Transgressive Tendencies and the Creation of 'Icarus-figures': Homer's Odysseus, Dante's Ulysses, and Marlowe's Faustus


Megha Agarwal
Goldsmiths, University of London


Daedalus made a pair of wings for himself, and another for Icarus [...] he said with tears in his eyes, “My son, be warned! Neither soar too high [...] nor swoop too low [...] do not set on your own course!”

The figure of Icarus has consistently been associated with the repercussions of aspiring for more than one is permitted to, transgressing clearly defined boundaries and over-reaching. He blatantly disregards his father Daedalus’ cautionary words and ‘began soaring towards the sun’, inducing the wax holding his wings together to melt. However, his incriminating actions do not seem to stem from defiance alone. The source of his deliberate, almost suicidal decision to traverse such an explicit limit seems to be the untainted pleasure he derived from venturing into hitherto forbidden territory and acquiring the knowledge of experiences denied to him. He is exhilarated ‘by the lift of his great sweeping wings’ and the recognition he receives from those who ‘gazed upward and mistook them for gods.’ To consider oneself equivalent to the gods is, of course, a cardinal sin and such hubris leads to disastrous consequences. Subsequently, all that remains of Icarus are the ‘scattered feathers that floated on the waves below.’[1] Homer’s Odysseus, Dante’s Ulysses and Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus are unified by Icarian characteristics, particularly his towering ambition, the palpable pleasure he experiences while fulfilling these illicit aspirations, the fatal consequences he suffers due to his refusal to succumb to the powers-that-be and his adherence to his own will. This essay posits an intertextual comparison of the three protagonists as ‘Icarus figures’, whose dominant instincts are their irrepressible desire to pursue knowledge and indulge their curiosity to disastrous limits.

While reading the Odyssey, Inferno’s Canto XXVI and Doctor Faustus, one realises that yearning for more than what is allotted to them and for launching off on their own course (and the subsequent suffering) are features that the three protagonists have in common. All three seem to be highly ambitious and straining against the restrictions imposed upon them. While Dante’s Ulysses and Marlowe’s Faustus depict the aforementioned traits in an overt manner, Homer’s Odysseus appears to implicitly betray this disposition. He seems to be reigning in his natural impulses to obey the will of the gods, because he is, perhaps, aware and more cautious about the consequences of transgressing. Nevertheless, the three characters can be seen as over-reachers, or as ‘Icarus figures’, each of whom handles his ambition in a distinct manner. While Odysseus largely suppresses his aspirations, Ulysses decides to act on them. Faustus, on the other hand, could be regarded as an extension of Ulysses. Marlowe’s protagonist takes his desire for wisdom far beyond Ulysses’ transgressive voyage; Faustus explicitly denounces divinity. Since he, unlike Ulysses, was provided with the possibility to explore the territory beyond the demarcating Pillars of Hercules, so to speak, he could represent the possibly logical culmination of Ulyssean curiosity. The three texts are, therefore, linked by the protagonists’ overwhelming curiosity and ambition, or their inherently Icarus-like traits.

Piero Boitani observes that an intertextual reading is not only logical, but often necessary for comprehension, especially in light of ‘oblique and impure inventions’, which either directly (Dante’s Ulysses as an interpretation of Homer’s Odysseus, for instance) or indirectly (Faustus and Icarus) allude to earlier works. Though he asserts that unearthing sources and discovering allusions contributes tremendously to the pleasures of reading, he also draws our attention to the fact that we, as postmodern readers with innumerable resources and exposure to a vast number of texts, are ‘oblique and impure’, too.[2] One wonders, as a result, whether connections are drawn too rapidly and erroneously; whether meaning is consequently imposed on texts wherein, perhaps, none was intended (this doubt arises especially for Homer’s Odyssey, a text that has been incessantly wrung for implications that, since the text is a product of the oral tradition, often seem suspect). Roland Barthes describes this phenomenon as the ‘reversing of origins’, the ‘offhand manner’ in which the posterior text leads one to perceive differently the original text that is being alluded to.[3] Julia Kristeva maintains that ‘any text is the absorption and transformation of another’, and, in the same vein, in keeping with these notions of the significance of intertextuality suggested by Barthes, Boitani, and Kristeva, the following close reading will demonstrate the relevance of the Icarian motif in the Odyssey, Dante’s Canto XXVI in the Inferno, and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.[4]

Homer’s Odysseus

Neither soar too high [...] nor swoop too low [...]

