Material, Mammon, and the Loss of Spirit in Elizabethan Tragedy

In a time of great change in philosophy, technology, religion and culture, Elizabethan playwrights and poets concerned themselves with the loss of spiritual truth in their age.  The tragedies analyzed in this essay – Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet reflect this loss of connection with and aspiration toward spiritual truth. Through these plays – two externalizations of the inner world of the human psyche or soul – these two playwrights give insight into their own perspectives on the general spiritual problems of the Elizabethan age. In alchemy and the occult, a black magician is a magician who uses his magic to accrue material wealth and superficial knowledge. He is the alchemist who pursues the literal alchemical gold and riches (the biblical Mammon), often invoking the name of Satan to do so. However, a white magician or alchemist pursues the metaphorical alchemical gold, symbolic of the developed, individuated, mature, enlightened self, comparable to the Hindu concept of atma (meaning literally “true self”). Faustus, in Doctor Faustus, is one of the former magicians: he pursues material riches with his spirits. In Hamlet, Shakespeare divides humanity’s spiritual nature into several aspects: Claudius is representative of the corrupt self, King Hamlet is symbolic of the true or higher spiritual self, and Prince Hamlet is the soul of collective humanity; in Shakespeare’s tragedy, the corrupt self has usurped the spiritual self’s position and misguides – and even attempts to eliminate – the soul of humanity. Poets and playwrights of the Elizabethan era concerned themselves with this loss of spiritual truth, expressing cause and diagnosis through complex symbol and allegory.

Faustus, a black magician, makes it clear early in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus that he does not understand the conception of the development of the higher self. The chorus introduces him, explaining that “He surfeits upon cursed necromancy” (Prologue.25). He ironically flaunts the “depth of [his studies]” when he explains that “Bene disserere est finis logices” – to carry on a disputation well is the end of logic (1.1.1, 7). To the proud and superficial learner, the purpose of logic may be such; however, the study of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, otherwise known as the trivium, had a much higher end: the study of the Word and the development of the self. To scholars in the Middle Ages, to study the trivium was to pursue philosophical and spiritual truth, and not, as Faustus professes, to simply dispute well with his brethren. Reason and logic are not ends of themselves, but means to a spiritual end. This utter lack of understanding points also toward the lack of pursuance of spiritual truth dramatized in Marlowe’s tragedy.

Faustus, an unwittingly misguided alchemical pursuant, uses his spirits – his intelligence – to, as the evil angel encourages, “Be…on earth as Jove is in the sky, / Lord and commander of these elements” (1.i.76-7) to “fetch [himself] what [he] please[s]” (1.1.79). Meanwhile, the good angel begs him to “heap God’s heavy wrath upon thy head: / Read, read the Scriptures…” (1.1.72-3). These Scriptures, the Bible, would help Faustus discover and develop spiritual truth:  “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth,” says the Gospel of Matthew “where moth and decay destroy and thieves break in and steal…Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” However, Faustus turns away from scripture to pursue superficial knowledge and material wealth, worshipping Mammon, the false god of material riches of the New Testament.

Doctor Faustus symbolizes humanity, and Faustus’ “tragical history” is a tragical history of humanity up to (and perhaps just past) the authorship of this play. Like Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, Faustus attended Wittenberg, where he studied theology. During Marlowe’s life, not a century after Luther’s 95 Theses, a majority of the population of Northern Europe were Lutheran. This fact creates a parallel between our tragical hero, also Germanic, and the population of Northern Europe. Misguided in their pursuits, Marlowe explains, the educated population of Northern Europe worships superficial knowledge, material wealth, and Mammon, and they use their superficial intelligences to be masters of the elements on earth rather than pursue spiritual truth.

In Hamlet, also documenting an ostensibly misguided humanity, in the spirit of the alchemist’s doctrines, Shakespeare represents religio-spiritual aspects of the heavens and earth with several character symbols. If we borrow traditional alchemical symbols, the father figures of the play symbolize aspects of the self. Claudius represents the corrupt self who has usurped his position from King Hamlet, the true spiritual self, now merely a ghost. Prince Hamlet, whose name comes from Hammond, which means “human,” is representative of the soul of humanity (the soul being the religio-spiritual aspect of the human which may commune with the spirit). Gertrude, the soul’s mother, is the material realm. Though other character symbols may be analyzed to complicate and illuminate the spiritual problems highlighted in Hamlet further, these four main characters and religio-spiritual aspects will suffice for this short essay, it being such a short and cursory analysis of these tragedies.

The ghost of King Hamlet explains to his son, Prince Hamlet, late in the night that he is his “father’s spirit, / Doomed for a certain term to walk in the night, / And for the day confined to fast in fires…” (1.5.10-2). In Elizabethan times, the soul was thought to, during the night, leave the physical body to mingle in another realm during the dream state, which is called in occult philosophy the astral plane. Spirits dwelling in this plane are those who have passed from the physical plane. This belief explains why Hamlet’s father is doomed to walk only in the night: the former King Hamlet, the spiritual self and higher spiritual truth, has been eliminated from communion with the human soul. This, of course, occurs during the day, as the Ghost explains:

Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursèd hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leprous distillment. (1.v.60-5)

During the day, the spiritual self was sleeping, eventually to be usurped by the baser, false self Claudius. When human consciousness uses its senses most, the false self took dominion over Elsinore. The ‘distillment’ poured into the ear of King Hamlet symbolizes the false self’s thoughts and ideas seeping their way into consciousness through the senses. The name Claudius means “lame,” thus appropriately representing the false self. Though not as explicitly as Marlowe in Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare complicates further the issue by pointing the blame for man’s loss of the spiritual self and truth at Claudius, the corrupt self that controls the senses.

