Ambition in Marlowe and Milton


Artwork: Gustave Dore, Satan, 1866

In Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and Milton’s Paradise Lost the theme of ambition is prominent and Marlowe’s successor, Milton, Neil Forsyth argues, was “no doubt thinking especially of Marlowe’s Protestant morality play, Doctor Faustus…” when writing Paradise Lost. I argue that whilst Satan perhaps presents a more compelling evocation of ambition through the exploration of his dynamic character, instead Faustus explores the traditional etymology of ambition in a more compelling way, especially when taking into account the author’s atheism in relation to the political and religious stereotypes of the period. 

by Alice Skelton 

The Renaissance pursued a range of cultural undertakings and its literature, whether artistic or polemical, exposed the alarming economic change ongoing in England. The anxiety about the ambitions of usurious profit was displaced onto the devil and the concept of capitalism was one likened to devilry. Developing on the writings from the anti-usurer writers I make the argument that the parallel between the concept of devilry and the ambitious profit of the early capitalists highlights the desire that the protagonists have for profit and gain while disadvantaging others. The protagonists show their ambition as a reflection of the anxious political climate in which anti-usurer writers, such as Blaxton, felt alarm and unease about the profit and gain of the ambitious capitalist. Indeed Blaxton stated that the devil is “the plaine image of usurers, who live by the sweate of other mens browes, and cunningly grow rich by undoing others”. This deprecating view from Blaxton cements the ideas of “ambition” in Paradise Lost because he illustrates that the self-interested ambition of the early usurers is equivalent to that of devilry – the protagonists could serve as a reflection of the anxieties surrounding the ideas of profit and gain because, arguably, they both seek their own gain at the expense of others. Here, the portrayal of early-capitalists as devils in the anti-usurer writings and the Capitalist devil in Paradise Lost and Dr Faustus show “the anxiety felt by the early modern subject experiencing the ill effects of emergent capitalism”. It is clear that in the case of both Hand and Blaxton the ambitions of Faustus and Satan are underlined as being political manifestations of the anxieties surrounding the emergence of Capitalism and this is shown first in Dr Faustus.

The scene most important to the ideas that Blaxton and Hand have put forward about Faustus (and, in the context of the ambitious seeking gain, Satan) as the early ambitious capitalist is the horse-courser scene. The ‘usurer’ is described as a “cozening scab” – through his own actions Faustus has grown rich by undoing others. Just like he has grown rich by undoing the horse-courser, so too has he become intellectually rich by undoing goodness and morality (he has embraced “hellish magic”). Faustus’s capitalistic desire for gain is represented in his fascination with “learning’s golden gifts”: here, not only does the adjective “golden” carry connotations of money and wealth but the noun “gifts” suggests a more defined link with the critical viewpoints put forward by Blaxton who likens the notion of Capitalist profit to devilry. As well as carrying connotations of money and wealth, Faustus was born “In Germany” and thus, the German noun “Gift” meaning “poison” shows more how negative and corrupted the views of Capitalist gain were – it suggests that ‘usurers’ were so devil-like that they would do anything for gain. However Faustus represents a far less compelling evocation of ambition than Satan here because he only uses his powers for crude “tricks” which shows his lack of drive and motivation to do anything ‘great’. 