Homer’s Odysseus appears to represent the ‘golden mean’, or the middle path, that Daedalus exhorts his son Icarus to follow. In stark contrast to Dante’s Ulysses and Marlowe’s Faustus, Odysseus often seems to restrict himself to obeying the gods’ whimsical will and fluctuating temperaments. He is acutely aware that he cannot equate himself with divinity. He is merely human and, must, consequently, be amenable to adhering to authority-figures: ‘I have neither the looks nor the stature of the immortal gods who live in heaven, but those of a human being’.[5] His heroism begins to seem specious: he lacks autonomy and individualism, which are often irrevocably linked with the stereotypical image of a contemporary hero. It is, however, essential to consider the genre and the context of the Odyssey. As Claudia Durst and Vernon Johnson observe, the Ancient Epic and the Epic Hero were largely intended for allegorical purposes. Both, the genre and the characters, were supposed to convey exemplary virtue, representative behaviour and the heroic ideal. The Odyssey in particular grew to be associated with ‘a picture of the heroic ideal as it had been passed down in oral accounts’ through generations. It is considered the text that ‘actually shaped the heroic ideal for the entire classical world’. It is inevitable that Odysseus is not the heretic hero one is accustomed to expect, but a model human being, who strives not to steer away from the designated path. His lack of individualism, too, can be attributed to the context, since, at the time, ‘honour’ lay in ‘the very essence of what the world thought’ instead of the relatively modern conception of heroism as ‘internal adherence to a noble concept of right and wrong’. The acquisition of ‘eternal and lasting glory in the eyes of all the people around him’ was valued above all else.[6]

Several instances from the text, alternatively, suggest that Odysseus suppresses his true nature to meet the heroic ideal. His tremendous patience and willingness to endure what is meted out to him are qualities that he develops later in the text, after having suffered the vacillations of his voyage. He gradually arrives at the realisation that it is essential to conceal his inherently overambitious temperament in order to survive. These are the elements that Dante underscores in his version of the hero. Stanford describes Odysseus as ‘alone among Homer’s heroes in displaying this intellectual curiosity strongly’,[7] and while the Homeric variation rigorously restrains this curiosity, Dante amplifies it. Although the Florentine poet did not encounter Odysseus first-hand, through the Odyssey, but acquired his impressions of the text through the works of Virgil, Ovid, Statius, among other poets, the notion that he magnifies traits that Homer had already hinted at in the Odyssey is not entirely unfeasible. Despite the changing circumstances and contexts that alter the manner in which he is interpreted, the evolution of a mythical hero essentially remains a variation of the portrait that the original author had painted. His ‘archetypal nature’, which is that of his ‘earliest definitive portrait’, resumes to be reflected in his various reincarnations.[8] Odysseus’ archetypal nature is akin to Icarus’: he demonstrates the desire to determine his own course of action, to pursue knowledge and wisdom; but, unlike Icarus, he realises that these traits are diametrically opposed to those deemed worthy by the dominant culture, and he moulds his nature accordingly.

The Odyssey, which traces Odysseus’ homebound journey after the Trojan War, begins with the debate amongst the Olympians about Odysseus’ fate. The reader does not encounter the hero until Book 5, but his reputation precedes him, as he is deemed worthy enough to be discussed amongst the gods. Consequently, this not only establishes Odysseus’s heroic nature, but also the dominant role that divinity plays in determining the fates of mortals. While Zeus insists that ‘it is their own transgressions which bring them suffering,’[9] and not the will of the gods, Athene’s description of the manner in which Odysseus is held hostage by the goddess Calypso, and consistently tormented by Poseidon, seems to suggest otherwise. Athene’s supervision of Odysseus’ fate is a recurring feature, and an example of the gods’ intervention, and vested interests, in human activity. Moreover, several characters reinstate the fact that they must willingly accept their pre-destined fate, regardless of its nature and justness (or lack thereof). Helen, for instance, resignedly says, ‘[...] each of us has his good times, and each his bad times – Zeus in his omnipotence sees to that’.[10] Alcinous, too, observes that the gods were ‘responsible’ for ‘weaving catastrophe into men’s lives to make a song for future generations’; likewise, Odysseus must ‘suffer whatever Destiny and the relentless Fate spun for him with the first thread of life’.[11] Endurance of, and conformity to, another’s will are insistently iterated. It is little wonder that Odysseus eventually decides to alter his nature to fit these expectations. However, occasionally, his original, unaltered temperament does appear to seep through into the narrative.

