Universal ideas about life, love, and religion are evident in the works of numerous writers. Many literary pieces represent the author’s thoughts on these subjects, which might correspond or contrast depending on the professionals’ views. The topic of religion was a prominent theme for various writers of the 16th century, who proposed their understanding of the intricacies of faith. The distinctiveness of religious beliefs evident in the social environment of that age was demonstrated in the works by John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Christopher Marlowe, who approach religion from three unique perspectives. The writings Holy Sonnets, Measure for Measure, and Doctor Faustus manifest the differences of opinion regarding religious love, benefits of faithfulness, and religious infatuation. This work evaluates John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Christopher Marlowe’s views on faith, comparing and contrasting the personal approaches to this topic based on the evidence gathered from the writings’ various literary devices.
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Religious Love as a Path to Salvation: The Passionate Approach of John Donne
The poet John Donne has designated a significant part of his Holy Sonnets to the subject of godly love and the salvation of humanity. In multiple sonnets, Donne refers to the possibility of God’s benevolence that is capable of saving him and, therefore, other humans from the grasp of evil (Teron 92). To instill the might of divine intervention and the power of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, the author uses a metaphor to clarify the possibility of repentance through adopting faith and loving God. In sonnet IV, the poet refers to red and white as colors representing sin and purity: “And red with blushing, as thou art with sin; / Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might / That being red, it dyes red souls to white” (Donne 6). According to Donne, every man is born a sinner and bears the hereditary mark of degradation, but anyone can also be saved through the aid of God and his benevolence (Teron 92). Manifesting intense passion for God in his poems, the author expresses his understanding of Christian religion and the inspiration he receives from the divine being’s love.
The Burden of Religion Exhibited in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure
Donne’s infatuation with godly love and salvation through it can be considered the opposite of the ideas evident in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In this play, Shakespeare examines the various attitudes towards faith and Christianity demonstrated by the main characters. Measure for Measure is a significant work that addresses the author’s understanding of Christian ethics, and several connections can be made between the work’s heroes and biblical Figures (Cox). Therefore, the play is often analyzed as a playwright’s testament to religious discussions, namely the debates between Catholic, Protestant, and Christian faith (Cox). Although each character in Measure for Measure represents a distinct religious background, the overall tone of the play and the outcomes of its events determine Shakespeare’s atheistic perspective and his lack of interest in religious disputes.
The protagonists of this writing undergo a religious crisis, as they begin to lack the possibility to justify their actions according to their beliefs. To further elaborate on the contrast between the world and the individual, which might cause one to doubt the doctrines of their faith, Shakespeare uses the concept of law that creates a conflict between action and morality (Smith). As the Duke begins to introduce new regulations, the characters start to ascertain that his endeavors are not guided by justice and liberty, equated with religion, but rather resemble the betrayal of ethical grounds and religious beliefs.
One of the protagonists, Claudio, evidently undergoes a crisis of faith in the light of these events, contemplating the contrast between the acts prescribed by his faith and the actual life experience that this character possesses. A metaphor with the wind is implemented to compare the man’s perception of current events and the absence of control: “To be imprisoned in the viewless winds / And blown with restless violence round about / The pendent world” (Shakespeare 105). As the character is left without the guidance that he used to receive from Christian doctrines, he loses his confidence in religion and law.
Another perfect example is the interaction between Isabella and Angelo, where the man is torn between morality and guilt. In Angelo’s monologue, Shakespeare is provocatively blasphemous, creating a contradiction between human desires and possibility (Cox). Angelo, who is extremely passionate about Isabella, experiences extreme remorse over his romantic interest: “Heaven in my mouth, / As if I did but only chew His name” (Shakespeare 156). Anger and repression that can be observed in the hero’s religious experience undermine the importance of faith and the benefits yielded by adhering to biblical ethics.
Therefore, in comparison to Donne’s passionate attitude towards God and benevolence, Shakespeare demonstrates a more pessimistic outlook on religion, attempting to distinguish its negative qualities. Dependence on protection from faith can cause detrimental consequences, prompting personal crises based on the contrast between real-life experience and the prescriptions of religious doctrines. Although faith can also guide a person in their endeavors, in reality, people’s actions often contradict these recommendations.
