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Essays and Writings
Joseph Conrad and the Development of 'Modernism' | In Defense of Pangloss : Candide and The Personal Utopia | The Concept of 'Determinism' in American Literature | The 'Truth' in a Postmodern World | Chinua Achebe and the Importance of 'Writing Back' | Power and Ambition in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe | Using and Abusing 'Orpheus'


Power and Ambition in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe

This essay analyzes the works of Elizabethan Dramatist Christopher Marlowe with respect to his major themes: power and ambition. Although focus is placed on Marlowe's three major works, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine the Great, his lesser known works are also given attention.

Ambition and Power in the Works of Christopher Marlowe

Many of the great tragedies written during The Golden Age of English drama placed great emphasis on the unavoidable negative consequences associated with the brutal ambition and desire for power of mankind. Indeed, the most popular tragedies of William Shakespeare pay a great deal of attention to the intriguing plots contrived by those wishing to improve their station in life. These ambitious contrivers are generally portrayed as villains in Shakespearian drama, murdering and lying their way through life in order to secure their own advancement. The dramatic works of Christopher Marlowe however, reveal to us a portrait of an artist with a somewhat more sympathetic view towards ambition and those who flaunt this seemingly negative characteristic.
Critics of Marlowe often emphasize the diversity of the themes that can be found within his scarce number of works. Aside from a small collection of poems and translations of classical works, Marlowes literary production was actually limited to only seven plays, two of which can be read as two parts of the same work. Together with his most popular works, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine Parts One and Two, Marlowe also penned a Shakespearian like history, Edward the Second, and two shorter works, Dido, Queen of Carthage and The Massacre at Paris. Marlowe, a dangerous atheist in the opinions of many contemporaries, focussed a great deal of his attention on religious conflict, particularly mistrust between Jews, Christians and Muslims. However, in many ways, the religious beliefs professed by the main characters of the plays tend to be smokescreens, behind which lie the main reason for the permanent conflict witnessed in Marlowes drama; ambition and mans unquenchable thirst for power.

The Ambition of Human Beings

Ambition, in Marlowes opinion, is a natural human characteristic, not a trait only to be found in the worst examples of mankind, and not necessarily a characteristic to be despised. Marlowes most ambitious character, Tamburlaine, despite his ruthlessness during his quest for world dominance, is not exactly portrayed as a loathed villain. Tamburlaine, while slaying thousands and earning the title, the scourge of God, is also given a human side to his character. His limitless ambition in fact, argues Marlowe, is a perfectly natural human trait.
Nature, that framd us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure every wandering planets course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.
Tamburlaine Part 1 (2, 7, 18-29)

Tamburlaines ambition here is for wealth and power, both of which would be symbolized by an earthly crown, a great number of which he acquires during the course of the two plays. However, interestingly, Tamburlaine here refers to a certain kind of ambition that he himself does not seem to possess, that of the desire for knowledge infinite.
Tamburlaines ambition is purely physical and it is the physical domination and subjection of others that feed his substantial appetite. He does not seek to possess divine knowledge and his only relationship with the Gods is one of challenge and war. On the other hand however, a different hero of Marlowes plays, Doctor Faustus, is indeed ambitious for the attainment of knowledge infinite, and it is this desire that ultimately leads to his downfall. The prologue to Doctor Faustus summarizes the plot with the following lines.

That shortly he was graced with Doctors name,
Excelling all, whose sweet delight disputes
In heavenly matters of theology.
Till, swollen with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting heavens conspired his overthrow.
Doctor Faustus (Prologue, 17-23)