He is introduced to the reader while he is unwillingly detained at Calypso’s island, gazing at the sea, weeping in homesickness. However, he instantly regains his curiosity and vitality after escaping the rather comfortable clutches of Calypso. It seems as though his urgency to return home dissipates at the sight of unexplored territory. His motivation remains questionable: was it the memory of Ithaca that made him yearn to leave the island, or his insatiable wanderlust? An intriguing feature of his relationship with Calypso is the manner in which he describes it: ‘Calypso was certainly for keeping me in her cavern home because she yearned for me to be her husband’.[12] Calypso gave Odysseus refuge when he was the sole survivor of a terrible storm. She is reminiscent of Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid. Both, Calypso and Dido, ensured that all the luxuries possible were provided to the warriors. However, both were unceremoniously abandoned when their respective relationships’ novelty dissipated, and they began to settle into a semblance of stability. Their reasons for desertion differed, and thus arises the contrast between pious Aeneas and crafty Odysseus. While Aeneas departs because he is bound by his duty to found a new nation, Odysseus seems to be spurred by his inherent restiveness with domesticity, a characteristic that Dante elaborates upon, and which provides another example of Odysseus’ deviant temperament. As Stanford suggests, Calypso failed to retain Odysseus on her island because his ‘own nature precluded it’.[13] The ‘Nymph had long since ceased to please’[14] and it seems that Odysseus longed to embark on his next adventure rather than return home, as he alleges, as the following episode attests.

Had he not been tempted to venture onto the island of the Cyclops, Odysseus would have had a safe voyage to Ithaca. Despite his companions’ pleas and his own ‘instant foreboding’ about a ‘barbarous being of colossal strength and ferocity’,[15] he chose not to desist from the task. Odysseus is propelled by his inquisitiveness (which Stanford likens to ‘anthropological research’[16]) about the nature of the island’s inhabitants and his covetousness about gaining gifts from his host, too. After invading the Cyclops Polyphemus’ cave, and successfully deceiving him, Odysseus manages to escape. He does not seem to appreciate his good fortune, however, and provokes the now blind Polyphemus into flinging a rock that almost capsizes his ship. Such is his self-assuredness that he even announces his name to the giant, enabling the latter to appeal to Poseidon. Although Polyphemus declares that he is Poseidon’s son, and could ensure that Odysseus’ journey is riddled with tragedy, Odysseus’ hubris overrides his rationality. It is apparent that this episode represents Odysseus’ ‘relapse’ into his ‘original character’, which Stanford describes as the ‘Wily Lad’.[17] Odysseus’ true temperament seems to be one wherein he is motivated by his own instinct alone and has little regard for the established conventions, not unlike the ill-fated Icarus.

Elsewhere in the narrative, too, Odysseus expresses his discontent and tedium with the gods’ vacillating decisions, which reduce him to a mere plaything: ‘[...] and now some god has flung me on this shore, no doubt to suffer more disasters here’.[18] His apprehension about the goddess Ino’s advice and his resolution to do ‘what I myself think best’,[19] too, serve as an example of his innate tendency to prefer a path that he himself has carved. The Sirens episode serves as another example of his Ulyssean curiosity: their allure lies in the fact that they offer to make him ‘a wiser man’.[20] But, while indulging his curiosity, he appears to have registered the necessity of being cautious since the Cyclops episode, and instructs his men to tie him firmly to the mast of the ship. He did, of course, yet again need to be reminded by Circe to clip his wings after he asserts that he could sail past the feral Scylla and Charybdis by drawing them into a fight: ‘Obstinate fool [...] Again you are spoiling for a fight and looking for trouble! Are you not prepared to give in to immortal gods?’[21] Odysseus does give in: ‘I debated within myself whether to jump overboard and drown or stay among the living and quietly endure. I stayed and endured.’[22] Richard B. Rutherford rightly observes that this incident marks the ‘way forward to Odysseus’ later endurance and patience in adversity’, which has not yet become ‘the dominant, controlling force in his character’.[23]  Eventually, however, one encounters a subdued, almost defeated Odysseus, disguised as a beggar in his own kingdom:

‘Of all the creatures that breathe and creep about on Mother Earth there is none so helpless as man. As long as the gods grant him prosperity and health he imagines he will never suffer [...] Yet when the blessed gods bring him troubles he has no choice but to endure them with a patient heart [...] this earthly life depends on what Zeus, the Father of gods and men, sends us [...] Let that be a lesson to every man [...] quietly to enjoy whatever the gods may give him’.[24]

