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 God may pity me;
Ay, God will pity me if I repent.
E. Ang. Ay, but Faustus never shall repent. "
Also, initially Faustus is not concerned about his soul and does not believe that it can be eternally punished: he "confounds hell in Elysium" and refers to the "vain trifles of men's souls". It’s therefore paradoxical that when Faustus makes an agreement with Mephistopheles to give him his soul, despite not believing in the Christian concept of eternal punishment. It is because of Faustus' arrogance and his hubris that he refuses to believe in hell even after he is confronted with it.
Both plays show negative attitudes towards hell and purgatory. When Hamlet meets the ghost, he is shocked by the tales that the ghost tells him about the "most horrible" "prison house" that is hell. Hamlet pities the "poor ghost" who has to experience "sulph'rous and tormenting flames". In Doctor Faustus, hell is viewed negatively: it is described as "ugly hell" with "adders and serpents" coming to plague Faustus and the devil is horrifying, threatening “to tear [him] in pieces". Both protagonists personify hell, suggesting its threatening nature: Hamlet refers to it directly as "rebellious hell" and Faustus describes its "roaring voice". Mephistopheles tells Faustus that hell is a mental state because when we sin we reject god and are "deprived of everlasting bliss". Hamlet similarly tells Gertrude that hell is within her as it "canst mutine in a matron's bones", suggesting that it runs riot in her body. When Faustus starts to sign the deed of gift to Mephistopheles his "blood congeals" , his body reacting physically as a warning against giving up his soul and suffering eternal punishment.
Both plays show that people's actions determine whether they go to heaven or hell. Hamlet uses the metaphor of an "audit" to suggest that we have an account which will prove to God whether we deserve a place in heaven. Hamlet believes that at any time one can repent and therefore ensure salvation. He tells his mother that she can "either [lodge] or throw the devil out". And he states that "the readiness is all", explaining that being prepared for death makes it bearable unlike his father who was "full of bread" illustrating that he did not have time to repent his sins. Hamlet knows that if he does carry out the revenge killing of Claudius that he could be damned. From the beginning of the play, Faustus believes that he is damned and will be punished in hell whatever he does. Faustus misinterprets scriptures so that he can prove himself right about the injustice of God. He says that "The reward of sin is death " but leaves out the rest of the passage (Romans 6:23)which says that "the gift of God is eternal life, though Jesus Christ our Lord". By doing this Faustus is deliberately tricking himself into believing he is in a situation which he is not actually in. He tries to make it seem as if his pact with the devil is logical because he is already damned, when in fact it is simply the lust for sensual pleasures and divine knowledge. The idea that Faustus is already damned relates to a controversial doctrine by John Calvin, circulating at the time, which suggested that we are damned or saved from birth and nothing we do can change this. The same doctrine also comments that if anybody pries into the secrets of God, as Faustus does, then he will neither find his answer nor find salvation. Faustus is told by the good angel and the Old Man that he can repent but his "heart's so harden'd" and so he cannot bring himself to seek forgiveness. One of the most shocking and disheartening things for Faustus is that God does not appear during the whole of the play; in contrast Lucifer actively meets Faustus and convinces him not to repent. This neglect from God, perhaps explaining Faustus' choice to turn against him, a decision which could reflect Marlowe's supposed atheism.
Hamlet begins to accept the inevitability of his death and the role of the revenge hero. He knows that "all that lives must die", the imperative illustrating the certainty that he will have to die at some point; he proclaims "let it be" as he now accepts death. Hamlet realises that death is the great leveller as " Your fat king and you lean beggar is but variable service- two dishes, but to one table" highlighting that death equals us and happens to us all, forcing Hamlet to confront his own mortality. He has the view that "if it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come" the balanced sentence highlighting Hamlet's measured and understanding view of death. Laertes tells Hamlet that "the devil [will] take [his] soul", but Hamlet keeps faith and believes that "there's a divinity that shapes our ends": he believes that redemption is possible and so does not fear the consequence of death. However in contrast Faustus finally acknowledges his hellish future and so becomes terrified of dying. A part of Faustus’ contract allows him to choose the date of his death and the inevitability causes him even greater despair. Faustus refuses to go easily to his death; he instead will have to be "fetched" by the devil. He is in deep despair, frantically worrying about the consequences of his deal and his fragmented speech indicates his distressed mental state. Faustus tries to delay his death in his final soliloquy, yet the pace and rhythm created by his monosyllabic words and repetition ironically hurries his death along.
Suicide is seen as possible alternative to the pains of life. Hamlet considers suicide as an option to end the suffering that he is experiencing, he talks about how he wants to melt out of his tarnished flesh and dissolve into vapour when he says “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” Here we see the clever use of near-homophones, “a dew” sounds like “adieu” which means “to God” – a final goodbye. Hamlet has an internal struggle in which he is saying how he wants to die but he is afraid of killing himself because he will be damned to hell, as he says, ‘Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d his canon ’gainst self-slaughter!’ Hamlet is worried what will happen in the afterlife, "an undiscovered country" which we know nothing about, he comments " to sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub" addressing his dismay at the potential horrors of the afterlife and so he decides to “bear those ills we have”. Shakespeare effectively employs blank verse and iambic pentameter to help emphasise certain words and themes. In the line “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” Shakespeare highlights the words he wants to stress (melt, thaw, resolve and dew). He implements a trochee at the start to reverse the first two words when he says “O, that this too….“ This draws the audience’s attention because they do not expect a line to begin with a stressed syllable, also underlining Hamlet’s despair as he says ‘O’, giving the sense of a despairing groan. Faustus also considers whether he should kill himself, he describes how "poison, guns, halters and envenomed steel" could end his inner torment. Faustus also chooses not to commit suicide because "sweet pleasure conquered deep despair": he loves the sensual pleasures so much that he can't kill himself.
The arguments above show that the protagonists' attitudes towards death and the afterlife change dramatically through the plays. Hamlet starts off with a fear of the unknown afterlife but becomes far more accepting of death – he sees that the justified revenge by killing his murderous uncle removes the risk of damnation. Once he knows of his uncle’s guilt he is held back by cowardice and some moral uncertainty before his final act. In contrast Faustus initially does not care about the terrors of hell and so makes a pact with the devil. However due to the surrender of his soul, Faustus later begins to greatly fear the horrors that await him after his death. The two plays are centred on death and the two characters’ obsession with it.