The obvious connection with Icarus and mans attempts at flight here express the idea of reaching beyond ones limits, another way of expressing the concept of ambition itself. Ambition is, after all, the desire to fly higher than ones own station in life. In Doctor Faustus however, the forever contradictory Marlowe prefers to limit the characteristic of ambition to one character, Doctor Faustus himself. Ambition in this respect, is not a natural human trait, but a regrettable characteristic of those who have become over-educated.
Marlowes third major play, The Jew of Malta, also addresses the concept of ambition and, similar to the outcome of Doctor Faustus, creates an ending in which the ambitious character falls. However, the ambition of Barabas the Jew is of a different kind to that of Tamburlaine or Faustus. Whereas Tamburlaines ambition was military and physical, and Faustuss desire was for metaphysical knowledge, Barabas is simply ambitious for wealth and it is his lust for money that leads him to crime.
The prologue of The Jew of Malta is in fact, one of the key speeches that reveal to us Marlowes sympathy towards the ambitious. Marlowes prologue in this play is read by a character referred to as Machevill, a follower of the teachings of Italian statesman and philosopher, Nicolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli, in his most famous work The Prince, analysed the ways in which ambitious statesmen are able to rise to the top, turning traditional morality on its head. Marlowes Machiavel defends himself against all criticism in the prologue, explaining that those who profess hatred of his name, tend to be the most serious proponents of his ideas. Barabas, Machiavel claims, is Machiavellian by nature, stopping at nothing while in the pursuit of riches. However, in the final lines of the prologue, Machiavel (Marlowe) pleads with the audience for the Jews cause.
And let him not be entertaind the worse
Because he favours me.
The Jew of Malta (Prologue, 34-35)

Favouring Machiavellian principles therefore, is not necessarily a point of view to be despised according to Marlowe. Instead, it would be best to accept Tamburlaines words (quoted above) as Marlowes real opinion on ambition. It is a natural human characteristic, dangerous to all, but not to be criticized in others.
Marlowe therefore, goes to great pains to portray the ambitious characters of Tamburlaine, Faustus and Barabas in a positive light. However, once again in true contradictory style, Marlowe also presents to us a truly despicable character whose worst trait is his ruthless ambition. In his short work, The Massacre at Paris, Marlowes chief villain is Guise, a member of the nobility who will stop at nothing in his desire for control in France. Guises ambition results in religious persecution, family feud and numerous assassinations, all of which are consequences of his refusal to accept his position in life. In his opening soliloquy, Guise discusses his role in life.
What glory is there in a common good,
That hangs for every peasant to achieve?
That like I best that flies beyond my reach.
Set me to scale the high pyramides,
And thereon set the diadem of France;
Ill either rend it with my nails to naught,
Or mount the top with my aspiring wings,
Although my downfall be the deepest hell.
For this I wake, when others think I sleep;
For this I wait, that scorn attendance else.
For this, my quenchless thirst, whereon I build,
Hath often pleaded kindred to the King;
For this, this head, this heart, this hand, and sword,
Contrives, imagines, and fully executes,
Matters of import aimed at by many,
Yet understood by none.
For this, hath heaven engenderd me of earth;
For this, the earth sustains my bodys weight,
And with this weight Ill counterpoise a crown,
Or with seditions weary all the world.
The Massacre at Paris (1, 2, 40-59)

This kind of ambition could easily be found in any of Shakespeares tragedies. Guise is cunning, ruthless, dishonest and unforgiving in his quest for power. It would be very difficult to interpret the character of Guise in a positive manner, unless of course, one was a firm supporter of Machiavellian principles. However, as far as Marlowes work is concerned, Guises despicable character is an exception to the rule; that being the view that ambition is a natural human characteristic that need not necessarily be criticized in all cases.

Mans Natural Love of Power and Control

The concepts of ambition, power and control are of course, closely connected to each other, and the ambitious characters found in Marlowes drama are in fact, ambitious for power. Dr. Faustus uses his metaphysical power for a number of purposes, while Barabas aim is to gain control over Maltese society through financial benevolence. Tamburlaine, Guise and the various faction in Edward II are all aiming at political and military power in their respective societies.
The main reason for Dr. Faustus journey into the necromantic world is his desire for supernatural powers. As he points out in the first act,
Of power, of honor, of omnipotence
Is promised to the studious artisan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;
But his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man:
A sound magician is a mighty god.
Faustus (1: 54-62)