His transformation seems to be complete. As he exhorts temperance to the wildly ostentatious Suitors, he seems to have entirely surrendered his self-sufficient streak and chosen instead to represent the heroic ideal. Odysseus’ newfound restraint is noticeable again when he urges his nurse Eurycleia not to make a spectacle of her delight after he has slain the Suitors. This is indeed, as Stanford asserts, a ‘remarkably dispassionate pronouncement for a Homeric hero in his moment of success.’ He seems to have resignedly accepted the fact that he is merely an ‘instrument of destiny’ and is only fulfilling his duty by penalising ‘harshness, inhumanity and folly.’[25] Odysseus has progressed (or regressed) from being the ‘untypical hero’[26] to projecting the image of a rule-abiding, conventional one. Rutherford, too, reiterates the claim that Odysseus has learned, ‘slowly and painfully’, to ‘curb his heroic impulses’ and his curiosity, his ‘more dangerous, more idiosyncratic quality’.[27]

However, this ‘philosophic Odysseus’, who comments on the utter helplessness of being human, has not entirely replaced the ‘wilier Odysseus’. He has learned to temper his ‘instinctive curiosity’[28], the facet that is amplified in Dante’s Ulysses and Marlowe’s Faustus. He represents an Icarus-figure, who resists the temptation induced by his own nature, and adheres to the middle path advocated by Daedalus. He could be regarded as a version of Icarus, who decides against over-reaching or transgressing. Odysseus succumbs to obeisance, while Dante’s Ulysses and Marlowe’s Faustus permit their insatiable curiosity and ambition to reign over their rationality.

Dante’s Ulysses

As they sped away from the island [...] flapping their wings [...] [those] who gazed upward mistook them for gods.

During Odysseus’ stint in the Underworld in The Odyssey, Teiresias prophesises another arduous adventure for him after he returns to Ithaca.  He must embark upon a journey with the goal of seeking a land where the inhabitants are unaware of the existence of the sea and the ‘long oars that serve ships as wings’.[29] By asking him to seek such a remote, possibly non-existent territory, Teiresias predicts a journey that is doomed to conclude unsuccessfully. He is, as Boitani accurately observes, ‘prefiguring a never-ending journey’.  Through this journey, the epic hero is being placed in a context where he would be recognised solely as a traveller instead of a renowned warrior or ruler. Although this journey does not occur in the Odyssey, which concludes with Odysseus’ arrival at Ithaca, by mentioning it, and ‘depriving him, however momentarily, of his name and personal “history”’, Odysseus’ identity as a wanderer is emphasised. Homer has paved the way for ‘future semiotizations of Odysseus’[30] as an explorer, and already laid the premise for a quest similar to the fatal one that Dante’s Ulysses embarks upon in canto XXVI of the Inferno (the imagery of oars as wings, too, seems to anticipate the dominant image of Ulysses’ ‘mad flight’).[31].  

Although Dante did not read the epic himself, it seems as though, in his version of the character, the poet amplifies characteristics that Homer has sown the seeds of, but did not fully develop in the Odyssey. Odysseus’ instinctive and unconventional curiosity, which he learns to subdue in the Odyssey, is given full reign in Dante’s Ulysses. Dante’s Ulysses, too, is in pursuit of unexplored land, but instead of a pre-destined prophecy, his motivation stems from his tedium with domesticity, and his curiosity about the novel, forbidden experiences that lie beyond the boundary designated by the Pillars of Hercules. While Odysseus restricts his Icarus-like leanings, Ulysses magnifies them, revelling in ‘the zest of the intellectual explorer’ and the splendidly isolated joy of ‘a mind voyaging through strange seas of thought alone’.[32] In the Icarus myth, those who glanced up at the sky mistook Daedalus and Icarus for gods, but Ulysses, on the other hand, seems to hubristically equate humanity with divinity. He thrives on the assumption that man is intended for purposes greater than mere obsequiousness. Dante’s Ulysses, like Icarus, exemplifies over-reaching, and he, too, is severely penalised for his transgression, a penalty that his counterpart in The Odyssey manages to evade.

