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Machiavellianism In Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3385 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence on 3rd May 1469 to parents who were of the old Florentine nobility. When he was young, Florence flourished under the rule of Lorenzo de' Medici. However, after the reign of the Medici collapsed in 1494, Florence gained freedom under the government of a Republic and Machiavelli started working officially in the public service as an 'Italian statesman and political philosopher.' [1] The Medici returned to power in the year 1512 but they were driven out of Florence once more in 1527. When the Medici returned to power, Machiavelli lost his job in the public service and started to write. His literary activity began to have increasing influence over other people and it is during this period of heightened literary activity that Machiavelli wrote his best known work, De Principatibus, also known as About Principalities or The Prince. [2] 

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The Prince, published in 1532, was dedicated to Lorenzo de' Medici. It is a political handbook the purpose of which is to offer advice on how governments should run their countries and functions as an attempt by Machiavelli to regain his office after his dismissal. In hoping to impress Lorenzo with his evident proficiency of political issues, Machiavelli wanted to persuade the Medici government that he shared similar political beliefs while giving insights on how governments should have the ambition to acquire and remain in power efficiently. [3] Despite all this, Machiavelli was never returned to his official position in the Medici government and died on 22 June 1527, several weeks after the Medici were removed again from power.

The term "Machiavellian" originated from ideas found in The Prince. The definition of being Machiavellian has evolved from what was traditionally derived from The Prince, to its present day psychological description. Conventionally, to label one as 'Machiavellian' is to say that one's ambition to achieve a goal empowers him to do anything because the ends justify whatever means necessary. Machiavelli, addressing specifically to Lorenzo, thinks that rulers should be ambitious and take any means necessary to obtain and 'lay the [necessary] foundations for future power' [4] in Italy. He also intended this in hopes of unifying the various separated Italian states. [5] However, it is important to note Machiavelli states that while a leader is better to be feared than loved, a leader should never be hated and hence cruelty is not advisable because the leader will 'always need of the goodwill of the natives.' [6] 

The modern definition of being Machiavellian is slightly different. One's psychological state is called Machiavellian as he '[manipulates] others for personal advantage, often to the detriment of the people being thus exploited.' [7] In relation, what an Elizabethan audience would have known is a combination of both the conventional and the contemporary Machiavellian definitions - a person who is strategic, ambitious for power and hence unscrupulous and manipulative. From these stemmed the term "Machiavellian Man" to sum up the previously mentioned characteristics.

Christopher Marlowe (1564 - 1593), having only been born several decades after Machiavelli's death, was a poet and playwright [8] who was influenced tremendously by Machiavelli's ideas in The Prince. [9] While Machiavellian traits are most obviously shown in Marlowe's play, The Jew of Malta, another play that displays this is Doctor Faustus. This essay will further explore and contrast the presence of Machiavellianism in the various characters as well as the prologue and epilogue of Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta.

Machiavellianism in Doctor Faustus

Machiavellianism exists in both its traditional and modern forms in Doctor Faustus. The traditional definition primarily lies in the play's protagonist, Doctor Faustus himself. Faustus embodies Machiavelli's ambition to acquire power and knowledge at any expense as shown in The Prince. In Faustus's pursuit to 'try thy brains to gain a deity,' (DF I.65) he proves how the ends justify the means by '[bequeathing] his soul to Lucifer' (DF I.75) in exchange for twenty four years of magic and knowledge and, to a limited extent, is reflected in The Prince where Machiavelli encourages the attaining of knowledge and emphasizes on how 'knowledge is useful' [10] in ruling over other people. This clearly shows that he fits the form of the ideal prince as intended by Machiavelli because Faustus willingly makes a drastic sacrifice for power while being unconcerned about the costs until his very end.

In limited relation to Machiavellianism, it is possible that Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus as a dark Morality play [11] with the intention of warning people about the dangers of being overly ambitious and achieving something by any means necessary as Marlowe cautions against 'practicing more than heavenly power permits.' (DF Epi.8) This is shown again as Marlowe also suggests several links between Icarus from Greek Mythology [12] and Faustus, about how both had 'waxen wings [that] did mount above his reach / and melting heavens conspired his overthrow' (DF Pro.21-22) and flew too high - figuratively for Faustus's case - which eventually led to Faustus's 'hellish fall.' (DF Epi.4)

One interesting way to explore Machiavellianism in Doctor Faustus is to look at the devils instead of the protagonist. The devils are shown to bully Faustus into submission and away from repentance by manipulating him with their cunning. In this manner, the devils become the Machiavellian Man instead. This all begins directly after Faustus writes on the scroll with his blood and the words 'Homo, fuge!' (Human, fly!) appears on his arm. Mephistopheles distracts Faustus on pondering why the words are asking him to "fly" by 'fetching him somewhat to delight his mind.' (DF V.91) Mephistopheles then brings in other devils who give crowns and rich apparel to Faustus to tempt him by 'showing thee what magic can perform' and essentially securing the deed to Faustus's soul. This act of deception carries on throughout the entire play whenever Faustus's good and evil angels appear to debate on his own morality as seen again when Lucifer instructs Faustus to 'talk not of paradise nor creation / talk of the devil, and nothing else' (DF VII.105-106) before presenting him a show of the Seven Deadly Sins to draw his mind away from redemption. These examples show how the devils strategically conjure up sights and images to distract Faustus and manipulate his soul into their hands.