Power, honor and omnipotence are the aims of Faustus, and the only way that such things can be gained is by resorting to black magic. Worldly powers are no longer sufficient for Faustus, and his natural ambition for more leads him eventually down a dark path, presumably to Hell.
On a slightly more worldly level, the younger Mortimer in Marlowes historical play Edward II, also lusts after power due to his need to satisfy his own ego. It is for this reason that he aligns himself with the King in hope of advancement. Mortimers desire is for complete political control of the England of the time.
The prince I rule, the queen do I command,
And with a lowly conge to the ground
The proudest lords salute me as I pass;
I seal, I cancel, I do what I will
Edward II, (5,4, 46-50)

This desire to do what I will connects characters such as Mortimer to the more well-known power-seekers like Faustus, Barabas and Tamburlaine, and suggests that Marlowe believed that mans ego is insatiable unless fed by ultimate power. To what uses this power would then be put however, is not entirely clear. Tamburlaine uses his military strength to destroy cities all over the world, while Barabas uses his financial strength to influence others and conceal his crimes. Despite abusing his power by providing entertainment to his friends in various scenes however, Faustuss aims are less devious. He doesnt seem to be a typically evil character and makes no effort to harm anyone throughout the course of the play. Instead, combined with certain greedy desires, Faustus seems to have some truly magnanimous intentions.
Ill have them fly to India for gold,
Ransack the ocean for orient pearl,
And search all corners of the new-found world
For pleasant fruits and princely delicates.
Ill have them read me strange philosophy,
And tell the secrets of all foreign Kings;
Ill have them wall all Germany with brass,
And make swift Rhine circle fair Wittenberg;
Ill have them fill the public schools with silk,
Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad.
Ill levy the soldiers with the coin they bring,
And chase the Prince of Parma from our land,
And rein sole King of all our provinces.
Faustus (1, 82-94)

Of course, the majority of Faustus desires are for the benefit of his beloved homeland, particularly in military matters. However, Faustus is also intent on bringing to Germany new philosophy, food and wealth, as well as supplying students with better conditions for their studies. Power therefore, would not be used in Faustus case for solely selfish motives; there is also a magnanimous side to his ambition and desire. Unfortunately, such traits are not encountered very often in Marlowes work and the majority of power-seeking characters are aiming at power for powers sake only.

The Strategies Used to Gain Power

As discussed above, there are various strands of the concept of power that are addressed in Marlowes work; military power, financial power and information power. This power can be gained by using a number of different methods, some of which are honorable, some of which are rather less admirable. The least realistic of Marlowes plays, Dr. Faustus, allows the protagonist to resort to supernatural methods in order to gain power. Faustus, by practicing black magic, is able to call on the assistance of Mephastophilis whenever he wishes to, and it is the abilities that Mephastophilis gives him that allow Faustus to control events.
Marlowes other two major successes, The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine, deal with the strategies used to gain power in different ways. Firstly, Barabas is a master statesman, able to play people off against each other without revealing the evil hand secretly hidden behind a series of seemingly unconnected events. He uses promises of wealth to silence potential enemies, in exactly the same way as a military regime would use its army. Indeed, Barabas compares his wealth to the military early in the play after he is disposed of vast amounts of money by the Maltese authorities.
You that
Were neer possessd of wealth, are pleasd with want.
But give him liberty at least to mourn,
That in a field, amidst his enemies,
Doth see his soldiers slain, himself disarmd,
And know no means of his recovery.
The Jew of Malta (1,2, 204-208)
Barabas is an expert strategist and makes his fortune by playing other characters off against each other for his own benefit. These other characters, both his slave and the monks from the Maltese monasteries, are not reluctant to accept the financial bribes of course, and Barabas is not actually portrayed as despicably as he could have been.
Tamburlaine the Great, contrary to Barabas, is a much more physical character and his methods of gaining power and control are generally physical and military. From humbling beginnings as a shepherd, he is successful in creating an enormous standing army, capable of conquering the whole of Asia with ease. A messenger from the opposition, reporting on the size of Tamburlaines military capability points out that,
Three hundred thousand men in armour clad,
Upon their prancing steeds, disdainfully
With wanton paces trampling on the ground;
Five hundred thousand footmen threatening shot,
Environing their standard round, that stood
As bristle-pointed as a thorny wood;
Their warlike engines and munition
Exceed the forces of their martial men.
Tamburlaine : Part One (4,2, 21-30)