Prior to Ulysses’ appearance in the canto, Dante the Poet (the version of himself after he has finished his voyage through the afterlife, as opposed to the Pilgrim, from whose perspective he tells the tale) expresses empathy for the figure. Recollecting his encounter with Ulysses rekindles the immense grief he experienced while witnessing it first-hand as the Pilgrim, and, before he evinces too much pity for the sinner, he decides to ‘restrain my talent’ lest he, like Ulysses himself, begins to ‘run a course that virtue has not set.’[33] Not unlike the indirect establishment of Odysseus’ heroism, the reader’s initial impression of Ulysses is that of a tragic figure. Despite being condemned to Hell and trapped within a flame with a fellow sinner, he elicits compassion. Dante’s guide, Virgil rapidly enumerates the follies committed by Diomed and Ulysses, and emphatically states that ‘he lost himself through his own fault.’[34] Since they are situated in the eight bolgia, their sin is ‘Fraudulent Counselling.’[35] The charges levied against them include: the deceptive Trojan Horse, which resulted in the Greeks’ victory; the revelation of Achilles’ identity when he was disguised as a woman to avoid being included in the Trojan war, which led to his death; and the theft of the Palladium, Athene’s statue, which would have guaranteed the Trojans invincibility had Ulysses and Diomed not carried it away to Argos. However, the Pilgrim does not seem to be repelled by this list of ‘sins’, and resumes to lean perilously close the double-horned flame. Stanford asserts that Virgil’s ‘inexorable verdict provokes some protest’.[36] Given the context in which the deeds were committed, it is apparent that Ulysses was merely performing his duties as a Greek leader, who is bound to lead his own men to victory. As Ulysses’ subsequent narration suggests, the underlying motivation behind his actions, for which he is ostensibly being condemned, is more formidable than the deeds themselves.

Ulysses’ final voyage begins after his departure from Circe’s island. While Homer’s Odysseus left her island with the intention of returning home, Dante’s depiction of Ulysses is devoid of any homeward-bound inclination. Contrary to Aeneas, who embodies the classical virtue of pietas (being dutiful to one’s family, nation and the gods), Dante’s Ulysses shirks his obligations towards his family. His familial bonds are described as mandatory requirements. The ‘debt of love’ he ‘owed’ his son, ailing father and pining wife was unable to muffle his ‘burning wish’, which urged him to experience ‘all man’s vices’ and ‘all human worth’.[37] Ulysses is clearly distinct from Homer’s Odysseus. The latter strives to curb his curiosity and individualism to fulfil his responsibilities; Ulysses prioritises his own will instead. Dante substitutes the ‘centripetal, homeward-bound’ Odysseus with a ‘personification of centrifugal force.’[38] This could be regarded as his first transgression. Boyde succinctly states that Ulysses’ reluctance to return to Ithaca leads to the logical inference that his ‘last “folle volo” (“mad flight”) was begun in conscious defiance of the gods,’[39] and traditional definitions of virtue.

After dismissing his responsibilities, he proceeds to describe his journey with concrete geographical indicators, which ominously cease to appear when he reaches the Pillars of Hercules that demarcate the limit of inhabited territory and human exploration. Unlike The Odyssey, when they were in their prime, Ulysses observes that he and his companions are now aged. His insistence on embarking on a voyage in this phase of his life could be considered a deliberately defiant deed. In the Convivio, Dante mentions that an older individual was expected to surrender the adventurous ways of his youth and, in preparation to meet his ‘Maker.’[40] The individual must, in other words, adapt to a quiet life, which Ulysses could not abide. With his renowned oratory skills (a trait for which he is revered in The Odyssey, too), he ensures that his contagious restiveness is shared by his companions. He convinces them to trespass the boundary of the Pillars. His ‘brief exhortation’[41] could indeed be interpreted as ‘Fraudulent Counselling’, because he knowingly leads his men towards catastrophe.

Despite his deceptive behaviour (reminiscent of the initially ‘wily Odysseus’), Ulysses exudes heroism and individualism as he ardently advocates the pursuit of knowledge and ‘experience of what is there beyond’.[42]  The few lines that he utters are a condensed and intense declaration of the autonomy that is conspicuously lacking in Homer’s Odysseus. He represents the tragic paradox of being human: one is provided with the ability to envision and yearn for more than one is allotted, but is penalised for acting on this impulse. The comparison to Icarus seems inevitable, for the mythical figure seems to be confronted with this dilemma. Nevertheless, though the reader recognises Ulysses as a hero (‘in the normal sense of the word’), who is ‘a man of action’, ‘laconic’ and ‘self-possessed’,[43] his condemnation is ensured by his transgression of the explicit boundary of the Pillars of Hercules.

