Explore the Ways the Theme of Death Develops and Changes in Hamlet and Doctor Faustus

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Explore the Ways the Theme of Death Develops and Changes in Hamlet and Doctor Faustus

Hamlet and Faustus have differing views on death at the start of each of the plays. Faustus is a typical character of an Elizabethan drama in the role of a man overreaching himself in his quest for knowledge: he believes that he knows all there is to know about what happens after death and Faustus “confounds hell in Elysium” which shows that he doesn’t fear hell: instead he believes that his knowledge will give him access to the pagan afterlife of the Greek philosophers. During Faustus’ first conversation with Mephistopheles Faustus constantly refers to himself in the third person. Marlowe does this to show that Faustus is distancing himself from making the deal with Mephistopheles and is not completely confident in his thinking. Faustus’ desire for further forbidden knowledge is prompted by his view that he has attained all permitted knowledge. In full awareness of what he is doing Faustus bids “divinity, adieu!” in order to pursue magic and become, in his eyes, a Godly figure. This certainty that Faustus shows deeply contrasts with Hamlet’s ambiguous views on the afterlife. Hamlet in Act 1 Scene ii, desires that this “too too sullied flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew!”. However, Hamlet doesn’t commit “self-slaughter” because of the “dread of something after death”. Shakespeare’s use of “dread of something” gives the impression that Hamlet’s fear of death is due to his ignorance as to what follows. This lack of knowledge as to what is beyond is also why in Act 3 Scene i Hamlet says “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” as he worries about the weight on his conscience of killing King Claudius and the spiritual implications of doing so.

In both Hamlet and Doctor Faustus, the audience observes the ambivalence of both main characters about sin and death. An example of Hamlet’s indecision is clearly presented in the soliloquy of Act 1 scene ii. In this soliloquy, Shakespeare uses many structural and linguistic devices to highlight Hamlet’s wavering mind. For example in the soliloquy the number of run-on lines is more than the number of end-stopped lines. The use of the run-on lines show Hamlet’s lack of control and his sprawling thoughts, as he cannot compose himself enough to think about what he is saying. Also, Hamlet shows his disapproval of his mother’s incestuous marriage, through the fact that whenever talking about his mother, the lines often increase in syllables, for example “Would have mourn’d longer—married with my uncle”. Shakespeare also shows Hamlet’s indecision in the form of his father’s ghost. At the time of writing, the newly formed Protestant Church dismissed the Catholic idea of purgatory and therefore apparitions were regarded as devils in disguise that had come to tempt unwary victims to damnation. When Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, he is aware that the he might be being fooled by the devil and is consequently more wary about his actions. When Hamlet meets his father's ghost, he wonders whether it "may be the devil" because "the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape”. It is this pleasing shape that leads Hamlet into trusting the ghost even though he had earlier doubts. Hamlet worries that the devil might be attempting to bait him into killing Claudius so that he will go to hell. Hamlet also comments that the afterlife is a place "from whose bourn no traveller returns", Hamlet therefore fears that the devil will take advantage of his grief and despair over his father's death and his mother's "o'er-hasty marriage” and he worries that "perhaps/ Out of [his] melancholy" the devil "abuses[ him] to damn [him]".

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Unlike Hamlet, Faustus’ indecision is shown through two physical representations, a good angel and a bad angel. These two angels show Faustus’ internal conflict, the good angel shows his desire to repent for his sins and the bad angel shows his desire to carry on sinning. During these disputes the bad angel always wins, leading Faustus ever closer to damnation, for example:

“G. Ang.          Faustus, repent; yet God will pity thee.        

  E. Ang.          Thou art a spirit; God can not pity thee.

  Faust.          Who buzzeth in mine ears I am a spirit?        

        Be I a devil, yet ...

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