Few would argue that the force that Tamburlaine manages is formidable, however, in addition to this, Tamburlaines personal physique is equally formidable. He is no contriver or back-stage manager, but the leading warrior, charging at the head of the lines during every attack. Tamburlaine himself, is described in the following few lines.
Of stature tall, and straightly fashioned
Like his desire, lift upwards and divine.
So large of limbs, his joints so strongly knit,
Such breadth of shoulders as might mainly bear
Old Atlas burden.
Tamburlaine : Part One (2,1,7-11)

This might and impressive physical stature is enough to bring potential enemies over to his side in most cases, however, in some cases the resistance of the enemies is broken by other means. In the case of Theridamas, one of the King of Persias associates, it is not Tamburlaines physical prowess that impresses him, but several other positive characteristics possessed by the mighty leader. Theridamas claims that as he was,
Won with thy words and conquerd with thy looks,
I yield myself, my men, and horse to thee,
Tamburlaine : Part One (1,2, 228-229)
Power therefore, in the works of Marlowe is attained by a number of different methods. Wealth, military might, physical strength, oratory and physical features all have a role to play in the turning of fortunes for Marlowes characters, while in the case of Dr. Faustus, characters even resort to supernatural assistance when required. Of course, with such a diverse body of work as Marlowes, and with such a common theme running through all the works, one cant be surprised to find a diversity of plot and a number of different methods for gaining control.

The Arrogance and Abuse of Power

Despite failing to portray the most ambitious of his characters in a particularly negative light, Marlowes plays still criticize the characters who gain power, particularly with respect to the arrogance that power instills into human beings. Gaining power over earthly matters does not seem to satisfy the ambitious characters and a new challenge is called for. However, after gaining total control over ones enemies and over natural events in the case of Dr. Faustus, what is left to struggle against? The only remaining enemy seems to be God himself, and this is the challenge made by characters in several of Marlowes plays.
The whole moral behind the story of Dr. Faustus is of course, realizing where ones limits as a human being lie. Faustus wants to fly higher than the peaks reached by the rest of the human race, however in order to do so, he must make a pact with the Devil. Mistakenly, Faustus believes that this pact will save him from any divine wrath that God may return with.
When Mephastophilis shall stand by me.
What God can hurt thee, Faustus? Thou art safe,
Dr. Faustus (5, 24-25)

The challenge is made to God therefore, a challenge which is ultimately met successfully by Marlowes Christian God as Faustus is expelled to Hell for eternity at the close of the play. In a similar frame of mind, we find the antagonist in one of Marlowes short plays, The Massacre at Paris, Guise dreaming of immortality.
Let mean conceits and baser men fear death.
The Massacre at Paris (5,2, 71)

Guises desire for immortality is more like a battle-cry however, than a desire for supernatural power. He is simply trying to persuade his followers to join the struggle against the Protestant enemy. Tamburlaine also throws up a challenge to the higher powers, believing that the position and success that he has attained on earth is in fact, superior to anything that can be found in the land of the Gods.
A God is not so glorious as a King:
I think the pleasure they enjoy in heaven,
Cannot compare with kingly joys in earth;-
Tamburlaine : Part One (2,5, 57-59)