‘You were not born to live like mindless brutes / but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge,’[44] exclaims Ulysses, portraying his quest for wisdom as mankind’s prerogative, or a universalised ‘badge of humanity’.[45] But, in the context of the Christian middle ages, such a quest was deemed beyond the purview of mortals. Homer’s Odysseus had to contend with the obligations of the heroic ideal, wherein obeying the pantheon was a prerequisite. Similarly, Dante’s Ulysses must adhere to the tenets of Christianity. Dante uses Ulysses’ innate longing for knowledge to symbolise the faltering spiritual landscape of Europe at the time, as Von Wright observes. Through Ulysses’ condemnation, Dante is reiterating his immense faith in the Judeo-Christian tradition and the ‘deeply ingrained’ notion that ‘unrestricted pursuit of knowledge’ is sinful.[46] Ulysses’ dominant sin, therefore, seems to be over-reaching by venturing into prohibited territory for a goal that was deemed unsuitable for mere mortals.

Considering the context, Ulysses’ heroism dons a tragic guise. Past the Pillars, his journey terminates with ‘celebrations soon turned into grief’ (almost a definition of tragedy as a genre) due to the prevalence of ‘Another’s will.’[47] His death is especially tragic, because, unlike the other shades in the Underworld, who die due to human intervention, Ulysses ‘stands alone’, as Boitani states, ‘in being killed directly, and with no idea of an Eden or a Purgatory, by a [Christian] god he does not know.’[48] The claim that he is condemned for over-reaching is strengthened. Although he is in the eighth bolgia for ‘fraudulent counselling’, Ulysses is struck down directly by ‘Another’, not when he commits his deceptive deeds, but when he denounces divine authority, aggrandises human agency and trespasses an explicit boundary. Icarus’ hurtling downfall is reflected in Ulysses’ ‘mad flight’. While Homer’s Odysseus averts this tragic outcome, Marlowe’s Faustus manages to evade it until after he has explored the territory Ulysses only succeeds in entering. Marlowe provides a possibly logical culmination of the motif of Ulyssean curiosity that Dante established and Faustus embodies.

Marlowe’s Faustus

Icarus disobeyed his father’s instructions and began soaring towards the sun, rejoiced by the lift of his great sweeping wings [...] scattered feathers floated on the waves below.

After he launches upon his fatal flight, the only traces of Icarus’ tragic fate are the floating feathers of his wings on the ocean.[49] This final, haunting image is reminiscent of the distraught figure Marlowe’s eponymous hero is reduced to at the end of Doctor Faustus, when he must atone for practising ‘more than heavenly power permits.’[50] Faustus is the most overt Icarus-figure amongst the three protagonists being examined. He denounces divinity, witnesses forbidden arenas, and is provided opportunities to reverse his fate, too. However, he consistently flouts conventions and prioritises his own aspirations. Marlowe amplifies the spirit of over-reaching that Icarus represents. Although Faustus can revel in his over-reaching for twenty-four years, it is apparent that his suffering is immense and nearly instantaneous. In fact, his tragedy seems to lie in the fact that despite being permitted to reap the fruits of his transgression, he does not relish the experience, but almost immediately acknowledges the futility of his subversive action. Nevertheless, his inherently renegade sensibility does not allow him to pay heed to his remorse, resulting in further indulgence.  Faustus will be analysed as an intensification of the Ulyssean curiosity that Homer’s Odysseus suppresses, and that Dante’s Ulysses expresses but, like Icarus, cannot fulfil.

The Chorus firmly establishes a parallel between Icarus and Faustus by describing the latter as one whose ‘waxen wings did mount above his reach’, and whose ‘overthrow’ was ‘conspired’ by ‘melting heavens.’[51] The reader is already aware of the fate that awaits Faustus due to his hubris, which he underscores in his first soliloquy, by equating a ‘sound magician’[52] with god. Simultaneously, he evinces dismay at humanity’s limitations: irrespective of his grandeur, he is still merely human, unable to procure eternal life and resurrect the dead. His towering aspirations are evident as he equates man, to resort to a Shakespearean phrase, with the ‘quintessence of dust.’[53]

