Renaissance Term Paper

Compare and contrast William Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus taking into account the following aspects:
1. Conventions of the genre
2. Shared socio-economic and cultural milieu

3. Authorial specificities

Shakespeare’s As You Like It, though predominantly a Comedy in genre, can be said to have other tags like Pastoral, or Romance. Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, on the other hand, is a clear Tragedy; but similarly, can be tagged as a historical allegory, a morality play, or under the ‘creation-of-a-monster’ sub-genre; a hero gone bad due to the restrictions placed on him by the world and era he lives in.

The genres of Comedy and Tragedy are part of traditions and conventions that can be traced back to classical times and the history of drama does not show any direct link of survival from ancient Greece to Elizabethan England.

The very fact that tragedy and comedy reassert themselves after long burial indicates that something persistent in Western civilization demands those particular forms of representation.”1

These genres were defined and theorized in a very limiting and schematic way, the most basic being that Comedies are fictional plots while the plots of Tragedies have a historical context behind them. Other conventions of both the genres include the problems and outcomes of these plays. While comedies have small-scale problems and peaceful outcomes, Tragedies move in a trajectory from prosperity to calamity and can be considered as rejections of life. In the comic world, a seemingly-fixed reality is proved to be changeable.

Shakespeare’s comedies have been seen to have deep roots in festivals, and merriment; including song-and-dance. Courtship and multiple marriages in the end are staple activities. Disguises and the upending of the questionable authority of temporary, villainous and tyrannous Kings are some other elements. These have very effectively been included to great success in As You Like It, rendering it a classic comedy.

Comedy can be said to be the rise of an individual from misery to prosperity and bliss, while tragedy is the downfall or death of a noble and powerful figure with a fatal flaw. In both genres, the protagonist(s) undergo trials and tribulations. These ordeals destroy the tragic hero, while the characters in the comedy emerge as better people. Aristotle defined tragedy as being serious and dignified, the plot causing a ruinous reversal of fortune. Another difference between these two genres is that a comedy usually has many sub-plots interwoven in the plot, while tragedy has one, single plot which follows an inevitable path, the inevitability being extremely clear in Dr. Faustus.

Shakespeare, while mixing genres, seems to suggest the same inevitability in life through As You Like It, though it is a comedy. Through Jacques’ famous monologue, the metaphor which connects life to a stage can be interpreted to say that if our ‘scripts’ are already written, our destinies are fixed.

All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts”

Renaissance thought suggests that satire and comedy has a curative function. Clearly, in As You Like It, Rosalind’s quick wit and sarcasm ‘cures’ the various pairs of lovers in the play, including herself and Orlando of the pain of unreciprocated love.

Regarding the sub-genre of Pastoral, As You Like It does not adhere to it completely. Though the main pastoral fantasy is incorporated (that nature can completely and magically heal the wounds which the city life of corruption, power-struggles and hierarchy inflict), the play accepts that The Forest of Arden cannot be called the perfect place to live in; it is not Utopian. It seems that Shakespeare is mocking the inability of the conventions of the pastoral love genre to address real issues. He clearly is dissatisfied with this conventional ideology.

This is not to say that the play rejects the significance of the pastoral as a symbol; what it rejects is the naive belief in the pastoral fiction as an attainable ideal in life.” 3

Renaissance conventions of the pastoral theme suggest that the forest and the court are extreme polarities (as is apparent in another play of Shakespeare’s- A Midsummer night’s Dream). This is accepted by the play, but it is also implied that one cannot exist without the other. The court is necessary for the completion of the forest in many ways, both realistic and literary. To dramatize the overwhelming change that the Forest brings to the characters, it is imperative that the evil moral values of the court are highlighted. Hence, we see the importance of the plot technique: after the wedding festivities, we are also told that Duke Frederick has undergone a complete and positive transformation on entering Arden. Pastoral conventions suggested love-lorn figures. These can be seen in the characters of Silvius and Phebe, but their role is minimal.

“’Pastoral’ is a force, a principle which should be part of one’s life although it is not life.”4

The pastoral is never an end in itself. It is only a temporary refuge.”5

Written in 1599, As You Like It reflects the Elizabethan obsession with the pastoral as a Utopian concept. By using pastoral as a theme in many of his comedies, Shakespeare gave a profound extension to the genre.

Shakespeare’s involvement with the pastoral reflects the Elizabethan pre-occupation with shepherds and shepherdesses. On one level, he doubtless employed pastoral to exploit a taste that was current in his day.”6

The most obvious impact of Renaissance thought on As You Like It was pastoral lifestyle. Animal and farm imagery is used at various points; the majority of the action in the play happens in a forest and the Forest of Arden plays as great a role as any of the lead characters.
“The Forest of Arden is not the idyllic, romanticized, innocent place typical of pastoral tradition, but a neutral space that allows dominant ideologies to be questioned simply because it is free of all socio-political constructions”

In the Elizabethan age, the pastoral life became sought after by a section of aristocracy which yearned for a more peaceful life with ‘simple pleasures’, far away from the daily struggles of court politics. So, pastoral literature was used to express disgust with the court.

