In the dangerous realms of Renaissance supernatural belief, ‘He who walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth’ (4 Cosin). During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe was possessed by an intense, inauspicious fear of malcifium, the threat of witches, demons and the Devil himself. Infiltrating every area of life, no moment was free from potential contact with these fearsome creatures, which were accepted as not only menacing but a real phenomenon. The need to gain control over this diabolical, seemingly unstoppable force, led to the publication of works such as The Malleus Maleficarum (1487) and Daemonologie (1597), which not only catalogued the supernatural threat, but also questioned the relationship between humans and the Devil. Beneath the absolute belief of the existence of these malicious beings, these works speak powerfully about our own destructiveness, allowing a relation between the fear of the paranormal and the fear of the unknown, potentially destructive possibilities the Renaissance ushered into Europe.
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Given the social centrality of the supernatural, it is unsurprising that when such creatures debuted upon the stage, the dramas they haunted became central in the whirl of horror, hysteria and intrigue. The Tragical History of Dr Faustus and The Tragedy of Macbeth, written by Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare respectively, present two protagonists who embody the powerful self-determination of Men exposed to the enticing possibilities of the Renaissance. Marlowe and Shakespeare were consciously aware of the state of terror surrounding the supernatural, but also the ‘burgeoning enthusiasm of the period about humanity and its powers’ (3 Mebane). However, due to the heavy haze of superstition that bewitched the common contemporary mind, the supernatural elements in these plays overshadowed the psychological exploration of the obscure regions of man. It is therefore necessary to trace the pattern between the subjective as well as the objective evil within the plays to determine the nature of Macbeth and Faustus’ self-construed destruction. Clark argues that because ordinary men and women interpreted misfortune as being caused by witchcraft, they were distracted from ‘the real significance of their affliction’ (450) which was ‘the responsibility for events’ (450). Therefore this essay will seek to determine Faustus’ and Macbeth’s personal responsibility for their own downfall, acknowledging both contemporary and modern views.
The perpetual whirl of supernatural beliefs, encounters and fears kept societies of the Renaissance period suspended on the edge of the border between reality and the supernatural. After enduring monarchical turbulence and the destructive effects of the Reformation, the 1580s to the 1600s in England were characterised by warring religious and political factions, economic hardship and threat of foreign invasions, evident in events such as the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 and the subsequent launch of the Spanish Armada in 1588. King James I, who experienced the repercussions of these events first hand, attributed his misfortune to the intervention of the Devil and witchcraft. Following his participation in the North Berwick Witch Trials of 1590, he wrote the Daemonologie (1597) which reinforced the resolve of The Malleus Maleficarum (1487) that the fallibility of man was largely to blame for the presence of evil due to God’s decision to allow humans self-determination, pointing to the responsibility of man.
The invention and rapid development of the printing press from 1440 onwards meant that the circulation of ideas and theories around Europe expanded immensely, opening up a new arena of knowledge to be explored. Maxwell-Stuart argues that the character of the Reformation was in many ways destructive, due to the crashing of religious ideals (115). When applying this formula to the Renaissance character, there is a similar destructive outcome. The fervid chase of knowledge that enticed restless men beyond the ‘lawfull artes of sciences’ (10 James VI), meant that they succumbed to ‘the slipperie and uncertaine scale of curiousitie’ (10 James VI), leading them, in contemporary eyes, to the Devil. The Faust legend, in which a men sells his soul to the devil to capture this infinite knowledge and power, is therefore the perfect frame in which to capture the self-construed downfall of an ambitious character. Shakespeare, on the other hand, drew inspiration from the Scottish legend of King Macbeth. As the Scottish monarchical line had never been broken by foreign invasion, unlike England, the crown was the epitome of power in Scotland. Apparently written to flatter James I, who was rumoured to be a descendant of Banquo, Shakespeare draws on the history of Scottish kings in order to emphasise the magnitude of the power that tempts Macbeth. The gradual absorption of Scotland into England with the combined monarchy of James I resonated with already existing fears of the unknown that society contributed to the Devil and his work.
