Shakespeare and Marlowe: The flouting of magic and genre

The timeless appeal of Shakespeare’s plays may owe their popularity to his apparent lack of interest in maintaining genre. His plays appear to reject the blasé conventions, as reality does more often than not, that plagued his contemporaries as well as the popular film, literature, and theatre of our current era. However, I would argue on the contrary that Shakespeare is, in fact, hyper-aware of genre, even though he does not seek to maintain it. Shakespeare’s plays have a certain self-awareness of the audience’s expectations as formed by maintained genre, which he flouts to great effect – exceeding and playing with expectations. In comparison, Marlowe treads closer to accepted genres of Elizabethan England.  The Tempest and The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus written by Shakespeare and Marlowe respectively can be used to compare their use of genre. These two plays have several parallels between them in theme, character, and dramatic devices.

The Tempest is the story of a ‘white magician’ who uses his power for good and then eventually renounces his “art”, whereas Dr Faustus features a black magician that uses his magic for ultimately selfish reasons, makes a deal with the devil to attain them in the first place and finally fails to renounce them before his soul is sent to hell. There is another inverse relation between the plays with Shakespeare naming his magus Prospero, which is an Italian translation of “favoured one” which Faustus is as translated from Latin. However, the difference between the two plays is far deeper than a simply black and white or binary relationship. There is no devil to make deals within The Tempest, Christianity is distinctively absent from the play, whereas in Dr Faustus it contributes to the entire moral code that Faustus fails to live by hence serves as the justification for his tragic fate. As Bloom states in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, “A distinction between white and black magic is not crucial; an art, Prospero’s, is opposed to the sale and fall of a soul” as Faustus’s soul is (Bloom 1998). The tale of Faustus’ damnation is a well known one, but The Tempest does not fit into the template of being a comedic version of Marlowe’s tragedy.

The points of difference are more numerous than their similarities so I will begin with the latter. Both Prospero and Faustus have otherworldly servants that can do their bidding without the restrictions of by laws of physics. Although seemingly reflective of their master’s dispositions both Prospero’s Arial and Faustus’ Mephistopheles are ambivalent in their nature. Arial appears to be a pleasant and airy spirit, but he only does what he is commanded to do and no further than that. It seems almost suspicious, or at least worth noting, that when Prospero remembers the “Foul conspiracy of the beast Caliban and his confederates against my life. The minute of their plot is almost come.” Arial is nowhere to be seen or heard, and so it appears that the small amount of autonomy that Arial has is not directed to the wellbeing of his master.

Mephistopheles’ ambivalence comes from a subverted pity that he may hold for Faustus. Although he openly admits that “For, when we hear one rack the name of God, abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ, we fly in hope to get his glorious soul” he later tells Faustus later how regretful he feels about his own damnation, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God, and tasted the eternal joys of heaven, am not tormented with ten thousand hells in being deprived of everlasting bliss?” (after which Mephistopheles even goes onto overtly warn his master against his pride that will lead to damnation, begging him, ”O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands, which strike a terror to my fainting soul.” (3.76–86). In both these instances, the servants of the magicians have subverted the audience’s expectations, though Arial remains slightly more ambivalent.

A major point of difference between the plays is their conclusions, which have a larger effect on the audience’s conception of genre than any other component of a narrative. Does the hero win, kill the dragon and rescue princess? Or does the hero kill the dragon realise that through hubris he himself has become a dragon, has been imprisoning the princess the whole time and now must fall upon the sword? The differences between comedy and tragedy are not as simple as I’ve outlined here but there is a marked difference between the fates of Prospero and Dr Faustus. Although both contain elements of comedy that are placed throughout the story, such as the escapades of Trinculo and Stephano or the shenanigans that Faustus pulls on the Pope. The comedic scenes break up narratives and give the audience relief from the tension of previous scenes, though as we experience them we never lose sight of the impending threats that carry on underneath them – Caliban’s plot and Faustus’ inner torment for his own soul. Though we know The Tempest to be closer to the conventional definition of a comedy as Prospero concludes the play by renouncing his art “after various supplantings, serious and comic, accomplished or merely projected, all true kings are restored and all false ones dethroned.” (Reuben 1971). Though I disagree with Reuben that “the two continuities, sovereignty-conspiracy and slavery-freedom” are completely resolved, as Caliban’s fate is relatively unknown, being kept on the island and I am sceptical about Prospero being truly happy as king of Naples, a position he had already neglected in the past (1971). The conclusion of Dr Faustus has a relatively neater ending, with Faustus being carried off down to hell, having not repented until the demons are actually upon after which he calls out, “Ugly hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer! I’ll burn my books” (13.57–113). And with his final words we can find another parallel that Shakespeare has left for with Prospero’s words as he renounces his magic as he vows, “I’ll break my staff, bury it certain fathoms in the earth, and deeper than did ever plummet sound I’ll drown my book.” The final comment swearing to drown his book being an elemental inversion of Faustus’ to burn his.

