes with some hand-holding from a wise and learned professor. This is hand-holding from a wise and learned professor in book form. Tillyard has a winsome way of writing about, what I find to be, the breathtaking Elizabethan conception of the world.
Profile Image for Karen Brooks.
Author 16 books524 followers
March 25, 2014
This is a gem of a book that basically explores the Elizabethan way of viewing the world by examining popular literature and philosophies of the period.
Quoting extensively from the likes of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser and Sidney (among many others) and making reference to the Greek philosophers that influenced Elizabethan thought, particularly (pun intended) Plato, Tillyard explains the way people of the 15th and 16th centuries understood their relationship to the corporeal and spiritual world and how they established hierarchies of being from oysters through to lions; from paupers to kings. How these all existed in a complex and simple relationship, a chain of being within the cosmos. How this was all regarded as functioning within very ordered vertical and horizontal planes and within a deep religiosity, is also explored. While anyone familiar with Elizabethan literature and history will not be unfamiliar with Tillyard's ideas, it's the way they're explained and how literature and plays are used to both provide and support evidence that makes this book particularly delightful.

I think the most surprising thing to come out of the text for me was Tillyard's summation that for all we think of the Elizabethan poets and dramatists as having some special relationship to their muses, the world and imagination, what they produced was quite "ordinary". What he means by this including the music of the spheres in a poem, or likening the queen to the sun or moon and stars, linking the macrocosm and microcosm - was rather commonplace thinking for the time. He is not diminishing the accomplishments of the poets etc but rather asking us to understand that all Elizabethans read the world in that way, so the language of Shakespeare, Milton and Marlowe etc. was speaking to like-minded people who lived and breathed the allusions rather than grasping at powerful and beautiful metaphors that prove elusive to so many now. While an obvious point, I loved reading it and have subsequently tried to read Spenser with that view of the world in mind. It really does change things and make them easier to grasp. Not as easy as I'd like, but for that to happen, I'd have to step back in time awhile. Now, where's my Tardis....?
Profile Image for Mary Catelli.
Author 53 books167 followers
May 18, 2015
As you can see from the subtitle it goes substantially onward from Elizabeth's time. It also goes substantially back -- the author opens with discussing how the era was not an irreligious hiatus between two religious eras, but continuous with them.

Opening with a discussion of order in the Elizabethan picture, followed by the great principle, sin. The great chain of being and how every group had its best: the dolphin (or whale) among fish, the lion (or elephant) among beasts, the ruby (or diamond) among stones. How oysters are the lowest sort of animal. The angels in the heavens and the humors in man. Correspondences among things. And the great cosmic dance.

With considerable pointing out of the images in all sorts of writers, to point out that this was not a secular age, not at all.
Profile Image for Rosie Gearhart.
364 reviews14 followers
December 16, 2018
Eye-opening book! It was worth pushing through the academic style to learn the details of how the Elizabethans (and Medievals) viewed the structure of the universe and relationships. This knowledge will come in handy as we study Shakespeare, Milton, and others from the time period.

The broader my education becomes, the more value I find in it. This book is a great help in my effort to understand other people and other times.
45 reviews3 followers
February 1, 2013
Very reminiscent of Lewis's 'The Discarded Image,' this book illustrates the continuity between the medieval imaginary and Elizabethan literature, thought, and culture.

'Our own age need not begin congratulating itself on its freedom from superstition till it defeats a more dangerous temptation to despair.'
Profile Image for Richard Seltzer.
Author 17 books118 followers
May 2, 2020
I read this as part of my research for writing a Shakespeare novel.
282 reviews4 followers
January 21, 2023
In some ways this is an expansive commentary on the 'order and degree' speech in Troilus and Cressida--it's concerned to establish the background in ideas, or in cosmological assumptions, an educated playgoer of the time may have been expected to have, but which has become culturally distant or unavailable to a person in the twentieth century. The book is more succinct if more wide-ranging than a longer treatment than Lovejoy's Great Chain of Being. Tillyard sets out a highly patterned, hierarchical conception of the universe, from the changeless stars in their sublime fire, to the sublunary earth ('the cesspool of the universe'), showing how the world consists in a complex orchestration of the four elements. As well as Creation's taking the form of an interlinked chain (with humans below the angels but supreme and ensouled among the animals), it is animated by sliding correspondences between the attributes of higher and lower things (such as can prompt the 'rerating' of lower) and also lends itself to be imagined as a dance.