Lastly, the devils also bully Faustus by not being fully honest. The devils promise to 'give [him] whatsoever [he] asks and to tell [him] whatsoever [he] demands.' (DF IV.96-97) Despite their promise, when Faustus asks Mephistopheles who made the world, Mephistopheles refuses to answer to Faustus's demanding because it is 'against [their] kingdom.' (DF VII.71-72) Lucifer censors the knowledge that his devils can reveal to Faustus to protect his kingdom and at the same time, contain Faustus's bid for freedom to acquire more knowledge. [13] 

Moreover, the devils cheat Faustus by merely giving him 'freshman truisms' to his questions - answers that are universally known and can be found out without having to sell one's soul. [14] This is partially due to Faustus himself because as shown from the beginning of the play, it is clear to a careful reader that Faustus is not as clever as he this he is. Faustus refuses to take heed of the advice from the Good angel or the old man to repent and instead foolishly chooses to hear only the Evil angel. Therefore, these show that Lucifer toys with Faustus and convinces him to sell over his soul by making him believe that he really has knowledge and magical powers. Through this, Lucifer can be seen to be a true Machiavellian devil, or merely as sly as the serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempts Eve (Faustus) with an apple (universal knowledge).

Machiavellianism in The Jew of Malta

The first indication of Machiavellianism in this play begins is encountered in the prologue as it is delivered by a character by the name of Machevil, presumably a manifestation of the spirit of Machiavelli. The narrator proves this by saying that 'albeit the world think Machevil is dead,' (JOM Pro.1) but his soul has come to 'view this land and frolic with his friends' (JOM Pro.4) and how '[he] is Machevil.' (JOM Pro.7) This is Marlowe's intention to link this play to Machiavellian ideas and give the audience an inkling of what is to come.

While the prologue may appear insignificant, it actually gives an intriguing insight of Machiavellianism during Marlowe's time. Marlowe's Machevil, by acting as a caricature of Machiavelli, is a reflection of what the Elizabethan society understands about the Italian political writer. This is crucial because Machevil embodies the grossly distorted misreading of The Prince that was then familiar in Europe. [15] Elizabethan Englishmen perceived that, albeit stereotypically, the Italian courts are 'places of decadence, corruption, degradation and spiritual bankruptcy.' [16] This is reflected initially in the prologue where Machevil dismisses religion as a 'childish toy' and believes that 'there is no sin but ignorance.' (JOM Pro.14-15) This idea of irreligion is echoes later on in the play mainly by Barabas. Marlowe's purpose of using Machevil as the narrator is to remind the audience about their perception of being Machiavellian - decadent, corrupted and atheist, so it is easier for them to identify Barabas as a Machiavellian Man (this will be further elaborated on later).

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One important thing to note is that Marlowe was very aware of this misunderstanding. He deliberately distorts Machiavelli's motives in The Prince despite 'sharing some basic philosophical premises.' [17] This may be due to Marlowe being notoriously known for his unconformity and rebelliousness against any kind of restriction whatsoever [18] as he was reputedly homosexual and atheist - he has been said to argue 'that the Bible is historically wrong.' [19] Moreover, Machiavelli was also often accused of atheism by his opponents as The Prince can be interpreted to be how power is granted not by God but by Man's will to acquire it. [20] Marlowe may have shared sentiments with Machiavelli and could possibly be using Machevil to voice his own opinions, in a subtle manner, about how he thinks that certain aspects of Christianity is hypocritical as Machevil says that 'admired I am of those that hate me most.' (JOM Pro.9)

Other than the prologue, the overall theme of deception and manipulation in this play, as shown by the characters' actions and dialogue, points towards Machiavellianism too. Barabas is the most obvious character as Machevil first introduces Barabas as the protagonist of the play, a Jew, whose 'money was not got without my means' (JOM Pro.32) and suggests that Barabas is a Machiavellian Man because 'he favours [Machevil].'(JOM Pro.35) Barabas goes on to show how he marries both traditional and conventional Machiavellian characteristics. Barabas is seen to be irreligious, scheming and willing to do anything in order to achieve whatever his goal is. Firstly, Barabas is shown to be sacrilegious as he criticizes Christians. Barabas says that he 'can see no fruits in all their faith / But malice, falsehood and excessive pride' (JOM I.i.114-115) and that while 'some Jews are wicked, [but] all Christians are.' Moreover, after Barabas's gold and house were confiscated and he wants Abigall to retrieve his secret stash, he tells Abigall that he has hidden it under a 'board [that is] marked thus' and 'makes the sign of the cross.' (JOM I.ii.353) This is a reference to the Christian crucifix and how it is corrupted by hiding Barabas's gold.

