The mythical figure of Icarus has served as a parable of the dangers of excessive ambition and disregard for the laws of nature. Ascending the heavens with his waxen wings, Icarus ventures too near the Sun, only to have the heat melt the wings and cause him to plummet to Earth. In the opening of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe’s protagonist, the learned academician whose desire to attain infinite knowledge leads to a fateful pact with the Devil, the Chorus describes Faustus has born of simple means (“his parents base of stock”) who nevertheless achieves great success in the world of scholarship (“The fruitful plot of scholarism grac'd,That shortly he was grac'd with doctor's name . . .”), only to allow his obsession with knowledge and power to plant the seeds of his ultimate demise. In referencing the myth of Icarus, Marlowe’s Chorus announces:
“Till swoln with cunning,5 of a self-conceit, His waxen wings did mount above his reach, And, melting, heavens conspir'd his overthrow; For, falling to a devilish exercise, . . .”
In his tale of a Scottish general whose encounter with witches foretells his ascendancy to the throne and subsequent demise, Shakespeare has similarly – in a story written in roughly the same time-frame as that in which Marlowe is estimated to have penned Dr. Faustus, warned of the dangers of ambition and conceit. The figure of Macbeth, like Dr. Faustus, makes deals and conspires to remove obstacles to his ascendancy and, in the process, sacrifices his soul for dreams of infinite wealth and power. If their motives differ slightly, one is a scholar desiring greater knowledge, the other a military officer driven to usurp the throne, their ambitions lead both men to their destruction.
The plots of Dr. Faustus and Macbeth are inseparable from the main characters; both tales are titled for their protagonists, and both protagonists provide the basis for the stories told. Both characters are human, and their excesses fall within the realm of the believable. History is full of individuals whose thirst for power led to devastation and, ultimately, their own destruction, and many an audience can identify with the ambitions of these two literary figures, especially with Macbeth, whose encounters with witches are less fantastic than Faustus’ encounters with Mephistopheles. Furthermore, neither figure seeks redemption at the end. Macbeth’s regrets upon learning of his wife’s death and of the approaching English armies is less one of new-found moralism and more one of regret over misinterpretations of prophesies:
“Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
In the end, Macbeth realizes that he has misinterpreted what the witches foresaw. This is not quite the same as Faustus’ conflicted nature, as Good and Evil Angels pull him in opposite directions and Faustus contemplates the practical utility of repentance (“contrition, prayer, repentance – what of them?”). In the end, both die horrible deaths. At least with Faustus, there is a sense of a human struggling with the forces of good and evil; with Macbeth, there is only the lust for power, and a sense of miscalculation. Dr. Faustus, perhaps, could be considered a “tragic hero”; Macbeth, on the hand, is merely a tragic figure.