A central preoccupation of English Renaissance Drama is the tension between individual free will and the workings of fate. Compare the treatment of this theme in Dr Faustus and Hamlet respectively.
In the Elizabethan period in which both Dr Faustus and Hamlet were written ambition and greed was a big element of society as people tried to gain favour and power with Elizabeth and her court, often resorting to murder in order to move further up the social ladder and gain more status, or in some cases, to stay at the status they had managed to achieve for themselves. The Tudor monarchies had made some progress in controlling lawlessness but Robert Watson claims that there must have been some basis for the “persistent jokes about incompetent constables and watchers in Elizabethan comedies” (ed. McEachern, 2002, pg.160).
With so many crimes committed by un-punishable criminals and many crimes against women, the poor and even different religious minorities, not even considered to be crimes there is little wonder why people developed such an appetite for revenge stories such as Hamlet which was written after Thomas Kyd had such a huge commercial success with The Spanish Tragedy around 1587, whose plot looks very similar to that of the plot in Hamlet as the main character feigns madness in order to get revenge on the people who had killed his son and were socially higher up than him.
The themes of fate and freewill within the story of Hamlet are based around the idea as to whether or not he was fated to kill his uncle in revenge for his father’s death or if he is culpable for his actions and the many deaths he is responsible for within the play as he tries to gain revenge and if he was acting of his own free will or whether or not it is fate that Ophelia kills herself within the play or again she was acting of her own free will and could have changed her fate .
In contrast, Dr Faustus written by Christopher Marlowe is a tragedy with an end that the main character had the chance to change as the question of fate and free will is based around whether or not he is destined to go to hell because of his pact with the devil and his actions, as well as ambition. Highly reflecting the mood in Elizabethan society ambition was seen as a “particularly alluring and dangerous sin” (ed. McEachern, 2002, pg. 160) with people reflectively ridiculing opportunists and people trying to gain more than what is rightfully theirs. However the over side of the argument, which people tend to lean more on when analysing the actions of Dr Faustus is the opinion that he was acting of his own free will and that it was because of his pride in refusing to repent and ask forgiveness and mercy from God that led him to eternal damnation.
Dr Faustus as a story pokes fun and ridicules the Catholic idea of heaven and hell and tries to reflect the feelings of the state at the time as Protestantism was, if not a little shakily, the dominant religion in England in 1600 when the play was written. Within the play, Faustus, a great scholar, who is the embodiment of the Renaissance man who came from humble beginnings to become a renowned intellectual individual who is highly respected in his field. However it is because of this climb from his humble beginnings that seem to have led him to develop his excessive hubris, which is ultimately his greatest flaw when he wants to become as mighty as God, not realising he is being tricked by Lucifer’s servant, Mephastophillis and does not have the powers he thinks he has, haven agreed to only another twenty-four years on earth before eternal life in hell in return for ‘God-like’ powers.
Is Faustus fated to eternity in hell because of his deal with the personified devil, Lucifer or is it is hubris and own feelings of greed and ambition that stop him from repenting to God and asking for mercy, actions of his own free will, the reason why he ends up serving Lucifer forever. Within the prologue of the play itself, Marlowe does not seem to see any question as to whether it was fate or the actions of Faustus himself that led him to eternity in hell as he states “falling to a devilish exercise, and glutted more with learning’s golden gifts, he surfeits upon cursed necromancy” (Prologue, lines 24-28) in which the use of the words ‘falling’ and also the fact that he was ‘glutted’ taken to mean greedy for riches, have led to his downfall, he could have chosen to change the ending if he had not been so blinded by greed and not fallen for the trickery of the devil.
Unlike Dr Faustus, Hamlet is about a more conventional romantic hero who is Prince of Denmark and has just lost his father, who we later find out was killed by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius. Within the play we see Hamlet struggle with the burden he has had placed on his shoulders by the ghost of his father who wants him to avenge his death, something that the Elizabethan audience watching would enjoy as it mirrored society at the time of the play as people tried to get revenge on people who had wronged them but could not be punished due to their higher status within society, especially concerning crimes against the poor by the aristocracy. Although he does not call upon the ghost as Faustus does with Lucifer, he does of his own free will decide to investigate the accusations that his father puts to him concerning his brother, Hamlet’s uncle, killing him so that he could marry his wife and become King of Denmark.