Another remarkable thing to note is the name "Barabas." Protestant England would have known that the name is a reference to Barabbas, the Jew who was often blamed for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In accordance to the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Pontius Pilate was required to let the crowd choose, between Barabbas and Jesus, who to let free and who to crucify. The largely Jewish crowd chose Barabbas. Hence, Pilate had no choice but to authorise Christ's crucifixion. (Matthew 27:20, 21; Luke 23:18; Mark 15:15) Marlowe possibly makes an allusion to this when Friar Jacomo ask what has Barabas done and 'has he crucified a child?' (JOM III.vi.49)

Furthermore, it is plausible that Marlowe wants to point out how Barabas's unfair treatment in the hands of Ferneze and Barabas's protests show the hypocrisy of certain aspects of Christianity. Firstly, Ferneze dictates that the money to pay the Turks must come from the wealth of the Jews, so he confiscates half of their wealth each but takes away everything Barabas has just because he protested. At this moment, Barabas points out 'is theft the ground of your religion?' (JOM I.ii.96) This proves Ferneze and Christians in general to be hypocrites as they are prejudiced against Jews despite the Bible stating 'love thy neighbour as thyself.' (Leviticus 19:18) The most outrageous instance of this is after Barabas fell into his own trap and is begging 'help, help me, Christians, help!' (JOM V.v.64) but Ferneze just pitilessly stands by and watches Barabas die without any Christian mercy or forgiveness and instead says that '[he'll] see [Barabas's] treachery repaid.' (JOM V.v.74)

In addition, Barabas does not exhibit the "Christian" values of worshipping God, renouncing violence and material goods and forgiveness. He evidently does not worship God and instead values gold as one of his highest priorities, which is revealed when he gets his gold from Abigall and he shouts in ecstasy 'O girl, O gold, O beauty, O my bliss!' (JOM II.i.53) Besides, Barabas neither renounces violence nor forgives others for their sins as shown in his scheming. Instead, Barabas commits more violence and murder just because he does not forgive those who have sinned against him. However, we also have to keep in mind that Barabas is similar to the heroes of revenge tragedies because he kills other people because they have treated him unfairly and hence we ought to pity him as well.

Firstly, Barabas seeks revenge against Ferneze for confiscating his wealth and he sets about the elaborate task of initially promising Abigall to Lodowick, the son of Ferneze, then tells Mathias, Abigall's lover, that he 'intends [his] daughter to be thine.' (JOM II.iii.257) Barabas deceives and manipulates both Mathias and Lodowick to kill each other by sending out letters inviting each other to a fatal duel. Secondly, after Abigall dissembles herself and becomes a nun, Barabas got so enraged with her that he decided to poison some rice and sent it to the nuns with the intention of killing them all despite having a daughter with them. Thirdly, after Abigall confesses Barabas's evil deeds to the friars before she dies and the friars approach Barabas to make him repent, Barabas lies to Jacomo and Barnardine that he regrets what he has done and wants to donate his wealth 'to some religious house / So [he] may be baptised and live therein.' (JOM IV.i.79-80) In doing so, Barabas turns Jacomo and Barnardine against each other in attempt to gain all of his wealth. Barabas then kills Barnardine and frames Jacomo, resulting in his own "innocence." While Barabas never intends to rule Malta, as shown when he was given the post of Governor of Malta but decides to exchange it with Ferneze for gold, these three examples go to show how Barabas fits the mould of a Machiavellian Man as he manipulates other characters and create situations, mainly in order to take revenge, and he does this at any cost no matter how drastic it is.

Finally, one often overlooked character who is a Machiavellian Man would be Ferneze himself. While Barabas and Machevil flamboyantly follow the modern definition of Machiavellianism, Ferneze is actually closer to the spirit of Machiavelli's other writings such as The Art of War. Ferneze follows guardedly what Machiavelli stated in his seventh book in The Art of War, that 'no enterprise is more likely to succeed than one concealed from the enemy until it is ripe for execution' [21] whereas Barabas makes the mistake of fully revealing his plan of betraying Calymath to Ferneze. This is shown when Barabas vividly describes his plan to Ferneze but Ferneze only replies cautiously with an 'O, excellent!' (JOM V.v.42) Thus, Barabas 'violates some of Machiavelli's fundamental principles of statecraft while Ferneze acts upon them by appearing not to do so' [22] and hence deceiving Barabas and therefore, Ferneze can be considered a true Machiavellian Man in the traditional sense.


In conclusion, I hope this paper demonstrates the varying definitions and readings of Machiavellian ideas and through Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta, their impact on Marlowe's character creation and purpose of doing so. More importantly, this paper has given a suggestion that while there are 2 descriptions of Machiavellianism, there is no clear demarcation between either of them and that these plays have a higher purpose of revealing 'some contradictions inherent in the way society seeks to define and police its margins' [23] instead of merely dramatising Machiavellian ideas.


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