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Comparing Christopher Marlow’s Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth

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Desire for Knowledge and Power in Christopher Marlow’s Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth


Plays written during the Renaissance often show how an individual is shaped by that person’s deepest ambitions, such as the desire to know, to rule, or to love, and how these aspirations can lead people down dramatic paths.  Christopher Marlow’s Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth both involve noble protagonists who are portrayed as true subjects -  tragic heroes; their selfhood is defined by their ambition and the decisions that they struggle with while attempting to reach their goals.  Knowledge and power are the key objects of their desires:  Faustus’ desire is intellectual, he seeks omniscience, and Macbeth wants to rule Scotland, absolutely and unconditionally.  The desires that Faustus and Macbeth follow lead them to keep striving after more and more.  Both protagonists embark on a classic Renaissance pursuit - the consummate desire for knowledge and power, and these plays depict the tragedies that can arise from over-reaching toward those desires.  An example of over-reaching on the part of Doctor Faustus and Macbeth is that, to fulfill their ambition, both characters look to activities that go against the prominent religious beliefs of the time, and that were considered offenses to the Crown.  They engage in transgression through unorthodox disciplines such as witchcraft and black magic, and supernatural elements exist within each play that help to define both protagonists as human beings. 

            The Prologue of Doctor Faustus presents the themes of transgressions and overreaching when the chorus says, “his waxen wings did mount above his reach” (Prologue.21).  This line alludes to the prover...


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...beth as key figures to represent the tragic consequences that can result from over-reaching toward goals, and through their unorthodox endeavors to fulfill their personal desires, Faustus and Macbeth are defined as subjects with humanistic qualities.  Both protagonists attain heroic status by their tragic flaw – excessive ambition and determination to pursue what they have undertaken to the bitter end

Works Cited

Marlowe, Christopher Dr Faustus in ed. WB Worthen The Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama, 2nd edn., Texas: Harcourt Brace 1996.

Shakespeare, William. "The Tragedy of Macbeth." Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes. The British Tradition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall 1999.

Sources Consulted

"William Shakespeare." BBC Homepage. Online. Available http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/culture/shakespeare.shtml. 26 Mar. 2004.

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