This murder for the rising within society is a common theme within Shakespeare’s plays as they again cleverly mirror the actions of the aristocracy at court that were continuously stabbing each other in the back and in some cases killing each other in order to ain favours with the Tudor Queen Elizabeth. Hamlet deliberately feigns madness in order to find out the truth about the death of his father and the reason why his uncle so hastily and irreverently married his mother after his brother’s death. The deliberateness of his actions forces us to question whether or not it was fate that led to Hamlet killing Claudius and many others through the play, his indecisiveness and inability to act is his greatest flaw and gives credibility to the argument that he was in complete control of his actions and therefore fate had little to do with the outcome of the actions in which most of the characters are dead on stage at the end of the play.
In contrast to this it could be commented that the actions of Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus was the work of fate and that he had no control over how he was going to end up at the end of the play. If he was meant to go to Hell and serve Lucifer for eternity, as what happens at the end of the play, then Faustus repenting and asking for mercy and forgiveness from God would have no impact whatsoever on his impending death. Within the epilogue of the play it is observed “Faustus is gone. Regard his hellish fall” (line 4) which could be interpreted by the audience who have watched the play to mean that he was tricked by the devil and by God and he fell for their tricks and failed to repent for something which never actually materialised in terms of gaining the powers of God and becoming his equal. The fall of Faustus is interpretedb y Marxists to be his punishment for trying to rise above his station in life as they believe the position you are born into is he position you should hold for the rest of your life and people should be punished for trying to change the natural order of things.
This belief was also upheld within Elizabethan society as England had been through turmoil with the changing of the official religion for the last twenty years because of the current queen’s father King Henry VIII who created the Church of England so that he could marry his mistress, Elizabeth’s mother, who’s uncle and father, the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, became very important men in the English court as they were the relatives of the King Henry’s wife, for the limited time she held the title and rose above their natural stations in life, only to be exiled and executed when they made a fatal error and crossed the King. Dr Faustus quite cleverly mirrors society and their feelings of ambition and greed and so Marlowe has made his ending fit into the climate that his play would be performed in. The element of fate with Dr Faustus does not seem to be as prevalent as it does in some other plays as free will has more control and it is ultimately his actions that condemn him.
Within Hamlet, as a contrast to Dr Faustus there are many elements that can be questioned as to whether Hamlet was asking of his own free will or whether or not the events that occur were apart of fate and her plan for Hamlet. Was he destined to die at the hands of his uncle Claudius due to his failure to act on numerous occasions to gain revenge for the murder of his father. In addition there is also the question of the deaths of both Gertrude and Ophelia as they are both extremely close to Hamlet, the former being his mother and the latter being his love interest within the play. Gertrude dies at the end of the play when she drinks from the up containing the poison that Claudius has placed in it meant to kill Hamlet, was she destined to die because of her ‘unfaithfulness’ in the eyes of her son by marrying so soon after the death of her husband, or is it because she chose of her own free will to save her son as she knew of the plot that Claudius had to murder his nephew, just as he had his brother.
The incident in which Ophelia is found in the fountain shows her death to be suicide after she fails to cope after being rejected by Hamlet and also the death of her father, unknowing to her killed by Hamlet himself when he thought he was stabbing his uncle Claudius. Did she commit suicide after being unable to cope emotionally or is it more of a matter of fate that she was meant to die and that the fact that she is found in a fountain is a smoke screen as fate was never going to let her live and see the end of the play as she could have cottoned n to what Hamlet was doing and ruined the ending that fate had planned for the characters within the play.
The themes of fate and free will are prevalent within both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus which means that the actions of both protagonists are greatly debated by scholars today and in the past centuries since they were first written. Both plays are very reflective of the society in which they were written and first performed, with the antagonists being killed for trying to change the social order within their society. As discussed within this essay the author as come to some sort decision that in the play of Dr Faustus the theme of fate, while apparent, did not have a big contributing factor to the outcome of the play and it was mainly through actions and decisions that Faustus made with his own free will that led him to spending eternity in Hell and serving Lucifer.
In contradiction, in Hamlet, the author has come to the decision that is almost impossible to determine whether or not the protagonist was acting of his own free will or was just acting as fate decided and the deaths that Hamlet directly or indirectly causes were nothing other than collateral damage as fate tries to right the order and balance out the in-balance that Claudius created when he killed his brother, with the tension between both fate and free will being so strong that any other move could create more instability than anyone could predict.