Tamburlaines arrogance, like that of Faustus, is of course crushed when he is shown to be merely a mortal man. Despite his substantial military power on earth, a simple sickness is enough to end his reign of terror over the Asian continent. However, even when he realizes that the end is approaching, he still refuses to give up the struggle in his desire for immortality and power over the Gods. He does, in fact, declare war on the Gods shortly before dying.
Techelles and the rest, come, take your swords,
And threaten him whose hand afflicts my soul.
Come, let us march against the powers of heaven,
And set black streamers in the firmament,
To signify the slaughter of the Gods.
Tamburlaine : Part Two (5,3, 46-50)

Tamburlaines threats prove to be empty, as a few moments later, he dies, once again proving the power of the Gods over even the strongest of human beings.
The arrogance of characters such as Faustus, Barabas and Tamburlaine is based on their belief that they can control the natural flow of events in the world in which they find themselves. Barabas believes that he has the possibility to do whatever he wants simply by dealing out the correct amount of money to the correct people at the correct time, and by employing his financial strategy successfully. Faustus of course, is given the power to control the world to an extent, however these powers are given at a price which must me paid in the afterworld. Tamburlaine, once again due to military successes, seems to believe that events in the world depend on his actions. He claims that,
I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains,
And with my hand turn Fortunes wheel about;
Tamburlaine : Part One (1,2, 175-6)

The wheel of fortune is ultimately shown in all of Marlowes plays to be beyond the control of any one human being, and the deaths of the three major protagonists in the works are ample evidence of this.
Ambition therefore, leads to power, and power leads to further ambition, the result of which seems to be the destruction of the human being reaching above his station in life. When characters begin to challenge the Gods, their frailties as human beings are revealed and they quickly succumb to their mortal limits. The domain over which total control will be exercised does not seem to be of such great importance. Whether it is Malta and Barabas, Asia and Tamburlaine, or the whole World and Faustus, complete control is simply beyond the reach of one human being.
Furthermore, Marlowe often reveals instances of the abuse of power by various characters in each of his plays. In The Massacre at Paris, the Popes authority is drawn upon in order to sanction the destruction of French Protestants for political purposes. Edward II presents scenes in which groups of characters vie politically and militarily for control over England while personal grievances are often lingering behind the scenes. In Dr. Faustus, we find two clown-like characters, Rafe and Robin, who, coming across the book of black magic, decide to call upon the spirits to provide themselves with wine and women.
Perhaps the best example of the abuse of power however, can be found in Tamburlaine, with the treatment of one of the captured Kings. Bajazeth, a defeated enemy of Tamburlaine, is beaten to the ground, locked in a cage, and forced to kneel before Tamburlaine whenever it is desired.

Fall prostrate on the low disdainful earth,
And be the footstool of great Tamburlaine,
That I may rise into my royal throne.
Tamburlaine : Part One (4,2, 13-16)

This disgraceful, unnecessary abuse of power is of course, morally indefensible, as is the use of supernatural powers in order to obtain alcohol and sex, although the issue in Dr. Faustus is of a far more comical nature. Marlowe therefore, seems to have been aware of the dangers of power as well as the human limits of control.

The Frailties of Humanity

Power therefore, in Marlowes opinion, can only be a temporary phenomenon, enjoyed by even the strongest of human characters for a finite period of time. The limits of power have been set by God, who, limiting human existence to approximately seventy years, prevents any one man from approaching divinity. In fact, the power possessed by various characters in Marlowes work, is far more precarious than thought. Barabas learns this lesson the hard way, as his most trusted servant, and the man with whom he has shared all of his secrets, succumbs to the power of love and woman, forcing him to disown Barabas.
Faustus and Tamburlaine are also forced to ultimately realize that the possibility for domination in the world is limited, and that ones life can, and will be taken after a certain period of time has elapsed. Tamburlaine is particularly shocked when he realizes that he, like every other man, will actually die.
Shall sickness prove me now to be a man,
That have been termd the terror of the world?
Tamburlaine : Part Two (5,3, 44-45)

Tamburlaine of course, considered himself to be a divine power, capable of challenging the Gods in combat and capable of turning the wheel of fortune whichever way he desired. The shock of realizing his own mortality therefore, is particularly frustrating for him.
Edward II is forced to confront a similar unpleasant fact, as he is deposed from the throne by his former aristocracy. Edward soon realizes that Kings are simply men, and that it is the rank that provides the power, not the person.
But what are Kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?
Edward II (5,1, 26-27)

This is, in many ways, taking the argument from Tamburlaine even further. Tamburlaine discovered, albeit reluctantly, that man is nothing when compared to the infinite and the divine power of God. Edward further discovers that Kings and leaders are only on the same level as normal men after all, and it is the regiment that provides the power.

