Christopher Marlowe lived during the Renaissance period in 16th century England. Although this was a time of change, the Elizabethans still had fixed moral values. The Chain of Being,’ a concept inherited from the Middle Ages, can be described as a hierarchy of society, with the monarch at the top and the lowliest peasants at the bottom. Below people were animals, plants and rocks. During the Elizabethan era, dangerous ambition’ would probably involve trying to break the Chain of Being’ and striving to increase one’s social status.
It was believed to be necessary to accept one’s place in the chain, as to disrupt it and overcome the set order of society could mean chaos would follow. Faustus was an exceedingly ambitious man, even in relation to what is considered to be ambitious by people in today’s society. In the prologue, The Chorus sums up Faustus’ background and early life, emphasizing his ordinary background and academic success. It seems that Faustus’ intellect made him become proud and this fired up his ambition.
When Marlowe presents Faustus in scene 1, Faustus methodically shuns great authors and classically intellectual subjects, such as medicine and law because they hold little attraction to him, (line 11) A greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit. ‘ The above quote shows how Faustus elevates himself above taking up an intellectual pursuit that would be highly esteemed by the Elizabethans. Another sign that Faustus holds himself in high regard is that he refers to himself in the third person, also shown in the above quote. Faustus’ discusses beliefs that he will no longer hold and describes what he wants to achieve in his opening soliloquy.
Faustus may be seen as blasphemous in the opening speech, implying that he would only be a doctor if he could be equal to God, (lines24-6) Couldst thou make men live eternally Or, being dead raise them to life again, Then this profession were to be esteemed. ‘ This is made more obvious when Faustus lastly says, (line 62) A sound magician is a mighty god. ‘ Marlowe portrays Faustus as being over-ambitious by his turning to magic, which is a much more sinister and much less conventional pursuit than others that he had been discussing previously.
Faustus hopes that magic will make him omnipotent and god-like. There is little evidence to suggest that Marlowe himself wanted power over others, but his rise in society from a shoemaker’s son to a scholar at Cambridge University and later, a spy, was extremely rare at the time. Marlowe did not lead a normal Elizabethan life; in fact, one could say that it was similar to fiction. The over-ambitious part of Marlowe’s personality is reflected in Faustus because it seems Marlowe must have wanted success in his life, and to over-reach his set path in life.
It becomes clearer as the play continues that Faustus is a dangerously ambitious person when in scene 3 he discusses the deal with a devil, Mephastophilis, concerning the selling of his soul to the Devil in return for earthly power. When Faustus makes the contract, it seems as if he is not thinking ahead as his attitude is carefree. He possibly does not believe in Hell, or that he has a soul, or about the reality of the bargain. His attitude at this point can be summed up by the following phrase (Scene 4, lines 103-4), If I had as many souls as there be stars, I’d give them all for Mephastophilis.
Faustus’ ambition for power and lack of foresight are what doom him later on in play. Arguably, ambition can be said to have caused the downfall of Marlowe himself. His violent murder in a London tavern in 1593 was mysterious and historians often question possible motives for killing Marlowe; his drive to succeed may have made other people envious and resentful. In Dr. Faustus’, other characters are probably envious of Faustus too. In one of the comic scenes, scene 6, we learn that Robin and Rafe have stolen one of Faustus’ books and plan to use it to seduce a woman.
They must have been jealous of Faustus’ power and his magical aptitude; however it is not the case that he is murdered by these characters later on in the play. Faustus is ambitious and enjoys his newfound power until the end of the play, despite being warned of the reality of his empty bargain by the Old Man and by the Good Angel throughout the play. The Old Man says in scene 12 (lines 107-9), Ambitious fiends, see how the heavens smiles At your repulse, and laughs your state to scorn. Hence hell, for hence I fly unto God. ‘ This moment foreshadows Faustus’ lines at the end of the play, where, horrified, he must face the Devil and Hell.
Faustus’ ambition makes him a more human character despite him his selling his soul to the Devil, which may make him more difficult for the audience to relate to because of the extraordinary situation. His intellect sometimes creates doubts in his mind about the bargain that he has made, but his ambition overrides his conscience until the very end. This is shown by the Good and Evil Angels, who appear in scenes 1 and 5. They are binary opposites and in my view are present to put another side to Faustus’ personality – a conscience. The Good Angel tries to motivate Faustus to repent by concentrating on God’s anger.
Marlowe portrays Faustus’ ambition as dangerous; it was the cause of his demise. Perhaps Marlowe used the theme of over-ambition as a warning to the audience, who would be likely to be wary of ambition – it was looked down on as a negative personality trait in Christian England. Ideas around at the time such as The Chain of Being’ reinforced religious opinion into people’s everyday lives and morality plays (popular from the early 1400s to the 1580s) were used to strengthen people’s Christian principles, as Dr. Faustus’ also does by discouraging ambition.
Marlowe reflects ambition in the character of Faustus to deter the audience from being ambitious, and over-reaching their place in the Chain of Being’. However, if Marlowe chose to be dangerously over-ambitious’ and regarded himself as this, it is likely that he may have written Dr. Faustus’ differently, not viewing ambition in such a negative way. Whatever Marlowe’s view on ambition was, it is not made clear in the play, through Faustus or other characters. Certain aspects of his personality are indeed reflected in Faustus, which make reading the play and exploring Faustus as a character even more intriguing.