Id, Ego and Superego: The Tempest and Doctor Faustus
The most compelling characters in modern literature and plays are the ones whose motivations tend to be complex, thus demand a deeper analysis of which part of their conscious their decisions arise from – the impulsive Id, the balancing Ego, or the idealized Superego. The central characters of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s The Tempest when studied parallel to each other seem to share similar traits, yet both meet contrastingly differing ends. This outcome is solely decided by the choices they make in face of their respective struggles and whichever side of their conscious emerges victorious.
In Freudian theory, the Id is the part of human conscious which contains all the base desires and ambitions. It operates on a pleasure principle that if let free, completely assumes control of the mind and cause the characters to make choices that seek delight without any rationale. While Faustus’ motivations are clearly seen to be led by his Id for nearly the entirety of the play, The Tempest’s Prospero makes decisions that seem sensible, muddying the boundaries that lie between the Id and the Ego.
Faustus, who by profession begins as a doctor in Wittenberg, dismisses academic disciplines and eschews religion as means of achieving the satisfaction he seeks, drunk on his arrogance of knowing everything they offer. He turns to magic and occult to achieve his ambitious and rather grandiose goals. When Faustus obtains the authority over the devil Mephistopheles in exchange for his soul, he seems to have continuous doubts over his decision to forsake heaven, but his Id wipes out all reason that do not serve fulfillment of his desires. As seen from the lines, “The god thou serv’st is thine own apetite” (Marlowe, page 62) and “I am resolv’d Faustus shall not repent” (page 68), he is so empowered by his own lofty goals, he turns away divinity. In contrast, perhaps the most defining motive powered by Id Prospero carries is the ambition for retribution against his brother. He wrecks the ship of the King and his men to further his plot of revenge, to draw deepest apologies for their wrongdoings and restore his dukedom.
On the other side of the seesaw of human consciousness sits the Superego. Representing the moral conscience and the idealized self a person conjures of themselves, it is an oft unrealized part in reality. Just as John Faustus’ id becomes his instrument of personal destruction, Prospero’s superego blinds him to the fact that he can commit any wrong.
Faustus envisions illusions of grandeur due to his superego, using his powers to rearrange Europe and become the emperor of Germany (Marlowe, page 60, 106-113), acquire eternal knowledge and omnipotence. There are touches of superego in the instances when Lucifer and Mephistopheles dissuade him from the path of God, from repentance and marriage and appeal to his id instead (page 69-70) until it is too late to seek God’s grace anymore. Prospero carries such an idealized version of himself, it acquires him a godlike ego. He does not seem to realize that his pursuit of knowledge and occult causes him to grow irresponsible and give up the control of government to his brother. “The love people bore me” (Shakespeare, Scene I, Act ii) paints Prospero as one who thinks he was wronged without reason. Prospero raises his daughter, Miranda, with his own rigid morality and keeps her firmly under his own influence, barely allowing her to develop her own free will. In the end, it is his Superego that intervenes with guilt over his actions. He changes his mind about exacting revenge when confronted with a similar attempt on his life by Caliban, instead choosing to forsake his powers and return to society and live a life of comfort. He beseeches forgiveness for his sins, and ultimately achieves some semblance of redemption. Both Prospero and Faustus turn to occult and magic to achieve greatness and cause their downfall. But while Prospero gives up his magic at the chance for a peaceful life without regret, Faustus fails to do so despite repeated chances given to him during the play.
Rationale balances itself in the middle of impulsive desire and self-idealized pride and chooses to call itself Ego. The Ego weighs the desires of id and acts according to the side the scales tip on: in a way that best mitigates personal distress. While Prospero cultivates an Ego that is so empowering that he manipulates almost the entire circumstance for his benefit, Faustus’ ego breaks itself down almost completely and sways his decisions towards the temptations of id and sells his soul to Lucifer against better judgement.
Unlike Faustus, Prospero’s Ego alleviates him to a godlike position on the island he touches on, by virtue of being cultured and educated and thus possessing power. He controls all the elements in his play, having learnt from his folly of underestimating human nature for treachery, and thus leaves zero room for anyone to go against his wishes or plans. He orchestrates the love between Ferdinand and Miranda (Shakespeare, Scene 1 Act ii) to achieve an end that serves a higher overarching purpose. Caliban, an unfortunate individual who resided on the island before Prospero, is regarded by him as a brute, who he decides to bestow his knowledge on. To Caliban, Prospero is a cruel god who has wrestled away the control of the land that is rightfully his. It is important to realize that Prospero seems to not grasp the irony in the parallels drawn, between Antonio usurping him merely because he was more capable and Prospero doing the same to Caliban.
Authors like Marlowe and Shakespeare tend to weave in the surprising complexities of human nature into their primary characters. Be it delving into the ugly, visceral side of humanity like anger or covetousness or its beautiful capacity for repentance and love; all of it serves an underlying purpose. They leave enough space for the audience to either consider it as a simple entertainment if they wish it or analyze the deeper themes of morality, divinity or human character and draw their own conclusions. And undoubtedly, evidence suggests that the interplay between Id, Ego and Superego colours each and every choice Faustus and Prospero make. By forsaking ego and divinity in his pursuit for power, Faustus’ mental degradation and tragic end comes of his own doing. In contrast, as a result of forsaking the very thing that caused Prospero to be cast from his kingdom and repenting on his sins, he sets off for a life of luxury and acceptance with his daughter.
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