Faustus’ irrepressible curiosity could be attributed to the backdrop from which the play emerges, the Renaissance. Harry Levin describes the emergence of the cultural overhaul as a ‘brave new world’ being revealed to the European imagination.[54] The ‘tragic dilemma of the Renaissance mind’, however, lies, according to Arthur Mizener, between the provision of several new avenues of learning, and the restrictions imposed on their exploration.[55] The Ulyssean paradox arises once again: by being created in God’s image, man is permitted ‘the imagination to desire greatness, but not the Will to achieve it.’[56] Man is, in essence, deprived of God’s omnipotence, despite being created in his likeness. Faustus, by presumptuously ‘aspiring above his order’, rebels, as Gardner observes, against the ‘law of creation’.[57] Levin aptly states that Faustus arose from the ‘flickering limbo’ of the ‘admonitions of the Middle Ages’ and the ‘aspirations of the Renaissance.’[58] He neglects these restrictions, and allows his intellectual curiosity to grow into a ‘dangerous obsession’ that neglects ‘prudence and safety’.[59]

The eponymous hero’s recklessness is emphasised by his dismissal of recurrent reminders of the consequences of his actions.  Even Mephistopheles attempts to dissuade him by describing the inescapable permanence of hell: ‘. . . where we are is hell, / And where hell is, there we must ever be.’[60] The demonic spirit’s resigned acceptance of his infernal plight fails to move Faustus, who determinedly distracts himself from contemplating his eventual abode by negating its existence and living in ‘all voluptuousness’.[61] He ignores his own conscience, too: prior to the first appearance of the angels representing ‘Evil’ and ‘Good’, Faustus seems to be battling the two opposing forces within him. ‘Why waverest thou?’, he asks himself, but eventually asserts, ‘The god thou servest is thine own appetite.’[62] His individualism is palpable and, as Brooke observes, the crux of his aspirations. Brooke regards Faustus’ rejection of divinity as an assertion of his will and a denial of ‘any form of servitude’. Heaven represents ‘a wholly different ethos, an idea of humble service’, a notion that is incompatible with Faustus’s temperament (a temperament that is reminiscent of Odysseus’s restive sensibility).[63] It is evident, however, that, though he has renounced divine authority, Faustus is now subject to Lucifer’s will.

In addition to his acceptance of a more ominous form of subjugation, Faustus’s tragedy seems to arise from the ineffectiveness of his newly acquired ‘powers’. Mephistopheles, he finds, has ‘no greater skill’ than himself and is unwilling to furnish the hero with novel information. Though Faustus now possesses books on alchemy, biology, witchcraft, and natural disasters, he only utilises them for paltry parlour tricks, like conjuring grapes for the Duke of Vanholt. He is still unable to vivify the dead, which was his ultimate goal: the Emperor asks him to resurrect Alexander the Great and Faustus only succeeds in re-creating a mirage. To alleviate his disillusionment, he voyages across the globe, and even challenges the Pope in Rome. These ‘further adventures are calculated less to fulfil his boundless ambition than to palliate his disappointment, to make the most of a bad bargain’.[64]

Faustus occasionally veers towards repentance but is plagued with diversions that he himself creates or Lucifer presents him with. The Old Man serves as his final reminder to express ‘repentant heaviness’,[65] but Faustus is prompted to commit his final sin instead by summoning Helen of Troy and indulging in necromancy. Brooke maintains that Faustus cannot repent because ‘his mind is directed at independence still’.[66] However, the final image of Faustus is far from heroic. He acknowledges that he ‘lost eternal joy and felicity’ for ‘vain pleasure’.[67] Implacable fear reduces the renowned scholar to a cowering man. Before being dragged away by the devils, he exclaims, ‘I’ll burn my books!’[68] He recognises and announces his ‘original sin’, intellectual curiosity. A ‘great reversal’ has occurred: Faustus has transformed between the first soliloquy and the last. From ‘aspiration to deity and omnipotence’, he resorts to ‘longing for extinction’.[69]

Compared to the other two protagonists, Faustus’ transgression seems more formidable, and simultaneously, amenable to being averted, since he had several opportunities to alter his fate. However, his actions spring from the desire that stirred within all three characters: to over-reach and fulfil their potential, which is stifled by rigid restrictions. Faustus represents an intensified version of the self-destructive Ulyssesean curiosity, which he atones for: ‘Faustus is gone. Regard his hellish fall,’[70] asserts the Chorus, rekindling the image of Icarus’ ‘scattered feathers.’


 if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you. │ With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience, │ you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.

