Do both Shakespeare and Marlowe encourage their audiences to re-evaluate the concepts of good and evil?

Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus has much in common with a morality play. It was first written in 1588, the Elizabethan era, whereas Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written around 1606, the Jacobean era. This difference in time is what determines how each writer interprets and communicates the subject of evil. Another important consideration is the undeniable difference between how a contemporary audience would have interpreted the plays and how we, as a modern society, interpret the plays today. Today’s society, which is gradually deviating from orthodox Christianity, has more freedom of speech in comparison to a Shakespearian society and, consequently, modern critics write from different perspectives.

The reason why Shakespeare is so transcending, even to this day, is because he was the first writer to go beyond simply the religious and moral influences of society, what is right or wrong, whereas Marlowe, wrote using more simplified conventions of morality plays. Instead, Shakespeare gave his characters a complex structure, a detailed insight into the mind and heart of the character. In Dr Faustus, Marlowe is concerned with a more traditional view of good and evil (the good and evil angels act as physical representations throughout). Furthermore, Shakespeare depicts the repercussions that evil has on the natural order of the kingdom through the use of personification and pathetic fallacy. He makes it seem as if nature is aware of the evil deeds committed by Macbeth. When Lennox talks to Macbeth about the unusual and disturbing night, he claims “the earth/ Was feverous and did shake.” (II.iii.58) This appeals to the senses of the contemporary audience and brings the supernatural to life. In the Jacobean era, the feeling of tension that this pathetic fallacy creates in the atmosphere would have mortified the audience. On the contrary, although it could be argued that Faustus’ soliloquies do in fact help the audience understand the protagonist’s character, for example his impenetrable arrogance, “Here, Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity” (I.i.65), Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, does not create this impact to such an extent. He does not develop the characters like Shakespeare. Faustus’ conscience is portrayed by the good and evil angels, “Good Angel: Sweet Faustus, leave that execrable art” (II.i.15) and this of course poses its limitations when it comes to depicting Faustus’ innermost thoughts. Good and evil have a limited realm which is that of ethics, and thus it provides a very narrow perspective. Shakespeare not only shows his audience Macbeth’s feelings through Macbeth’s soliloquies and asides, but he also uses other characters as tools to build Macbeth’s whole character spectrum. Moreover, Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human argued that “our identity with him [Macbeth] is involuntary but inescapable.” Unlike Marlowe, Shakespeare gives Macbeth a conscience without needing to physically portray it on stage. Macbeth knows that his actions are evil, “I am afraid to think what I have done” (II.ii.54). The audience, who also have a conscience, inevitably see the similarities between themselves and Macbeth, and so, the audience’s re-evaluation of evil is now also inevitable.
In the play, we see that Macbeth’s fatal flaw, ambition, allows him to blindly believe the misleading equivocations of the witches, as “truths” (I.iii.127), whereas Banquo, who acts as Macbeth’s foil, refuses to completely trust in the witches, “the instruments of darkness tell us truths; Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s/In deepest consequence”(I.iii.123). From a Freudian, psychoanalytical point of view, Macbeth’s interpretation of the ambiguous claims made by the witches is simply a projection of his own thoughts, due to the fact that when a statement is not concrete and definite, much space is left for interpretation. However, a Jacobean audience would have possibly placed the blame on the powers of darkness. James I, who was King of England when Macbeth was written, (some critics even say that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth as a piece of propaganda for James I), strongly believed that a storm that affected a sea voyage, was created by the supernatural. In his book Deamonologie , written and published in 1597, he claimed that “witches raise storms and tempestes in the air, neither upon land or sea, though not universally.” Here, he may be suggesting that it was the witches who caused Macbeth’s mental turmoil; they created a “storm” in Macbeth’s head, making him vulnerable to them. When Shakespeare gives the supernatural beings the power to derange and disturb Macbeth’s mind, he rids Macbeth of responsibility for his evil deeds and thus the murders he commits are no longer a moral question. Macbeth had no power over his actions and, therefore, because the identification of the audience with Macbeth is “inevitable,” Shakespeare uses this opportunity to tell his audience that our actions are not solely based on our nature, but they are also influenced by the world we live in, who we speak to and who we love.

But why was Banquo able to protect himself from evil? “Macbeth on the Estate”, 1997, is a modern film interpretation of Macbeth directed by Penny Woolcock, in which a lottery is constantly depicted. This could be seen to act as a metaphor. The government, which is a symbolic figure for evil in Macbeth and Dr Faustus, controls the lottery, and therefore controls the people who buy it; yet the government never forces anyone to buy lottery tickets, it is the gambler who buys them because he wants to. It is Macbeth who decides to call the witches once again and play their game, “I conjure you by which you profess/Howe’er you come to know it, answer me” (IV.i.49). It is Faustus who uses his knowledge of Latin to call the devil, “propitiamus vos, ut appareat et surgat Mephistopheles!” (I.iii.19). Evil exists, but it will only expose itself to those who look for it. Banquo does not look for it. Instead, he doubts it, “What, can the devil speak true?” (I.iii.106), and this is the main reason why he is able to protect himself from the evil powers.