Before we can look at Dr Faustus, we must acknowledge the disparity between the 1604 and 1616 publications. The majority of evidence points to 1588 as the date of the first production (282 Summers), but the play was not published until more than a decade later. Nicholas Brooke argues that ‘The 1616 text is the nearer to what Marlowe wrote, and it retains more fully the Morality play features which distinguish Faustus’ (94). This argument is relevant to the topic of self destruction as it links to the idea of self-determination. In the A text, a key line reads: ‘never too late, if Faustus can repent’, whereas in the B text it is changed to: ‘never too late, if Faustus will repent’. The early version suggests Faustus is subjective to the outside forces, while the later version suggests it is Faustus’ choice if he will repent. However this disagreement is useful as it echoes the conflicting views of contemporary audiences with modern day critics, and is something this essay will address. -Maybe move this paragraph to earlier in the essay?
Renaissance Christianity classified the Devil as the great antagonist of God, alongside legions of demons and witches who worked collectively for ‘the self same generall ende, of seducing mankinde’ (2 Cosin). He is also ‘the embodiment of an overweening pride, which led to his disobedience and fall’ (43 Maxwell-Stuart). The Devil is, therefore, an important figure, as his ‘overweening pride’ and fall relates to this destructive character, and is thus an interesting psychological symbol to compare with Faustus and Macbeth. Yet, questions concerning the genuine power that the Devil had over human beings perplexed contemporary theologians: ‘were such appearances merely illusion, and if so, was the illusion created by him’ (68 Maxwell-Stuart). The portrayal of the Devil’s work upon the stage addresses this question – the theatre demands that we believe things that are not real, yet the violent belief in the reality and the visual destruction of these men speaks powerfully to our own, inherent destructiveness.
In Dr Faustus, it is the pact that binds Faustus to Mephastophilis, however all the required elements to seal the pact must be completed by Faustus. (sentence needs a bit of tweaking) Mephistopheles repetitively assures Faustus of the importance of his participation: ‘But Faustus, thou must bequeath it solemnly,/ And write a deed of gift with thine own blood’ (34-35: 5). The emphasis on ‘thou must’ and ‘thine own blood’ underlines Faustus’ lone responsibility, while the ‘deed of gift’ explicitly implicates Faustus in the act of giving his soul, rather than it being taken by Mephistopheles. It is possible that Mephistopheles is manipulating Faustus, however Faustus’ arrogant attitude surpasses any attempt of Mephistopheles: ‘Faustus: What God can hurt thee, Faustus?’ (25) Yet beliefs at the time would have suggested otherwise. Kramer and Sprenger, authors of The Malleus Maleficarum, determined that the devil could not affect ‘natural actions, such as eating, walking and standing’ (127), however he could ‘affect the inner fancy, and darken the understanding’ (123), suggesting Faustus’ desires may have been heightened, as is visible through the evil angel’s reminders of the wealth and power that awaits Faustus.
This is reminiscent of the nature of the prophecies in Macbeth. Many interpretations of the prophecy were circulating Europe at the time, however the Daemonologie stated that the ‘Prophecie proceedeth onelie of GOD: and the Devill hath no knowledge of things to come’ (3 James VI). One supposed power of the devil was to implant thoughts by way of seduction. If we consider the pretence of prophecy may have been used in order to affect Macbeth’s ‘inner fancy’, then we can see how the prophecy may have been used not as a prediction but as an evil tool. Furthermore, while the prophecies are spoken with supernatural presence, when they come to pass it is in non-supernatural circumstances. For example, Macbeth believes that he shall never be threatened until ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him’ (92-93: Act 4 Scene 2). However the wood does move but only as the soldiers of Macduff use the branches from the trees as disguise. One the other hand, the Devil’s presence is always alluded to: ‘Banquo: What, can the devil speak true?’ (108: Act I Scene III). Therefore, if the audience believes the Devil is there, then he will be, as demonstrated in the reported appearance of extra devils upon the stage in performances of Dr Faustus. The metaphysical world of evil is only visible when the audience are removed from the haze of hysteria and fear that ruled them in contemporary times. Nicholas Brooke argued that: ‘On the one hand, supernatural manifestations are external to man; on the other they are partly suggested as objective realizations of psychological conflict’ (93). While this complicates matters, it acknowledges both the beliefs of the contemporary audience and alerts us to Shakespeare’s grasp of psychological projection.
