One of the most common themes in literature is the battle between good and evil. From children’s books to classic historical literature this theme has been seen throughout history. Most works of literature have characters on either side of the battle; however there are some that focus on a different battlefield. Such works include Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark in which the battle is internal. In both plays we see the main characters struggle with which side of the eternal battle they identify with. While both characters begin on the side of good, their storyline introduces them to people and circumstances which alter their path to evil. It can be said that the author’s intent is to illustrate that evil has the power to influence anyone, and that good is not always victorious.
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In Dr. Faustus we see a well respected, highly educated man who is torn between the embodiments of good and evil, which are God and the Devil. Two spirits representing a side of the battle struggle for Dr. Faustus’s soul. In the infinite search for knowledge, Dr. Faustus decides to side with evil and make an agreement with the devil. In return for his soul, Faustus received 24 years of power. Though good seems to divinely intervene on his behalf, Faustus does not see it. Even after this choice, the good spirit implores him to repent and renounce his pact with Lucifer. However, Faustus does not believe he can be forgiven and struggles with his decision without repenting for 24 years. In the end when he finally decides to repent for his sins and beg of God’s mercy it is too late, and he is taken to hell for eternity.
The first comparative point between the two works of literature is the importance of the wrong decisions made by the characters, and how one poor choice can lead down a path of evil. In Dr. Faustus we see a man who starts out as a respected, extremely intelligent and educated man, but his pursuit for knowledge leads him to a pivotal point in which he must make a decision which affects the rest of his life. After becoming involved with magic Faustus calls upon a devil called Mephistopheles who can grant Faustus power and knowledge. However, he is warned that such gifts come with a price, and the price would be his soul. Even Mephistopheles cautions Faustus about the effects of his decision, which can be seen in the following quote. “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think’st thou that I saw the face of God and tasted the eternal joys of heaven, am not tormented with ten thousand hells in being deprived of everlasting bliss” (Marlowe, 1905, Act 1, Scene 5)? Though Faustus is warned that the glory of heaven eternally is worth more than temporary knowledge or power, he chooses to relinquish his eternal soul to the devil in exchange for those things. On his descending journey Faustus makes many wrong decisions, each decision leading him farther down a road of immorality and evilness culminating in his death and decent into hell.
Hamlet begins as a boy saddened by the death of his father. After encountering the ghost of his father, who asks Hamlet to kill Claudius in order to exact revenge, Hamlet is faced with a decision which he questions through the play. The request from the spirit of his father, along with his uncertainty about the act begins to drive Hamlet insane. In the end, Hamlet takes the road of evil and seeks revenge, killing several people. This quote shows Hamlet debating whether to kill his self or others. “To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end. The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks. That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come. When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause: there’s the respect. That makes calamity of so long life”(Shakespeare, 1909, Act 3, Scene 1).
Another comparative point is the evil influences both main characters encountered. Both were influenced by events, people and most importantly spiritual beings. In Dr. Faustus, he encounters two spirits, one good and one bad who try to convince Faustus to pick their side. In the following quote Faustus debates which spirit to choose. “How am I glutted with conceit of this! Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please, Resolve me of all ambiguities, Perform what desperate enterprise I will” (Marlowe, 1905, Scene 1, Act 1). The evil spirit however is triumphant by alluring Faustus with knowledge, power and sex.
In Hamlet, a spirit claiming to be Hamlet’s dead father asks him to commit murder in the name of revenge. This spirit while claiming to want justice, is leading Hamlet to perform an act of evil by killing Claudius. Hamlet seeks the spirit, and allows it to influence him as seen in the following quote. “If thou hast any sound, or use of voice, Speak to me” (Shakespeare, 1909, Act 1, Scene 1). The spirit of Hamlets father appears further times, once imploring, “So art thou to revenge”(Shakespeare, 1909 Act 1, Scene 1).Due to the emotional pull of the spirit being Hamlets own father, it was easy for him to listen and proceed down an evil path.
The final comparative point is the tragic demise of each character due to their evil choices. In Dr. Faustus, we see the main character making a deal with the devil, exchanging his eternal soul after 24 years on earth. From the moment Faustus made the deal he was aware of his damnation. His damnation was presented to him as no secret, “Ah Faustus, now hast thou but one bare hour to live, and then thou must be damned perpetually” (Marlowe, 2001, 5.2 140-143). He knew the moment and manner in which he would die, but it was a fate he had chosen for himself. The tragic ending comes when Faustus finally realizes his sin, and asks for redemption yet is taken to hell anyway because it is too late for redemption. He cries “My God, My God! Look not so fierce on me! Adders and serpents, let me breathe awhile! Ugly Hell, gape not! Come not Lucifer! Ill burn my books! — O Mephostophilis!” (Marlowe, 2001, 5.3 194-197).
The tragedy for Hamlet comes after he has committed murder, possibly feeling guilty and believes his self worthy of death. As he prepares to fight Laertes, Hamlet says “Not a whit, we defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it come-the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what isn’t to leave bedtimes? Let be” (Shakespeare, 1998, 5.2 220-225). After finally completing his goal, and killing Claudius, Hamlet dies as well.
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This essay has illustrated how Marlowe and Shakespeare used the theme of the good versus evil, how it guides us in making moral decisions, and how those choices can lead to personal ruin. In Dr. Faustus, we begin to see his standpoint when he explains to us his interpretation certain biblical scriptures. He reads, “The reward of sin is death? That’s hard: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us. Why, then belike, we must sin, and so consequently die” (Marlowe, 2001, 1.1 38-43). Possibly Marlowe was saying that it doesn’t matter whether you choose good or evil in any situation because everyone is destined to die. Faustus was presented with both good and evil spirits, yet chose evil. In Hamlets case his decision to seek revenge was a justified cause, when the challenge came from the ghost of his slain father. However, even if seeking revenge seemed to be a noble cause, Hamlet could not feel good about that act unless he gained more evidence. His pursuit in doing this led him to encounter the moral dilemmas which lead to his downfall. These two literary works both illustrate a less common theme regarding good versus evil, and that is simply that good does not always win.
Marlowe, C. (2001). Doctor Faustus (REV ed.). New York: Signet Classic
Shakespeare, W. (1998). Hamlet (REV ed.). New York: Signet Classic
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