Claudius not only usurps the throne, but usurps the marriage between King Hamlet and Gertrude, father and mother, or the spiritual self and the earth. Because husband and wife are one flesh when they are married, and become one when they conceive a child, as the soul may be present in both spirit and flesh, to remarry is adulterous, and to marry the brother of your husband – your brother – is incestuous. Prince Hamlet broods over this concept frequently in Hamlet, highlighting its importance in the play. To analogize this to the underlying spiritual message, the corrupt self – obsessed with the senses – has married the earthly realm.

These tragedies outline the spiritual problems of man in the Elizabethan age, problems which continue even now in an age of a mass commercialized market in the west, which, like Faustus, serves Mammon. Marlowe in Doctor Faustus highlights the development of this problem, showing that man is headed toward the black arts – pursuing earthly riches rather than philosophical and spiritual truth. Shakespeare in Hamlet blames not man himself but Claudius – the false self-conception reinforced by our senses and by others who are misguided.

The (de-?)Evolution of Modern Language: Sign, Symbol, and Self

Owen Barfield was a philologist, philosopher, poet, essayist, critic, lecturer, and one of the first members of the Inklings, the literary discussion group of fame through authors Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. To summarize his work in a blog post is an impossible task, but I’ll attempt something of the sort. Of his works, I’ve only read once a book review he wrote on a book about philology and hermeneutics and twice a compilation of essays in a book entitled The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays, which, after my second read of my university library’s copy, I bought from Amazon and determined to read at least once a year until he saturates my dreams and my waking thoughts and actions.

I wish I could at this moment succinctly narrow his life’s work to a one- or two-sentence overarching thesis, but the following three-paragraph primer will have to suffice.

In the aforementioned compilation of essays, Barfield highlights two of the greatest shifts in the history of language: the more recent shift occurred around the middle of the seventeenth century, just after the Thirty Years’ War, which was a positivist and materialist one; the greater, and far more distant, shift occurred “sometime between the death of Alexander the Great and the birth of Saint Augustine,” marking a new self-consciousness in language. Though this latter shift is highlighted later in the book, I shall address it first for greater perspicuity.

The greatest shift, Barfield explains, is a shift in self-consciousness of language. Now let me attempt to describe what he means by this. In several of his early essays, Barfield argues, quite cogently, citing other philologists and examples, that all words that refer to moral, ethereal, spiritual, or psychological concepts have their root in the symbolic, external universe — for example, “wrong” means “crooked,” “right” means “straight,” “express” means “to squeeze out.” The shift around two thousand years ago marks the passing over of the external symbol for the concept to talk about the concept directly. That is, when one says “express” s/he no longer uses this expression symbolically or metaphorically, referring to an object seen to stand for a concept unseen in the self, but as if the latter – the concept within – is an entity in itself:

If one contrasts the meaning of the Greek word for word or reason or discourse (for it could mean all three: I’m referring to the word “logos“), if one contrasts the meaning of that word, as it stood in the time of Plato and Aristotle, with its later meaning; or to put it another way, if one contrasts the meaning of the old word “logos,” with the meanings of the words which we have to use to translate it; and if one then moves the microscope a little nearer, so to speak, so as to determine, if possible, the moment, or at least the single century, of transition from the old to the new, then one is struck immediately by the way in which this word “logos” was being used, in Alexandria, for instance, used by Greeks and used also by Jews, in the first century B.C. One may even be a little more pedantically precise, and remark that that particular word was in especial use in the Stoic philosophy, and that it was in expounding the Stoic philosophy that the concepts objective and subjective first make their appearance in a clearly recognizable form. In other words, it was then that the fundamental duality with which we are now so familiar was first clearly formulated, was first sharply focused, a duality no longer merely between mind on one side and senses on the other (which had been long familiar to the Greeks), but a duality between a self on the one side and its environment on another.

The second shift – in the seventeenth century – marks a further move in rhetoric and language away from its metaphoric and relational roots and toward a mechanistic/mechanomorphic, positivist philosophy of language. To explain what I mean by relational I shall turn briefly to Kant. Kantian rhetorical epistemology includes three concepts: noumenon, phenomenon, and language. The noumenon is the object itself, and the phenomena are the various ways a perceiver comes to experience the noumenon (obect) through his or her senses. The perceiver then uses language to explain this perceived experience of the noumenon through the phenomena as a relationship between the perceiver, the object, and various other perceived objects around it. The mechanistic philosophy of language says that we can take the perceiver out of the equation and talk about the noumena/noumenon directly, not in terms of its relationship to us or even to other objects. Barfield says that this philosophy is wholly incompatible with language, as language is the product of subject/object relations. Barfield says, in “Science and Quality”:

[L]et me revert for a moment to the pre-Scientific Revolution (“Aristotelian”) world-picture. It assumed as a matter of course that mind or intelligence is operative in nature as a whole and not exclusively in the human brain. This assumption was vociferously abandoned. Indeed rather more than abandoned. I believe almost any biology student will tell you that it is absolutely taboo with the scientific establishment, so that it is as much as your academic life is worth even to hint at such a possibility.

Barfield identified, through his philological lens, the struggles of twentieth century modernity as at least partly a product of our attempt to take ourselves out of our understanding of the universe in the seventeenth century, caused in turn by the greatest shift in language two thousand years ago and its effect on our consciousness.

What think you of this idea? Thoughts? Questions? Additions? Is there anything I can clarify? Rebuttals?


Barfield, Owen. The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays. San Rafael, Ca.: Barfield Press, 2005. (1st edition published 1977) [Amazon]