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We must consider then, the personality and conscience of Macbeth and Faustus. The idea that the misfortunes allegedly brought by witchcraft were primarily a matter for the conscience was dominant among the Protestant pastors of early modern Europe (445 Clark). Machiavelli held pessimistic views about the nature of man, claiming that all men were inherently evil, and this claim has survived until modern times, with Eliot asserting that ‘we are all, naturally, impure’ (103). It is hard to say if Macbeth would have committed the murder had the thought not been implanted, yet the fact he goes on to murder Banquo and Macduff’s family demonstrates an evil streak that would not be present in a moral man. Furthermore, the numerous references to Macbeth’s ambition show his responsibility: ‘I have no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition’ (25-27: Act I Scene 7). He has nothing to stop him from his murderous intentions, again emphasising his lack of morals, and has only his ambition to drive him on. However, his conscience is deeply affected by his murders, as evident in the appearance of Banquo: ‘Thy bones are marrowlesse, thy blood is cold:/ Thou hast no speculation in those eyes/ Which thou dost glare with’ (REFERENCE). Again often considered to be an objectification of Macbeth’s guilt, the lack of ‘speculation’ in Banquo’s eyes fully hold Macbeth responsible for his murder. Furthermore, the disturbance of Macbeth’s mental state emphasises the extent of guilt he feels, suggesting he also realises the entirety of his responsibility in his eventual destruction.- This all seems to fit in really well with the paragraph ending ‘ambition to drive him on’- Maybe intergrate them or at least put this one straight after?
Modern critics largely take the view that the witches are: ‘nothing more than the objectification upon the stage of Macbeth’s evil passions and desires’ (397 W. Curry). Macbeth observes them disappearing and exclaims: ‘Into the air; and what seemed corporal/ melted,/ As breath into the wind. Would they had stayed!’ (81-83: Act I Scene III). Their insubstantial form and the simile ‘as breath into the wind’ represent the fleeting thoughts within Macbeth’s mind, the deep swirl of possibility that has struck him at this precise moment. On contemporary stages, the disappearance of the Witches may have been difficult to present in this way, however in the script we can see the imitation of thought. The repetition of ‘All hail, Macbeth’ (54 -58: Act I, Scene III) echoes the resonance of the possibility within Macbeth’s mind. Montague Summers states: ‘They are not agents of evil, they are evil’ (287), therefore if the Witches are reflections of Macbeth’s mind, we must presume his personality is also evil.
Similarly to Macbeth and the witches, we could argue that the Good and Evil angels are merely objectifications of Faustus’ conscience and personality. The embodiment of his conscience upon the stage would display to a contemporary audience a battle between man and evil, to modern audiences it shows a struggle with the self, one which Faustus quickly looses. He states that it is not only the words of Valdes and Cornelius that have persuaded him to practise the dark arts, but ‘mine own fantasy’ (103: 1). Eliot argued for the ‘alarming importance’ (96) of personality. He surmises that ‘strong passion is only interesting or significant in strong men; those who abandon themselves without resistance to excitements which tend to deprive them of reason, become merely instruments of feeling and loose their humanity’ (97). This is the case with Faustus and Macbeth, who individually abandon all resistance to their desires, not because of the Devil, but because of their ‘strong passion’.
Contemporary accounts of Marlowe’s death vary greatly yet are all disparaging. Thomas Beard remarked that Marlowe died as a result of his blasphemous rages, saying ‘He even cursed and blasphemed to his last gaspe’ (11). Marlowe was also likened to the devil, with his death being described as him having ‘yielded up his stinking breath’ (12 Meres), almost as though he had been exorcised. However, as the supernatural belief that grasped England began to loosen, the superstition was stripped back from his person and he was appreciated as a complex and misunderstood writer. Faustus was also studied as an individual rather than an agent of evil. Faustus also began to receive the same treatment. Later critics began to look at Faustus as an individual, rather than a vile heretic. William Hazlitt spoke of ‘the glow of the imagination’ (17), and while his lust for power is still acknowledged, it is understood in the context of a man whose ‘unhallowed curiosity’ (16 Drake) spurred him to the edge of the vast abyss of the unknown that the Renaissance culture of knowledge ushered in. We can understand therefore understand Faustus self-destruction as a product of the race to abolish the unknown. Macbeth has not been given the same treatment, as his murderous deeds mark a disturbed character rather than one of desperate curiosity. Yet, like Faustus, he does embody ”Everyman’ (24 Ellis-Fermour), as he is driven by the destructive forces of the chaos that marred Shakespeare’s time, that potentially could affect anyone with a desire for power.
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