“Marlowe’s biographers often portray him as a dangerously over–ambitious individual. Explore ways this aspect of Marlowe’s personality is reflected in ‘Dr. Faustus.’ ”
Christopher Marlowe lived during the Renaissance period in 16th century England.
Although this was a time of change, the Elizabethans still had fixed moral values. ‘The Chain of Being,’ a concept inherited from the Middle Ages, can be described as a hierarchy of society, with the monarch at the top and the lowliest peasants at the bottom. Below people were animals, plants and rocks. During the Elizabethan era, ‘dangerous ambition’ would probably involve trying to break the ‘Chain of Being’ and striving to increase one’s social status. It was believed to be necessary to accept one’s place in the chain, as to disrupt it and overcome the set order of society could mean chaos would follow.
Faustus was an exceedingly ambitious man, even in relation to what is considered to be ambitious by people in today’s society. In the prologue, The Chorus sums up Faustus’ background and early life, emphasizing his ordinary background and academic success. It seems that Faustus’ intellect made him become proud and this fired up his ambition. When Marlowe presents Faustus in scene 1, Faustus methodically shuns great authors and classically intellectual subjects, such as medicine and law because they hold little attraction to him, (line 11)
‘A greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit.’
The above quote shows how Faustus elevates himself above taking up an intellectual pursuit that would be highly esteemed by the Elizabethans. Another sign that Faustus holds himself in high regard is that he refers to himself in the third person, also shown in the above quote. Faustus’ discusses beliefs that he will no longer hold and describes what he wants to achieve in his opening soliloquy.
Faustus may be seen as blasphemous in the opening speech, implying that he would only be a doctor if he could be equal to God, (lines24-6)
‘Couldst thou make men live eternally Or, being dead raise them to life again, Then this profession were to be esteemed.’
This is made more obvious when Faustus lastly says, (line 62)
‘A sound magician is a mighty god.’
Marlowe portrays Faustus as being over-ambitious by his turning to magic, which is a much more sinister and much less conventional...
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... trait in Christian England. Ideas around at the time such as ‘The Chain of Being’ reinforced religious opinion into people’s everyday lives and morality plays (popular from the early 1400s to the 1580s) were used to strengthen people’s Christian principles, as ‘Dr. Faustus’ also does by discouraging ambition.
Marlowe reflects ambition in the character of Faustus to deter the audience from being ambitious, and over-reaching their place in the ‘Chain of Being’. However, if Marlowe chose to be ‘dangerously over-ambitious’ and regarded himself as this, it is likely that he may have written ‘Dr. Faustus’ differently, not viewing ambition in such a negative way. Whatever Marlowe’s view on ambition was, it is not made clear in the play, through Faustus or other characters. Certain aspects of his personality are indeed reflected in Faustus, which make reading the play and exploring Faustus as a character even more intriguing.
York Notes Advanced – Dr. Faustus
‘Writers and their Work, Christopher Marlowe’ by Thomas Healy (Northcote House Publishers)
‘Christopher Marlowe’ by Roger Sales (Macmillan)
‘A Death In Deptford’ by Mei Trow and Christopher Hague
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