Tillyard, a working wartime archaeologist and liaison with the Greek partisans at Salonika, became Master of Jesus College, writing books thought of as authoritative on Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton in this post. He prefers the earlier Elizabethans, from the fifteen years from 1580 to 1595 and ending with Shakespeare the lyric poet in theatrical forms, to the Metaphysicals of 1600 to 1625 or so. Raleigh, Sidney and the populariser Jeremy Hooker are important for him partly as the mouthpieces of a coherent view of the world (captured in outline in this book). He wears his learning lightly, much more so (and in a more unforcedly humane way) than a scholar of even a generation later.
Profile Image for William.
16 reviews
December 28, 2018
A helpful guide through the basics of Elizabethan thought as expressed in the literature of the day. At the risk of being Captain Obvious, I do think it is important for readers to remember that the author presupposes basic familiarity with the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Johnson, and lesser lights of the Elizabethan age. And the author reasonably assumes that his readers are wanting mostly to clarify what they have read or are now reading in those Elizabethan greats. One ought to keep this presupposition in mind or risk coming to the end of the book and thinking, ‘So what? The Elizabethan age had its commonplaces and odd ideas, but so do all ages.’ True, all ages do have commonplaces and oddities, and perhaps Dr. Tillyard should have been more emphatic in making that point. Yet, Dr. Tillyard has in mind a rather narrow readership: us geeks who enjoy Elizabethan writers. All the same, whilst reading the Epilogue, I found myself wishing Dr. Tillyard had been more specific as to what ‘trends of thought’ then current in Central Europe showed a resemblance to the Elizabethan habit of mind.
Profile Image for Himanshu  Mishra.
31 reviews3 followers
June 12, 2021
Tillyard is, quite simply, an old-school critic. But, it must be pointed out that if you are a scholar, and want to understand what artists of yore meant and what their audiences understood, there is no choice but to analyse their works in a historical context.

The problems of misinterpretation and false equivalence is compounded when we are dealing with Shakespeare. Bardolatory, so jealously promulgated by the likes of Harold Bloom and Stephen Greenblatt, has reinvented Shakespeare as a universal genius transcending his time.

Shakespeare was a genius, but he was a genius of his time, and he was not alone. His, and Donne's, and Spenser's worldview was that of an educated and informed Elizabethan - based on hierarchy and structure. 'Great Chain of Being' was very real, the root of all sin was not knowing one’s place, and the Macrocosm (the greater universe as a whole) had its correspondences in the Microcosm (the human body) and in the Body Politic (individual kingdoms).

In my opinion, and it is just that, you can reach a better understanding of Shakespeare and other Elizabethans from this little book than from shelves of modern criticism.
Profile Image for Rick Patterson.
233 reviews7 followers
October 4, 2021
This is a very short, very compact discussion of exactly what the title says: how the Elizabethans understood the world and their place in it. As they were getting their preconceptions undermined by the new advances in science--exchanging the Ptolemaic view of the universe for the Copernican, for example--they had to make some pretty fundamental adjustments in the metaphors they used to place themselves.
But not right away, of course.
Tillyard does an impressive job of presenting, among other overarching concepts, the idea of Order. It doesn't hurt that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the literature of the time, so he can draw on any number of specific details to show rather than just tell what he's talking about.
This is must reading for anyone who is interested in getting a better understanding of Shakespeare, for certain, but it provides insights on our Renaissance forebears that really can't be found anywhere else.
Profile Image for Davis Smith.
563 reviews32 followers
January 22, 2022
It's absolutely impossible to even begin to understand Shakespeare (let alone his contemporaries in what is hands down my favorite hundred-year period of literature) without understanding the ideas discussed here. I had begun to develop a similar image of the Shakesperean worldview through my time with his plays, but how less frustrating and opaque would they seem if people knew about this ahead of time. The Elizabethans crafted astoundingly rich dramas of the soul dealing with what it means to live a full life in a broken, beautiful world. Tillyard just might convince you that this elfin, cosmic, earthy vision is worth reclaiming to heal our art and our times. This slim book belongs on the shelf of anyone who is even remotely interested in British literature. It resides on mine next to Lewis's "Discarded Image," a similarly illuminating interpretation of the assumptions that charged the Middle Ages.
Profile Image for Feliks.
496 reviews
October 8, 2019
I enjoyed this. Concise and eloquent. From this short book you can get quite a stable little grounding in some oddball historical claptrap like the hierarchical orders of angels, the 'music' of the 'crystal spheres' surrounding the earth and holding the planets in orbit. The composition of 'aether' and the nature (as it was believed at the time) of pixies, sylphs, gnomes, faeries, and sprites. Particularly well-handled by the author is his examination of 'correspondences', antiquated notions of parallel harmony between bodily humors, heavenly bodies, and the four elements. Things are kept lively with numerous quotes from Shakespeare, Plato, Plotinus, Beothius, Saint Paul, Montaigne, Raleigh, Burton, Ben Jonson, and even (my fave) Pseudo-Disonyus the Areopagite. All in all: worthwhile reading.
Profile Image for Rachel.
43 reviews11 followers
April 2, 2018
A wonderful book if you are specifically interested in Elizabethan theology and philosophy specifically as expressed through poetry. Probably not for the general reader. I loved it though, it was a little slow in places but overall I found it a lucid explanation of an elegant and appealing world system. The whole conceptual framework is immensely racist though, which the book kind of alludes to without properly addressing.
Profile Image for Dayna Smith.
2,883 reviews11 followers
February 19, 2022
A classic philosophical discussion of Elizabethan worldview and cosmology. A must read for readers of Shakespeare, Milton, Spencer, and other Elizabethan authors. The evidence provided helps readers understand the way Elizabethan's thought and makes much that was confusing about their writings clearer.
Profile Image for S.L. Baron.
Author 5 books44 followers
July 17, 2022
Interesting albeit slightly dry read.

If you’d like to better understand Shakespeare, I think it’s a must-read, as it discusses how the natural and metaphysical worlds were viewed and sheds light on many of the references the Bard makes in his works.

Tillyard mentions numerous other writers of the time, which has piqued my interest in their works, especially Orchestra by Sir John Davies.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 78 reviews

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