Also, the concept of primogeniture (the special privileges of inheritance of the eldest son), which was prevalent in the Elizabethan era, has found its way into the plot as a societal problem. Though Shakespeare refuses to address it directly or even acknowledge it as a problem, it makes up for a major part of the tension in the play: the ‘culturally charged sibling conflict over primogeniture in Renaissance England’8.

Another major Elizabethan issue is related to that of the character of Rosalind and the cross-dressing, trans-sexuality, and elements of homoeroticism present in her activities as the play proceeds. If we consider that a boy must have played the character of Rosalind in the Renaissance age, we see that her character has many layers. She is a male person acting on stage as female, who then cross-dresses and asks Orlando to pretend she is female.

In the Elizabethan age, a great deal of importance was given to the external markers of gender, mainly clothing. So, social order was confused by cross-dressing.
“Cross dressing was a common phenomenon practiced on stage as well as by the commoners in real life.”

By cross-dressing and performing as Ganymede for most of the play, Rosalind challenges normative behavior for women, as dress was a means of maintaining differences in sex and hierarchy in the society and culture of the Elizabethan Era. The change of dress provides her with a lot of opportunities denied to her gender otherwise.

Furthermore, women in Elizabethan England were confined to fixed roles and were thought of as obedient and subservient. Rosalind, along with Celia, defies this too, by refusing to obey Duke Frederick’s orders and their self-imposed exile to the Forest of Arden. The fact that Rosalind also goes against the courtly love tradition of the suitor wooing the female by wooing Orlando can also be seen as radical. In this respect, both the plays in question can be seen as attempts to be controversially different. While Rosalind is the daredevil in As You Like It, Marlowe borders on outrageous by introducing the Seven Deadly Sins as characters in Dr. Faustus.

Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus follows all the conventions of the genre; it has a protagonist who is accomplished and talented, but makes a wrong decision, a pact with the devil, and his downfall is plotted accordingly.

Elizabethan orthodoxy, however would argue otherwise by saying that Faustus was damned from the very start, and he never had a choice.

It would regard Faustus, not as damned because he makes a pact with the devil, but as making a pact with the devil because he is already damned.” 10

This is one of the major debates revolving around the play, another being the question of whether its comic scenes were authored by Marlowe himself or they were only added to captivate the audience, should serious plot be too boring for them.

There is no debate over the fact that Dr. Faustus is a tragedy. Nevertheless, there are comic scenes at the end of every act. Moreover, these scenes have all the traditional aspects of comedy: clowns, crude buffoonery and mimicry, similar in most aspects to the comedy in As You Like It. Robin, in Dr. Faustus, seems to anticipate Touchstone in As You Like It.

Though all of his dramatic works were tragedies or histories, Marlowe introduced comic scenes and characters that were forerunners to the Shakespearean comedies.”11

The question is that of authorship. It is possible that Marlowe had someone else write the scenes for the play to keep up with the taste of the audience of the time, seeing that he disapproved of comic interludes intervening with tragedy in his play Tamburlaine’s prologue, where he scorns comic interludes because they hamper with tragic dignity.

From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We’ll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threatening the world with high astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword

The comic scenes, however, do seem to have a specific role to play and they enhance the irony of Faustus’ actions and deeds in the serious parts of the text. And it is seen that as Elizabethan theatre matured, the process of mixing kings and clowns was taken to new levels of sophistication.

Morality plays were prevalent in the generation before Marlowe, but they were still popular during his time. In Dr. Faustus, through various characters, Marlowe introduces elements of the Morality play. Mainly there is the psychomachia brought in by the Good Angel and the Bad Angel. The Good Angel constantly pleads with him to repent for his sins, trying to make him believe that there is always hope for sinners, hence representing Faustus; Medieval instincts, his only doorway to salvation.

The Bad Angel, however, represents the Renaissance, nudging him towards further damnation. It caters to Faustus’s thirst for superior knowledge and learning by telling him that ‘all nature’s treasure is contained’ in his books and that Faustus could be ‘Lord’ and ‘commander’ of these elements of he went ahead and meddled with the dark arts. Both the angels seem to represent the conflict which was present in the society in the Elizabethan era.

Faustus is said to be a “Renaissance man who had to pay the medieval price for being one.”13

Faustus, with his extraordinary skill in astronomy, medicine, and divinity, is the classic “Renaissance Man” who defies medieval belief that the Great Chain of Being prohibits him from having high ambitions of becoming as great as the angels. The Renaissance “produced a discernible increase in individualism”14. Faustus embodies the philosophies of Renaissance humanists, who appreciated individualism and scientific achievement, where humans made choices which led them towards their fate. By the end of the Renaissance, due to the Protestantism, humans were allowed to have direct connections to God, to the extent that they could reject the presence of God if they wished. As in the play, in Faustus once proclaims, “Divinity, adieu!”, thus refusing any need for a higher power to lead him in life.