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Doctor Faustus as the Demonstration of Religious Insolence in Marlowe’s Corresponding Work
A distinct perspective on faith and the impact of Christian doctrines on ordinary life is presented in the word Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. Similar to the Shakespearean perspective, the author attempts to characterize the negative aspects of religion and the beliefs exhibited by faithful people. Nevertheless, Marlowe attempts a more drastic attack on the followers of numerous religions, namely Christianity, Protestantism, and Catholicism, arguing that adhering to religious concepts is not beneficial for any human being (Alabdali 29). The story of Doctor Faustus, who made a deal with Mephistopheles to obtain power resemblant to that of divine beings, is often considered an attempt at religious blasphemy (Alabdali 30). Moreover, numerous monologues by Faustus declare the author’s true perspective on Christian doctrines, which are severely more criticized than in Shakespeare’s work.
An excellent representation of Marlowe’s anti-religious ideas can be observed in the interaction between Faustus and Mephistopheles. The protagonist condemns divinity, stating that, in comparison to philosophy and law, it is “basest of the three / unpleasant harsh contemptible and vile” (Marlowe 36). Furthermore, the doctor himself aspires to achieve the might of a deity, comparing himself to God and diminishing his importance. After that, puritan beliefs are also designated “rather illusions, fruits of lunacy, / that makes men foolish that do trust them most” (Marlowe 44). Therefore, in contrast with Donne, who views godly love as salvation and the opportunity to repent one’s failures, Marlowe openly criticizes people who follow religious beliefs, explaining, through Faustus, his negative overview of faithfulness.
Even though Shakespeare and Marlowe both find religion an inadequate way of establishing ethical conduct and seeking moral advice, the extent of disapproval is explicitly different. While Shakespeare displays a negative but relatively neutral attitude towards religious doctrines, attempting to disclose the inadequate nature of advice present in religious works, Marlowe is openly blatant with the accusations towards faith, which denounce not only the existence of such doctrines but the people who follow these beliefs (Alabdali 32). Although the author was forced to create a more Christian-approved ending for Faustus, the statements expressed by the doctor throughout the writing manifest a distinct cynical overview of numerous religious pathways.
To conclude, the works by John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Christopher Marlowe, namely Holy Sonnets, Measure for Measure, and Doctor Faustus, were examined in detail in this essay and compared based on writers’ attitudes towards the topic of faith. The authors’ opinions vary significantly, presenting three distinct approaches to religion. As all writers’ lifetimes lie within the 16th century, which is well recognized for the debates surrounding religion and its benefits and issues, each of the discussed individuals displays a unique outlook on faith.
According to John Donne, godly love and divine benevolence are the potential opportunities for human salvation, given the inherited nature of sin and the need to absolve men’s failures. In contrast, William Shakespeare undertakes a more critical approach to religion, which, when compared to law and life experience, appears to become an obstruction, originating crisis of faith. Alternatively, Christopher Marlowe openly despises religious beliefs and the people involved in spiritual experience. Altogether, all three writers develop personal attitudes towards faith, manifesting their ideas through their works.
Alabdali, Abdulqader J. Christopher Marlowe the Inconoclast: Analyzing Dissent in His Plays. 2018. Emporia State University, PhD dissertation.
Cox, John D. “Shakespeare and Religion.” Religions, vol. 9, no. 11, 2018.
Donne, John. Holy Sonnets 1 to 19. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.
Marlowe, Christopher. Dr. Faustus. Dover Publications, 1994.
Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Smith, Matthew J. ““At War ’Twixt Will and Will Not”: On Shakespeare’s Idea of Religious Experience in Measure for Measure.” Religions, vol. 9, no. 12. 2018.
Teron, Recho Benjamin. “The relationship of Sin, Death and Satan in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: the Influence of Theology on His Spiritual Outlook of His Life.” International Journal Of English: Literature, Language & Skills, vol. 7, no. 1. 2018.