This ambition for wealth (either intellectual, political or economical) has inter-textual reverberations in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Published in 1667 he is writing in a political milieu dominated by a Capitalist economy, trade, colonization and literature more focused on the dreams of empire. This has relevance to Dr Faustus in that the anxieties surrounding the politically dangerous ambitions of usury and the desire for gain were still rife after the first wave of global capitalist expansion in the West that ended in 1650. Milton’s Satan presents these imperial desires of expanding the empire as those focused entirely on damnation and coercion and Milton’s portrayal of the ambition to expand is presented as an infernal one. Satan is portrayed, like Faustus, as a representation of the bourgeois capitalism inherent in the Renaissance and there are many references in Paradise Lost as capitalising on commerce. In Books 1 and 2 the reader sees an extravagant depiction of Satan as a merchant – one capitalising on forbidden drugs: this is illustrated in the epic simile in Book 2 in which he is likened to an East Indian merchant. Just as the cynical view of Capitalism suggests, Satan brings in exotic goods for his own benefit and capitalises on other’s misery: the “Merchants bring/ Thir spicie Drugs”. However, I believe that Satan’s capitalist ambitions show most explicitly in his revocation of Beelzebub’s characterisation that the fallen Angels are to “[d]o his Errands” and instead he asserts his own leadership by saying that their duty “must be to pervert that end”. He uses the encompassing pronoun “Our” and the monosyllabic gerundive of obligation “must” to unite his subjects together with a sense of purpose. It is my view that Satan’s ambitions are highlighted in his command over the angels: they build Pandemonium and congregate around him as if he is their appointed leader – he is described as “great Sultan”, “Monarch” and “Prince.” Satan’s self-election presents him both as ‘slave owner’ and ‘king’. These titles show the fear of ultimate and unstoppable power: he is effectively replacing himself and his status with that of God and shows a more compelling contrast to that of Faustus who describes himself as “great emperor” but only “by Mephistopheles”. Satan’s ambition to supersede God and to capitalise on His own creation to do his bidding most assuredly has the anti-usurer echoes prevalent in the Renaissance and reminds the reader of the parallels drawn between the early capitalist and the devils in the earlier Faustus text. However the two protagonists contrast greatly in that Satan’s self-election as leader shows the greater sense of ambitious drive and power that undermines the rather child-like servility of Faustus’s under Mephistopheles. This, perhaps rather reductive Capitalist reading, easily could be argued against in the strain that both characters are simply representations of the “Renaissance Man” who, instead of seeking wealth for social or economic gain, desire instead the improvement of themselves by expanding on their intellectual, artistic and social development. 

The two protagonists show the extent of their ambition further with the challenge to God or religion: Faustus bypasses God with his necromancy and unfaltering fascination with hellish magic and says “Divinity Adieu!” whereas Satan believes it is better to “Reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” and rallies his troops to fight against God. This ambition to supersede religion shows the cultural dynamic between the Medieval and Renaissance world-views: the forming of the ‘Renaissance Man’ and its developing lack of independence on God is highlighted by Vo’s claim that the fall of both Faustus and Satan serves as a response against the “[R]enaissance spirit, which endorses no limits, traditions or authorities in the quest for power, knowledge and wealth” which draws significant attention to their human condition. Their focus on the act of rebellion, especially Satan’s says C. S. Lewis, is determined by the parameters of God’s reign and thus submits to an external authority. However, I refute these views and argue instead that the ambition of Satan serves as a perfect representation of the Renaissance spirit and a far less compelling expression of ambition because he attempts to form himself outside of religion and, although his existence is defined by God, there are instances of his being utterly alone whereas Faustus interacts with Mephistopheles – a creature of God. This reading of the protagonists as artistic individuals forging new paths away from the overarching narrative of control allows for a more profound reading and a celebration of man himself but allows also for a stark dichotomy between Faustus and Satan.