There are also the additional characters of an Old Man, who in later scenes, like the Good Angel, requests him to ‘stay thy desperate steps’, convincing him that he sees an angel over his head, who will forgive Faustus if he repents. The Seven Deadly Sins, on the other hand, are summoned by Lucifer and the other devils, to delight Faustus into forgetting about his moment of weakness where he almost decides to ask for forgiveness.

To say that Doctor Faustus can be read as the tragedy of a creative mind destroying itself in fascination with the esoteric is not to make of the play a secularized Christian allegory.”15

It is difficult to accurately figure out what Marlowe’s stance was on Faustus’ deeds in his play. He is definitely not condemning him completely, but at the same time, the play seems to be a warning to the over-ambitious. Maybe, then, Dr. Faustus is best understood as “Not an affirmation of Divine Law, or conversely of Renaissance Man, but an exploration of subversion through transgression.”16

Throughout the play, we see Faustus as a strong-willed person, who simply refutes the existence of Heaven and Hell. He is courageous and has a sense of purpose in life, every action of his, though leads him to eternal damnation, is after all a personal choice; made with careful consideration. He does not seem like a tragic hero in the course of the play. He actually restores a rightful Pope, entertains royalty, and gets away from swindling people easily; which is nowhere tragic. The end, however, is what makes him a tragic hero. Seen repenting, and desperate for salvation, Faustus’ last cry for help indicates that he died unhappy; representing the impossible conflict revealed in the hero’s situation, and that is what makes for tragedy. In this respect, we can view Faustus as a version of sacrifice on the part of the people of an era, representing ‘a contradiction in the culture’s agreed way of perceiving reality’17.

Marlowe has been given tributes by many people after his death, including Shakespeare himself in As You Like It. Phebe is give a line from Marlowe’s Hero and Leander,

Dead shepherd now I find thy saw of might:
Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?”

Touchstone is given the dialogue -“When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room”, which can be a reference to the circumstances of Marlowe’s death.

It is not only proved that Marlowe, his characters, plots, blank verse and diction have had a huge influence on Shakespeare’s works, but there is also a theory which suggests that Marlowe’s death was faked and he was the actual author behind all the works credited to William Shakespeare, called the ‘Marlovian Theory’.

But Marlowe had a distinctive style of his own too. Alan Sinfield, in his essay ‘Reading Faustus’ God’ says that the B-text of Dr, Faustus has additions which only highlight the polarity of the stance that the author has on Faustus. “Both the Reformation god and a more genial alternative are presented more vividly”, he says. He feels that the possibility that Marlowe was just writing the play to embarrass protestant doctrine fits well into the sense most readers have of him as an author, contrary to William Empson’s view that the additions are ‘sadistic’ and ‘untypical of Marlowe’.

To conclude, Marlowe and Shakespeare both create two very different texts in the form of Dr. Faustus and As You Like It, but they are both similar in inconspicuous ways. They both attempt to create something different, they both cross boundaries and try mixing up genres and their conventions. Through their works, whether comic or tragic, they comment on the mindsets and notions of the Elizabethan era, though they don’t necessarily demand a radical change in the system or society. Their plays were written in the same era and had the same people as their audience, and though they have radically different plots, they both catered well to them. It’s also apparent that from the wide range of thoughts prevalent in the Renaissance, both plays have picked up very different themes and issues to talk about, and both authors have treated these issues in their respective manners. The conventions of their specific genres, however, do restrict both the works to the extent to which they can talk about these themes. Shakespeare cannot talk about serious issues or ask them to be tackled in As You Like It, and Marlowe cannot be too explicit in his satire on the strict religious orthodoxy in Dr. Faustus.

1 Robert N. Watson, A theory of Renaissance tragedy: Dr. Faustus.

2 William Shakespeare, As You Like It.

3 Albert R. Cirillo, Pastoralism Gone Awry.

4 Ibid.

5 Abhimanyu Singh, Unmasking the pastoral.

6 Thomas McFarland, Shakespeare’s Pastoral Comedy

7 Vinita Chandra, Introduction to As You Like It

8 Andrew Barnaby, The political conscious of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

9 Payal Khanna, Gender and Identity in As You Like It.

10Alan Sinfield, Reading Faustus’ God.


12 Christopher Marlowe, Prologue to Tamburlaine.

13 R.M. Dawkins

14 Robert N. Watson, A Theory of Renaissance Tragedy: Dr. Faustus.

15 Robert Ornstein, The Comic Synthesis in Dr. Faustus.

16 Jonathan Dollimore, Dr. Faustus(c. 1589-92): Subversion through Transgression

17 Robert N. Watson, A Theory of Renaissance Tragedy: Dr. Faustus.



2 Responses to “Compare and contrast William Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus”

  1. N. Darnoc Says:

    why you cannot come closer to the idea that Christopher Marlowe was the real Shakespeare?
    If you are interested I can send you my book (as a pdf file via drop box):
    “The real Shakespeare Christopher Marlowe”
    ISBN: 3865203744

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