Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus is usually considered one of the first and one of the greatest tragedies of the English Renaissance. One later play that lends itself to interesting comparisons and contrasts with Marlowe’s play is William Shakespeare’s Othello. Among the points of comparison and contrast between the two plays are the following:
- Faustus is immediately and obviously full of pride; by contrast, Othello initially seems remarkably humble. Othello, one might therefore argue, is much more of a tragic figure than Faustus. Faustus’s tragedy is predictable by the end of the very first scene; Othello’s tragedy cannot easily be foreseen. Othello’s fall therefore seems greater than the fall of Faustus (who doesn’t have very far at all to fall); therefore Othello seems a more truly tragic figure.
- Faustus immediately and quite self-consciously violates many standard teachings of Renaissance Christianity. Faustus seems almost foolish in his pursuit of necromancy and in his rejection of conventional ambitions. Othello, by contrast, seems to be an honorable man, an honorable soldier, and an honorable husband. He does not bring his tragedy down upon himself (at least not initially), as Faustus does. Instead, he becomes tangled in a web woven by the highly cunning, highly deceitful Iago. Faustus has absolutely no one else to blame for his fate than himself, and in some ways he seems a fool. Othello, by contrast, seems in some ways more a victim than a fool. Yes, he trusts Iago, but so does practically everyone else in the play. In the sense that Othello is a good man brought low, he is the more tragic figure. Faustus, right from the start, does not seem to be an especially good man. Instead, he seems both intellectually and spiritually shallow. It is hard to feel much pity or fear in response to his fate; it is quite easy, however, to feel such “tragic emotions” in response to the fate of Othello.
- Othello’s fall involves the fall, and death, of the innocent and virtuous Desdemona as well. Shakespeare’s play is thus doubly tragic. Faustus’s fall involves no one but himself. Moreover, his tragedy can easily be averted, right up until the very last moment, if he would simply ask God for forgiveness. Instead, Faustus wastes his last hour of life and tries to blame others – including Satan and even his parents! – for his impending tragedy. Once more, it is difficult to feel sorry for Faustus. In contrast, Othello, having finally realized his mistake in trusting Iago, seems genuinely sorry and repentant, especially for having murdered Desdemona. In this sense, he seems a far more tragic figure than Faustus, who is as foolish at the end of his play as he was at the beginning. One might almost see Marlowe’s play as a kind of dark comedy rather than a true tragedy. It would be hard to see Othello as anything other than one of the finest tragedies ever written. The ultimate fate of Faustus seems unambiguous:
Adders and serpents, let me breathe awhile!
Ugly hell gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
The ultimate, other-worldly fate of Othello, on the other hand, is an interesting question to ponder.