In its traditional etymology Faustus makes a far more compelling display of “ambition” than Satan. Nietzsche put forward a case that without God, one has to forge his own morality through the indulgence and effulgence of art – this is a morally and artistically ambitious task and one I think identified greatly in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. In this Nietzschean sense, Faustus presents a more traditional evocation of ambition than Satan – his ambition exposes his weakness and sycophancy: he desires “famous art[s]”, “honour” and “wealth” for illusory, crude magics. Having initially disregarded God and religion, preferring magic to his “chiefest bliss”, Faustus displaces his infatuation onto another; he has exchanged one master for another, and Faustus’ pride does not allow him to be aware of this. He has become as base as his “servile spirits”. Faustus exposes his lack of Renaissance spirit and is essentially passed from one master to the next – he does not forge his own path and break away from God because he enters the certainty of devilry: in essence, the devils are linked inextricably to the God from whom Faustus wants to escape. Mephistopheles refers to Him as “our God” and conjures up certainty in the audience’s mind: either there are “ten thousand hells” or “everlasting bliss”, but both are reigned by God. Thus, the fairly derisive “[B]y him I’ll be great emperor of the world” illustrates not only how Faustus seeks to gain things to ridicule others (as emphasised in the Pope scene) expressed by overreaching desire but also how blind Faustus is. With the use of the “by” preposition Marlowe shows the dependence Faustus has on Lucifer – by rejecting God, he is embracing Sin but he is not free. His ambition serves to expose his weak character: where there is Hell, there is Heaven and where there is Heaven there is God.  It is evident in Faustus’s rejection of “Divinity” and his lack of belief in Hell            (even after being vehemently assured by Mephistopheles of its existence) that his ambition for gain outweighs his sensibilities; Faustus is so overcome with ambition that he rejects the traditional religion of the Medieval period and through the blindness of the Renaissance spirit, denies the existence of Hell altogether.

As such, in this Nietzschean sense of cultivating freedom and artistic and intellectual pursuits, I argue that Satan presents a far less compelling evocation of the traditional etymology of ambition with his direct knowledge and appraisal of God – contrasted to the flippant ignorance from Faustus. Satan almost adopts an existential dynamic to his character and forms his ‘self’ in “Hell”. He does not conform to the Medieval religious roles of submission to God and does not take Faustus’s solace in religion. The forging of the intellectual Renaissance spirit of freedom away from the overarching narratives of Medieval Religion and the exploration of self is shown in Satan’s claim that “(T)he mind is its own place, and in it self/ Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n” which highlights ambition as being dependent on the sense of “self” and indeed the poet’s ambition is exposed here through the natural stresses of the iambic pentameter; “its” and “self” are highlighted as important to forging one’s own independent narrative. Further the use of the possessive “own” coupled with the chiastic structure of “Heav’n of Hell, (a) Hell of Heav’n” shows that Satan attempts to wrench away from the dominion of God and, ambitiously, forge his own existence in his ‘mind’ as contrasted with Faustus’ pact with Mephistopheles. The mutability of the sentence shows the contrast between this Medieval and Renaissance view of religion with the use of the genitive: cleverly, Milton manipulates the structure of the sentence. First, the use of the dependence on Hell questions the beliefs of the Medieval period, no matter the metaphorical, linguistic meaning: it is the grammatical dependence of Heaven on Hell that Milton uses to show the excessive pride and ambition of Satan’s. Satan embraces the terrifying parameters outside God’s reign, when “[I]nto this wild Abyss the warie fiend/ Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while”. As opposed to the intermingling grammatical comfort of the chiasmus, the Abyss shows the uncertainty of his task and Hell’s “brink” shows wavering fear. His is a world without God; a world of “self” – God is dead. 

Finally, perhaps the most crucial factor in exploring the ambition in both texts is the author itself. The ambitions of Satan and Faustus are underscored by the titanic literary ambitions of Marlowe and Milton who both attended Cambridge and were considered to be of formidable intellect and ambition. This excessive ambition is shown first in Paradise Lost through Milton’s narration developing from in medias res to a metrically disobedient opening. Through Milton’s first line “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit” the poet shows, with his jarring use of the anapest in the first two syllables, the ambitious project he is embarking upon. He is opposing an implicit law in poetic metre by contradicting the iambic pentameter and forcing the reader to stress the adjective “first” and its monosyllabic structure and harsh consonants demand emphasis. Milton’s rebellion against the metrical rhythm reflects the arrogance implicit in his invocatio and his ambitious use of ‘first” powerfully implies his “originality” – he is competing with the Classical epics from Virgil and Homer by setting up comparisons with Odysseus, Achilles and Aeneas by comparing the loss of Paradise to the sack of Troy and composing something “unattempted yet”. He then increases this competition with the repetition of “man” (nodding here to Virgil’s “arma virumque cano” and Homer’s “ἄνδρα”) indicating a departure from regular pagan epic poetry and signalling his towering ambition: he expresses that his epic is higher than any pagan tradition and acknowledges that he has mastered the Classical genre and indeed, improved it. Thus, the ambitious desires that permeate the character of Satan could have some relevance when de-constructing the author itself, indeed John Leonard interprets that “Paradise Lost is, among other things, a poem about civil war”. Developing on this view, the text could be read as a political allegory: Satan’s ambitious attempts to urge the angels into war and his rebellion against God parallels Milton’s attempts to rouse support for a Cromwellian government and rebellion against a too-powerful ruler and such Professor Jackie Eales asks whether “Cromwell is Satan?” 