Definitely, some may argue that this, in fact, does not apply to Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is seen by many as inherently evil as she shares similarities with the witches. When Lady Macbeth first welcomes Macbeth back to the castle, she calls him “Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor.” (I.v.53) Here, she is addressing her husband in a similar manner to the way the witches addressed him in the opening scenes. By means of repetition, Shakespeare further emphasises how Lady Macbeth and the witches are interlinked. Furthermore, dark imagery is conjured by Lady Macbeth, “thick night, dunnest smoke of hell…” (I.v.15) Shakespeare purposely uses these adjectives to create a link between evil and Lady Macbeth, suggesting that she contaminates the atmosphere around her. In addition, she mentions animals and objects in her speech that share links with black magic, “the raven himself is hoarse.” Ravens are often associated with witchcraft, as throughout history they have appeared in dark mythologies and are known to be an omen of bad things. Also, Lady Macbeth invokes evil spirits as she believes that they will aid her in her plan to make Macbeth king, “Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.” (I.v.40) This is a key quotation when comparing the interpretations of the impact of evil on Lady Macbeth from both the point of view of a contemporary and modern audience. It can be divided into two different sections; one section is the calling of the spirits, which is linked to the contemporary audience and the other section, is Lady Macbeth’s decision to discard her feminine traits in order to fulfil her aim, which is linked to a feminist, modern audience. Due to their superstitious nature, a Jacobean audience would have focused on the invocation of the spirits, and her link to the witches. Lady Macbeth had never spoken or seen the wëird sisters so, therefore, the fact that the witches are present in her words makes the similarities between them seem even more mysterious.
On the other hand, a modern audience would focus on the fact that ambition corrupts Lady Macbeth to such an extent, that she even wants to dispose her feminine traits in order to successfully fulfil the witches’ prophecy by convincing Macbeth to kill Duncan. But the fact that Shakespeare shows that women had to resort to evil in order to gain power and get what they wanted would also give the audience an insight into the history of women, and their struggle to obtain the same status in society as men. Macbeth never had to give up his masculinity to become king, so why should Lady Macbeth discard her femininity? The presentation of these characters encourage the audience to re-evaluate the concept of evil and thus leads to the conclusion that perhaps Lady Macbeth was not inherently evil; she simply resorted to evil in order to fulfil her ambition, which is the frailty of human nature.

Consequently, this frailty is seen in both plays, as the protagonists experience a fall from grace. But is this inescapable human condition solely to blame? The downfall of the characters could be directly linked to the evil powers in the plays. There are physical representations of evil in both plays (the devil in Faustus and the witches in Macbeth). However, Faustus never actually does anything to willingly harm another being, whereas Macbeth willingly commits murder repeatedly. However, in Faustus’ case, Faustus calls up the devil voluntarily, but he does not do this because he is evil, he does this mainly because of his hubris. J C Maxwell argued that pride and curiosity, not evil “are the ultimate sources of Faustus’ fall.” Faustus’ hubris only allows him to view the world from one, narrow-minded perspective, his own, and thus his knowledge of the world becomes limited. In the 2011 Globe Production we see how Faustus’ hands are stained with ink. This suggests that his life revolves around his desk and his books; it does not go beyond that. This shows how Faustus literally does “live and die in Aristotle’s works,” (I.i.5) as his hubris does not allow him to use his knowledge practically. Faustus’ “evil” is not due to the supernatural, but a character flaw.

Furthermore, in Macbeth, the witches do not ask for anything in return for their prophecies, whereas in Dr Faustus, Mephistopheles asks for his soul in return for 24 years of luxury. Macbeth’s soul was already in trouble before the witches came along, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (I.iii.36). Here the “day” is a metaphor for his nebulous mind, which is corrupted by his hunger for power and his eagerness to fulfil the witches’ prophecy. This is the main difference between Macbeth and Faustus. Faustus’ hubris, was a result of his extensive knowledge; he knew facts, he knew concrete information. Macbeth was an extremely talented fighter, but was he a true soldier? The best soldiers are those who not only know how to fight, but those who feel the fight and have pride when fighting for their kingdom. Therefore, Macbeth and Faustus could have been good, but they succumbed to the frailty of human nature.

Macbeth and Dr Faustus both provoke very different emotions in the audience due to their contextual differences. During the Elizabethan era, the time in which Dr Faustus was written, morality plays were prominent and this is the reason why Marlowe depicts the moral values of the human being through the good and evil angels; he was concerned with his popularity. However, I find Shakespeare much more innovative and effective in making his audience re-evaluate the concepts of good and evil as he gives them a profound insight into inner world (emotions, thoughts, conflicts, desires) of Macbeth.

Both Marlowe and Shakespeare make their audience reconsider the nature of good and evil, but Shakespeare does it better.



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