Dr Faustus is confined by its narrative structure and thus Marlowe is forced to contain the more interesting tangents of the story to the middle of the play. The scenes in the Vatican and in discussions with Mephistopheles are engaging and often thought-provoking.


“The reward of sin is death? That’s hard.

Si peccasse negamus, fallimur, et nulla est in nobis veritas.

If we say that we have no sin,

We deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us.

Why then belike we must sin,

And so consequently die.”


Dr Faustus expresses these thoughts just after the characters and foundations of the story have been established and they go beyond the rigid constraints of set by the mythological Faustian bargain trope. In those words, we can see the beginnings of a new construction, a concept that would be completely unknown in both Marlowe and Shakespeare, the first conceptions of a Renaissance scientist. Marlowe’s Faustus represents a tension of the Elizabethan period as the population began to rely more on natural philosophy and sciences through their sense than on the doctrine of the church. Faustus represents the prideful man who seeks knowledge for knowledge’s own sake and seeks it beyond the church and beyond all conceivable morals. The rationale of Faustus, as shown in the previous quotation, is an example of the narrative taking a discursive tangent out of the play’s genre by giving Faustus a point, which I believe adds greatly to his tragedy. In his quest to raise himself above mortal powers, and disrupting the divine hierarchy of nature as created by God. He sacrifices his place in heaven to have power on Earth and in a world where there is no faith but faith in empiricism, which isn’t really faith at all, this is a rational decision. But in the world Dr Faustus inhabits, devils are real and magic so is magic, as it was believed to be in Elizabethan England at that time, and so this argument is weakened and Marlowe’s imaginative flight into a world of philosophical thought and discussion is weighed down by the fetters of genre.

However, The Tempest succeeds where Marlowe falls short. Prospero fits the role of a renaissance scientist far better than Faustus. While Faustus deals in black magic, Prospero leans more towards the elements and hermetic manipulation of his environment. His command of the elements is embodied in his loyal and not so loyal servants, Arial, representing air and water, while Caliban represents earth and fire. As Kearney states, “Prospero is the ideal type of the Hermetic scientist, bringing justice and peace to a disturbed world” through his art which he seeks to do no harm with, as he states at the beginning of the play. There is also the context of the play to consider in which Galileo plays a considerable part due the period in which The Tempest was performed in 1611 which coincides “in England’s history with unusually rich in scientific interest. During this period, Galileo’s Siderieus nuncius reached London, along with his book Conversations with Galileo which was published in 1610” (Mowat).

The Tempest has often been a difficult play for neo-classical critics to analyse because of its meandering plot and its loose tie to the comedic narrative structure. The most obvious evidence to this point is that “the play is fundamentally plotless; its one outer event is the magically induced storm of the first scene, which rather oddly gives the play its title” (Bloom 1998). I would argue this point even further and also say that it is not odd because the first scene essentially tells us all we need to know about Prospero when we first are introduced to him. He is a learned man that is in the process of leaving behind knowledge for wisdom, this is the process which forms his character arc. The arc is complete, of course by the reconciliation, and the “topsy-turvy” nature of the play has rendered the hierarchy of nature back into order, and the relationships of the play into reconciliation. But like Dr Faustus what occurs in between is a tangent that goes behind even Marlowe’s best efforts in its exploratory events that, for example, open some of Shakespeare’s greatest poetry through the free bird Arial – and other literary efforts that are momentarily freed from constraints of genre. In this regard, Shakespeare again builds upon Marlowe’s work, to which we must give credit, though also note that Shakespeare has the advantage of being post-Marlowian whereas Marlowe is at a severe disadvantage at having been stabbed to death years earlier. Perhaps if Marlowe lived as long as the Bard we could have seen the two of them compete and fly even higher from the prison of genre, battling and playing with tropes and audience expectations, even if their ascension from genre ended in an hubristic and fiery failure like the tragedy of Icarus and Daedalus – it would nonetheless be a glorious sight on page and upon the stage.



Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Riverhead Books, 1998.

Kearney, James. The incarnate text: imagining the book in Reformation England. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

Mowat, B. A. Prospero and the renaissance scientist. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1981.

Reuben A. Brower. The Mirror of Analogy. Penguin Books, 1971.

Shakespeare, William, et al. The Tempest. Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2006.

Written in response to prompt: 

Critics would complain about Shakespeare’s apparent lack of interest in maintaining genre. Do the plays exploit the constraints of genre, ignore them, or explore them?
Compare Faustus and The Tempest in this regard.

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