Renaissance English Theater Term Paper

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Supernatural in Renaissance Drama

There are things in heaven and earth, not dreamt of in the philosophy of Horatio, not simply in "Hamlet" but also in the "Midsummer's Night Dream" of Shakespeare, and the "Dr. Faustus" of Christopher Marlowe. But while all of these plays deal with the theme of human aspirations in a world with a permeable, rather than an impermeable wall between humanity and the supernatural, "Dr. Faustus" suggests that breaking down this wall is initially fun and playful, although it has dire consequences at the end for the play's protagonist. Marlowe's cartoon characters and images of conventional morality, combined with heightened language convey humor rather than horror, until Faustus is condemned to hell for all eternity. The even lighter "Midsummer's Night Dream" also suggests in its early language an initial playfulness for the human and supernatural lovers who engage in transgressing sensual activities. But this comedy set in a pagan land also raises questions about how 'real' love is, after all, if both supernatural charms and supposedly real love are in fact both false. Lastly, "Hamlet" begins with a seriousness about ghosts and Christian morality that ultimately eschews the early humor "Faustus" and his dirty dealings with Mephistopheles but takes the play to a new level of philosophical inquiry about the relationship of humanity and the supernatural.

The characterization is very schematic in Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus," unlike in Shakespeare's plays. The good and bad angels argue amongst themselves for Faustus' soul set the tone. "Faustus, lay that damned book aside, / And gaze not on it least it tempt thy soul. (1.1) They use the stark, moralistic language of a preacher, rather than language specific to actual characters. Even the 'seven deadly sins' are conventional in their depiction, and function as diversions for Faustus, not as distinct sprite or fairy like characters as in "A Midsummer's Night Dream." Only when Faustus apprehends Helen does the text really use colorful poetic images, as Dr. Faustus asks if this is the face that launched a thousand ships. (Act 4)

For most of the play, Faustus only the powers he has acquired through dealing with the devil via his agent Mephistopheles, to play tricks on other people and to accrue an earthly power he did not have as a scholar at Wittenberg. Interacting with the supernatural teaches him nothing -- not about love, as it does for Hermia and company in the "Dream," or about his father, as it does for Hamlet. Marlowe's play, by making the language used to describe the devilish image of Helen more interesting than the angels even almost seems to side with Faustus' decision to sell his soul, even though the plot's resolution does not. Most of the more conventionally good or 'Christian' characters do not emerge as distinct entities, other than Faustus and Mephistopheles.

In Shakespeare, however, every character has a distinct and individual voice that eschews stereotyping. Even the oafish Bottom, when at his lowest, turned into an ass, has a power that the angels and sins of Marlowe lack Monsieur Cobweb, good monsieur, get you your weapons in your hand, and kill me a red-hipped humble-bee on the top of a thistle." (3.1) Less seems at stake in the "Dream" -- there are no souls to be lost, and what is done to Bottom is reversible, as are Puck's misunderstandings, unlike Faustus' decision. Like Marlowe's use of Helen, Shakespeare makes use of classical references by setting the play in pagan Athens, but because the play is apparently set…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Marlowe, Christopher. "Dr. Faustus." Text B. Edited by Hilary Binder. Tufts Classics Edition online. Last updated 2003. Retrieved from Perseus. Database at 8 December 2004 at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.03.0011& layout=norm%3Dreg& query=act%3D%235

Shakespeare, William. "A Midsummer's Night's Dream." MIT Complete Shakespeare. Retrieved 8 Dec 2004 at http://www-tech.mit.edu

Shakespeare, William. "A Midsummer's Night's Dream." MIT Complete Shakespeare. Retrieved 8 Dec 2004 at http://www-tech.mit.edu/Shakespeare/midsummer/midsummer.4.1.html

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