Elizabethan society is perhaps the period that best documents a shift in society where authors like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe wrote plays that transformed their societies by taking on social reform. So it is little wonder that comparisons can be made between these playwrights’ performances. Hughes writes, “The way to really develop as a writer is to make yourself a political outcast, so that you have to live in secret. This is how Marlowe developed into Shakespeare” (Letters of Ted Hughes 120). The work they produced transcended literature making the theater an important part of society, but it also exposed them both to critique beyond the theater stage. It is within those critiques that help define how the stage was the focal point for entertainment, education, and theology because of how writers dared to broach subjects that others were afraid to. The plight of a king or the self-reflection of a sinner would have equally been important subjects to the Elizabethan society, but how authors used similar themes to define their problems is what made them important to their audiences. Analyzing the influence of the supernatural theme used by both authors will show that Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth would have been interpreted as a form of blasphemy while Marlowe’s The tragical history of Doctor Faustus would have been a reflection of society’s morality.
Shakespeare and Marlowe were men among men in Elizabethan theater because they used their stages as classrooms where their audiences became their students. It is the different ways that each chose to teach their audiences that show a distinct difference in writing styles, characters, and the use of the theme of supernatural influence on humanity. Chutes writes, “Shakespeare told every kind of story – comedy, tragedy, history, melodrama, adventure, love stories and fairy tales – and each of them so well that they have become immortal. In all the world of storytelling he has become the greatest name. (Stories from Shakespeare 11). Marlowe, however, preferred to write histories or tragedies that often had a religious theme. An undeniable influence can be found between Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus because both use supernatural themes to control the actions of their characters.
In The Tragedy of Macbeth, Shakespeare uses three witches throughout the story to try to explain why a man would kill his king. With a theme like that, it would have been a political and religious disaster if he did not deliver those themes carefully. The language he used provided an entertaining description of the witches that might have made them likeable which speaks to his abilities as a playwright. Shakespeare writes, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air” (Macbeth). It is during this time that the witches tell Macbeth of his future. The third witch says, “All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!” (Shakespeare). Throughout the play, the use of witchcraft constructs a play with a supernatural theme that defines every action the characters make. Writing a play about a man who commits treason and murder would have been risky, but a man might just get away with it by blaming the actions on women with supernatural powers. The theme would have been blasphemous to religious groups, but it also speaks to the patriarchal society where women were often blamed for the actions of the men around them. The theme can be found as Lady Macbeth says, “and you shall put This night’s great business into my dispatch” (Shakespeare). It also speaks to how easy it was to blame a woman for witchcraft and succeed in the argument in that writers used this theme often enough in their plays to make its way from the Elizabethan stage into the conscience of society.
Marlowe also used magic in The Tragical history of Doctor Faustus to also explain his character’s actions. Faustus blames the loss of his soul on his deal with the devil for wealth. Marlowe writes, “O thou bewitching fiend, ’twas thy temptation Hath robb’d me of eternal happiness!” (The Tragical history of Doctor Faustus). He also develops his story by using characters that are good and bad angels as well as a devil’s collection of his soul. His theme of morality is clear when he writes, “He that loves pleasure must for pleasure fall” (Marlowe). Religious groups would more than likely have applauded Marlowe because he promoted the idea that humanity would pay for living a life of sin. He also debated the rise of the arts against the tradition of religion by comparing the two between men who use it for knowledge and those who use it for sin. In this idea, one might have expected criticism in that theology did not want Christians to read any book but the Bible because of the temptations found within them. What is a surety is that the idea of witchcraft, angels, devil, and supernatural occurrences were themes the audiences found entertaining. It also shows how a single idea could be used to influence social belief systems because it involved the plights of the elite or the fallen that people found relatable. While on author chose to look at society as a whole, the other wanted his audience to self-reflect. Both stories would have opened a dialogue about how temptation, sin, and supernatural forces influenced their behaviors and actions. It may also have promoted self-reflection on the role women play in society as well as how the actions of people in society are responsible for their own actions. What is undeniable is that these authors’ writing styles delivered stories that continued to speak to societies long past the times they lived which speaks to the human emotions they tapped into.
Chute, Marchette. Stories from Shakespeare. New York: World Publishing Company, 1956.
Hughes, Ted, Letters of Ted Hughes, ed. Christopher Reid, Faber 2007
Logan, Robert A. Shakespeare’s Marlowe: the influence of Christopher Marlowe on Shakespeare’s artistry. Routledge, 2016.
Marlowe, Christopher, The tragical history of Doctor Faustus. etext, ( Retrieved on 1604), Retrieved on November 10, 2016, from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/811.
Morgan, Cynthia, Literary Similarities Between Marlowe and Shakespeare, The Christopher Marlowe Library, 2009, retrieved on Nov 13, 2016, from http://themarlowestudies.org/literarysimilarities.html
Shakespeare, William, The Tragedy of Macbeth, MIT.edu, (n.d.), Retrieved on Nov 13, 2016, from http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/full.html