Conclusion : The Limits of Humanity and Marlowes Moral Warnings
Marlowes work, taken as a complete project, shows a great diversity in character, theme and plot, however, running through all of the plays is a central moral theme; human beings are limited in the extent to which they can rise in society, and power is either temporary or dangerous. Ultimately, the only power is God, and no matter how powerful one is on earth, one cant cheat death.
Morality in Tamburlaine is most clearly seen in the second part of the two-part play. In the first part, Tamburlaine, a character who is to be both despised and admired, ends the play on a successful note, conquering most of Asia and securing a beautiful wife for himself. However, Marlowes tragic ending of the second part reveals that Tamburlaines substantial power is in fact, limited to this finite world alone, and when he attempts to challenge the Gods or the Prophet Mohammed, he is quickly struck down with illness and eventually killed. Barabas in The Jew of Malta succumbs to a similar fate when he attempts to gain complete control over the state of Malta, while benefiting financially from his many dealings. The other characters, realizing the devious nature of Barabas works, team up in order to end the life of the parasite who has been fooling them all.
Marlowes moral warnings can also be seen in one of his less famous works, The Massacre at Paris, a play based on the desire for power of Guise, a military minded Catholic French aristocrat. Following the morality expressed in his other works, Marlowe does not allow Guise to succeed and, as Navarre explains,
God we know will always put them down
That lift themselves against the perfect truth;
The Massacre at Paris (4,4, 12-13)

The perfect truth; here is actually a particular strand of Christianity, however this truth can be read as referring to Gods rules and regulations regarding the role of human beings. Those who lift themselves up in the same way that Barabas and Tamburlaine tried to will be put down by some higher power.
The fall of Dr. Faustus is perhaps the clearest moral warning that Marlowe makes in any of his works, and it is naturally in the Epilogue where the advice is to be found. Marlowe tells us that Faustus fall should be a lesson to us all as regards ambition and the desire for power.
Faustus is gone! Regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things:
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practice more than heavenly power permits.
Dr. Faustus (Epilogue. 4-8)

Heavenly power does not permit man to control nature, nor challenge the Gods or attempt to place himself on the same level as the divine powers.
The lines which sum up Marlowes morality most clearly however, are to be found in the fifth act of Edward II, one of his less celebrated works. Edwards fortune, despite the fact that he is the King of a powerful nation, is not in his hands. Furthermore, it is perhaps arguable that the fact that he is a King leads to an inevitable fall due to the temporary and precarious nature of power in this world. The final words belong to the younger Mortimer, one of Edwards closest friends.

Base fortune, now I see, that in thy wheel
There is a point, to which when men aspire,
They tumble headlong down : that point I touchd,
And, seeing there was no place to mount up higher,
Why shall I grieve at my declining fall?
Edward II (5,6, 59-64)

The central tenets of Marlowes philosophy are revealed in these five lines. Mans life is beyond his control; it is in the hands of what is referred to as fortune, and this fortune is indeed, base. Finally, ambition and power have limits and when men reach these limits, a fall must ensue. Ambition and the desire for power are natural human characteristics, however, ambition leads to power and power breeds ambition. The only outlet for this second level ambition is to challenge the divine, a challenge which can only lead to misery and death.

A note on sources
All primary sources were taken from either The Complete Dramatic Works of Christopher Marlowe or from the versions of the plays found on the Internet. There are no discrepancies found between the two versions, therefore citing works for each particular quotation seemed pointless.

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