Desire for Knowledge and Power in Christopher Marlow’s Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Plays written during the Renaissance often show how an individual is shaped by that person’s deepest ambitions, such as the desire to know, to rule, or to love, and how these aspirations can lead people down dramatic paths. Christopher Marlow’s Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth both involve noble protagonists who are portrayed as true subjects - tragic heroes; their selfhood is defined by their ambition and the decisions that they struggle with while attempting to reach their goals. Knowledge and power are the key objects of their desires: Faustus’ desire is intellectual, he seeks omniscience, and Macbeth wants to rule Scotland, absolutely and unconditionally. The desires that Faustus and Macbeth follow lead them to keep striving after more and more. Both protagonists embark on a classic Renaissance pursuit - the consummate desire for knowledge and power, and these plays depict the tragedies that can arise from over-reaching toward those desires. An example of over-reaching on the part of Doctor Faustus and Macbeth is that, to fulfill their ambition, both characters look to activities that go against the prominent religious beliefs of the time, and that were considered offenses to the Crown. They engage in transgression through unorthodox disciplines such as witchcraft and black magic, and supernatural elements exist within each play that help to define both protagonists as human beings.
The Prologue of Doctor Faustus presents the themes of transgressions and overreaching when the chorus says, “his waxen wings did mount above his reach” (Prologue.21). This line alludes to the proverbial myth of Icarus, a young boy with wings of feather and wax given to him by his father. Icarus disobeyed his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun, causing him to fall to his death with melted wings. This allusion foreshadows Faustus’ eventual downfall, in which he too will be foiled by an attempt to reach too high toward his desire for knowledge.
The opening lines of Marlowe’s play show that Faustus is a philosopher and a self-reflecting person who realizes that he lacks knowledge, and who searches for the secrets of life: “[s]ettle thy studies, Faustus, / and begin to sound the depths of that thou wilt profess” (1.1-2). Faustus’ recurring tendency to refer to himself in the third person during his soliloquies underscores his subjectivity and his self-consciousness. The fact that the play begins with him alone in his study, soliloquizing about scholastic matters, immediately gives Faustus a semblance of individuality.
Faustus’ individuality and personal desire for knowledge are enhanced in this scene when he states to Valde and Cornelius,
Philosophy is odious and obscure,
Both law and psychics are for petty wits;
Divinity is basest of the three,