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Duty vs. Desire in Hamlet and Doctor Faustus

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Duty vs. Desire in Hamlet and Doctor Faustus – 1


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Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus deal with Man’s internal struggle between duty and desire in different contexts; the former in the context of family and politics, the latter in that of the medieval Christian worldvie

The conflict between duty and desire is a theme commonly found in literature of all genres. Even in his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul (arguably a repressed personality) laments: “For that which I do, I allow not; for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I” (Romans 7:15).

            Two famous plays of Elizabethan England – Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare and The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, both composed around the year 1600, explore this conflict between one’s personal desire and one’s duty to something greater, albeit in very different ways with characters with differing motivations.

In the case of the former, Hamlet must choose between personal vengeance and his duty as a prince to the people of Denmark; Doctor Faustus’ conflict is between his own ambition and lust for knowledge (as well as the power that comes with such knowledge) and his duty to God (or conscience). In both plays, the protagonists are presented with several opportunities to  change course, but fail to do so – with tragic results.

            In both stories, emotionalism trumps reason. The catalyst for Hamlet is the appearance of his slain father’s ghost, who informs him that he has been murdered and asks his son to avenge him. At this point, Hamlet is already mourning his father’s death, a sorrow compounded by the fact that his mother has married his paternal uncle Claudius – a person for whom he has little respect – far too soon:

                                   O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason,

                                               Would have mourn’d longer, married with mine uncle,

                                               My father’s brother; but no more like my father

                                               Than I to Hercules” (Act I , Scene 2)

Hamlet expresses his own desire to die, in conflict with God’s law, wishing that “that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” (Act I,  Scene 2). Later, when the ghost of his father asks him to avenge his death, Hamlet is presented with yet another conundrum; on the one hand, Hamlet would like nothing better than to put Uncle Claudius to death, but on the other hand, there is not only the Christian proscription against murder (particularly of a king, “God’s anointed”) but of the role in Danish society that he is expected to play – that of a royal prince and a noble.

            Small wonder that Hamlet felt conflicted.

            Unlike Hamlet, which dealt with politics and intrigue (it was written and performed shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth I and the accession to the throne of King James I, a transfer of power that while relatively peaceful and orderly, was not without controversy), Doctor Faustus is clearly a Christian “morality play,” more medieval in nature and tone than Renaissance.

            In many ways, the conflict between medieval culture – which placed God at the center of the universe – and that of the Renaissance, in which Man was “the measure of all things” – foreshadowed the current debate between conservative “Rapture Right” evangelicals who would see the Creationism taught in public schools and those who still acknowledge the validity of science. Early 20th-Century archaeologist and scholar R.M. Dawkins is frequently quoted as having described Doctor Faustus as

“the story of a Renaissance man who had to pay the medieval price for being one.”

            In the beginning of the play, Doctor Faustus realizes that he has gone as far with his studies as the “authorities” – i.e., God and those who believe they were qualified to speak for him – will allow, expressing his desire for more: “Necromantic books are heavenly; lines, circles, scenes, letters and characters, ay, these are those that Faustus most desires”  – in short, “a world of profit and delight, of power, of honor, of omnipotence” (Act I Scene 1).  Two angels – one “good” the other “evil” – enter. The former warns Faustus to “lay that damned book aside, and gaze not on it, lest it tempt thy soul,
and heap Gods heavy wrath upon thy head” (Act One, Scene I). Unlike the indecisive Hamlet, Doctor Faustus hardly hesitates; in a lengthy speech, Faustus ruminates on the power, riches and knowledge that will be his.

            Once upon their respective paths, Faustus and Hamlet proceed very differently. Hamlet, tormented by doubt and indecision, withdraws into himself, pretending to be insane. In a very real way, he is trapped in a “no-win” situation. If he does not avenge his father by slaying Claudius, he has betrayed the late and rightful king; on the other hand, if he assassinates Claudius, he has betrayed his family (by killing a kinsman) and his country (by assassinating the king). Ultimately, Hamlet decides that he must somehow prove – to himself if not to the nation – that Claudius is indeed an assassin and an illegitimate ruler. Although such evidence would be thrown out of any court of law, Hamlet plots to elicit a guilty response from Claudius by staging a recreation of a murder: “I’ll observe his looks…if he but blench, I know my course…the play ‘s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (Act II Scene 2).  Yet even after Hamlet gets the evidence he needs to justify killing his uncle and is provided with an opportunity to carry out the assassination, he again hesitates – this time, because King Claudius is at prayer in the chapel. To kill the king immediately after confession would insure his ascent to heaven. Instead, Hamlet decides to perform the deed “”when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed; at gaming, swearing, or about some act that has no relish of salvation in’t…that his soul may be as damn’d and black as hell, whereto it goes” (Act III, Scene 3).

            Doctor Faust experiences no such hesitation, despite the fact that Mephistopheles himself warns him of the consequences of pride and ambition: “Thinkst 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? O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands, which strike a terror to my fainting soul!” (Act  I, Scene 3). During the pact with Lucifer and throughout the story, Doctor Faustus is warned repeatedly and given the opportunity to repent – which, blinded by his own pride and ambition, he rejects.

            In the end of the Shakespeare play, Hamlet achieves his vengeance upon Claudius, though not in the way he expected – and at the cost of his own life. Through his own self-imposed isolation, internal emotional turmoil and indecisiveness, Hamlet has enabled Claudius to become aware of his knowledge of his father’s murder.  In the course of a fencing match, Hamlet is poisoned (as is Gertrude, albeit unintentionally); aware that he has only moments to live, Hamlet finally acts, stabbing Claudius.

            Hamlet’s decision to give into his desire for vengeance was made only when there were no other options available, but it brought about a resolution in the end. On the other hand, Faustus’ life with Mephistopheles as his personal servant turns out to be empty and meaningless; at the end of the 24 year contract with Lucifer, Doctor Faustus, despite having learned much about science and philosophy, has achieved nothing of importance nor created anything of value.  He has gained the power and knowledge he desired, but at the cost of his ambition; in the end, he is reduced to a side-show act, performing magic tricks. In a western Judeo-Christian context, it could be argued that without the blessings of God, his powers and knowledge were useless. In a more eastern Buddhist context, it might be said that for Faustus, the desire was more important and pleasurable than the actual thing itself – something that modern shopping addicts often learn too late.

            In both Hamlet and Doctor Faustus, we are given a glimpse at the internal struggle between “want” and “must.” We are also shown the consequences that can result when duty is abandoned for the fulfillment of what may be ultimately an unhealthy desire; Hamlet’s revenge came at the cost of his life and his nation; Faustus’ fulfillment (which ultimately failed to fulfill him) cost him his immortal soul.

            Both stories do suggest that one should be careful for what on wishes for, as the consequences of getting it can be significant – for good or ill.


Marlowe, Christopher (1604). The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. In Jump, John D. (Ed.)

            Doctor Faustus (pp. 69 – 147).  Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith, 1965

Shakespeare, William (ca. 1601). Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In Harbage, Alfred and Willard Farnham

            (Eds.), The Pelican Shakespeare (pp. 930 – 976). London: Penguin Books, 1969

Cite this Duty vs. Desire in Hamlet and Doctor Faustus

Duty vs. Desire in Hamlet and Doctor Faustus. (2016, Aug 09). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/duty-vs-desire-in-hamlet-and-doctor-faustus/

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