The notion of social mobility pervades Marlowe’s plays which shows, in the same way that Milton seeks to surpass the Classical hierarchy, his ambition regarding his own historical context. The presentation of Faustus as being “base of stock” and making his ambitious adventure onto necromancy could allude to Marlowe’s own upbringing as the son of a shoemaker and making his own ambitious adventure eventually to spying for the Queen. As   outlined by Huntington “Doctor Faustus shows Marlowe’s…social aspiration most intricately” in Faustus’ desire for “cunning” : in the 1500s, the status in which one was   born determined one’s political, social and cultural successes; as Huntington states “poor scholars who know that wit is the key to any kind of realistic social success, ask for a practical talent…”. This view from Huntington outlines the uncertainty regarding a more compelling expression of ambition because through this “practical talent” (cunning) Faustus makes a mockery of ambition. He abuses his power of ‘learning’ and subsequently ridicules it.  However, Marlowe’s own ambition and desire for knowledge shows in Faustus’s language: he assumes the dialectic of his noble superiors by integrating his work (and Fall) with symbols and themes from Classical mythology – the text is steeped in Classical allusions from Icarus’s “waxen wings” to references to ‘Helen” which serves as a nod to Milton’s references of his “heavenly Muse”. Because ambitious Classical references permeate both texts it is interesting to see that both of these classical figures inspire a ‘Fall’ that serves as an ironic parallel to the authors’ ‘Rise’ in status. Mythologically, Icarus was destroyed by his ambition and Helen is described as “brighter” than “flaming Jupiter” when he appeared to “hapless Semele”. This ambitious task is paralleled in the interaction that Faustus, and Satan, have with God. However I argue that Marlowe, through Faustus, presents a more compelling evocation of ambition using the disdain Faustus has regarding religion and morality to highlight his own avowed atheism. Faustus is adamant that “the devil draws in [his] tears” and through this determination to accept the Devil, Faustus exposes his lack of faith in God: after he is told to “look up to heaven” and “remember mercy is infinite” he undermines God’s power by saying that his offence cannot be “pardoned”. This provides detailed analysis into the ambitions of Faustus – even now he still does not recognise God’s might. Thus, I assert that Marlowe’s presentation of Faustus is more compelling to a contemporary audience because it highlights the political backdrop and shows how revolutionary Marlowe’s ‘atheism’ was with regard to society. Lack of belief in God and the Church translated to rejection of the monarch and such, ‘atheism’ was almost equivalent to treason; Elizabeth I attempted to curb atheism. Thus, Faustus’s aim to reject God could be a political and religious commentary on the lack of religion in the developing word and indeed, could have much more relevance with a modern audience of which belief in God is scant.

It is clear that whilst the portrayal of the devils in both texts as a representation of the anxieties regarding Capitalism and profit-making is compelling and an area in which Satan is far more interesting than Faustus I argue against this rather reductionist reading and instead believe that the Nietzschean view of both heroes is more evocative of ambition. I embrace the ambiguities surrounding the term “ambition” and state that in a sycophantic way (and with regard to a modern audience) Faustus represents greater ambition. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s