C.P. Cavafy, in his poem ‘Ithaca’, emphasises the intellectual wealth derived from a journey. Though the destination may pale in comparison, it induced the enriching voyage and has ‘nothing more to give you’. [71] ‘Ithaca’ illustrates the antithesis of the impulse that motivates Dante’s Ulysses and Marlowe’s Faustus to pursue their curiosity. They were dissatisfied by their station and aspired for more, while Homer’s Odysseus, after a few hurdles, arrives at the acceptance that Cavafy advocates.  His path is, perhaps, the most rational, since Faustus, who experiences what lies beyond, is tragically disillusioned, revealing his inherently insatiable temperament, which he shares with Dante’s Ulysses. The three protagonists choose disparate paths to resolve their innate ambitiousness. The recurrence of this motif serves as an intertextual ‘echo’, which ‘poetry, narrative and history send reverberating through time’.[72] Icarus, the unifying motif in this paper, embodies that echo in different guises. The arc of the Icarian narrative—beginning with Daedalus’s advice to remain on the middle path; to his neglect of his father’s recommendation due to his perilous propensity towards adventure; and to his fatal fall into the sea below him—and its three dominant phases are represent in Odysseus, Ulysses, and Faustus. Ovid’s tragic trajectory for his mythical hero is translated into Odysseus’s redirected transgressive impulse (he gives into the expectation of adhering to the path of temperance), Ulysses’s reckless voyage that mirrors Icarus’s feverish ascent, and Faustus’s rapid decline—the playwright leaves the audience with an impression of a hero that is a shadow of his former self, much like the pitiful feathers that commemorate Icarus’s flight to the sun.  


[1] Robert Graves, Greek Myths, (London: Penguin, 1984), p. 88.

[2] Piero Boitani, trans. by Anita Weston, The Shadow of Ulysses: Figures of a Myth, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 73.

[3] Roland Barthes, Le plaisir du texte (Paris: Points Seuil, 1973), p. 59; cited by Mary Orr, ‘Intertextuality’, in Intertextuality: Debates and Contexts (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007), p. 34.

[4] Julia Kristeva, ‘Word, dialogue, novel’, in Semeitotike: recherches pour une sémanalyse (Paris: Points, 1969) p. 85; cited by Orr, p. 21.

[5] Homer, trans. by E.V. Rieu, revised translation by D.C.H. Rieu, The Odyssey, (London: Penguin, 2003), Book VII, lines 209-210.

[6] Claudia Durst Johnson and Vernon Johnson, Understanding The Odyssey: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents (Connecticut: Greenwood, 2003), p. 183-5.

[7] W.B. Stanford, The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero (Oxford: Blackwell, 1954), pp. 75-6.

[8] Stanford, The Ulysses Theme, p. 6.

[9] Odyssey.I.34.

[10] Odyssey.IV.236-7.

[11] Odyssey.VII.579-80, 196-7.

[12] Ody.IX.28-30.

[13]Stanford, p. 50.

[14] Ody.VI.153-4.

[15] Ody.IX.213-216.

[16] Stanford, pp. 76-7.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ody.VI.172-3.

[19] Ody.V.359-360.

[20] Ody.XII.190.

[21] Ody.XII.116-8.

[22] Ody.X.50-3.

[23] Richard B. Rutherford , ‘The Philosophy of the Odyssey’, in Lillian E. Doherty ed., Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Homer’s Odyssey (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 166-7.

[24] Ody.XVIII.130-142.

[25] Stanford, p. 34.

[26] Stanford, p. 66.

[27] Rutherford, p. 170-1.

[28] Ibid., p. 183.

[29] Ody.XI.123-4.

[30] Boitani, p. 19.

[31] Dante Alighieri, trans. by Mark Musa, The Divine Comedy Volume 1: Inferno, (London: Penguin, 2003), canto XXVI, line 125.

[32] Stanford, p. 182.

[33] Inf.XXVI.19-22.

[34] Inf.XXVI.84.

[35] Musa, Inferno, p. 313.

[36] Stanford, p. 179.

[37] Inf.XXVI.95-99.

[38] Stanford, p. 181.

[39] Patrick Boyde, Human Vices and Human Worth in Dante’s Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 237.

[40] Boyde, p. 252.

[41] Inf.XXVI.121.

[42] Ibid., 116.

[43] Boyde, p. 248.

[44] Inf.XXVI.119-120.

[45] Boyde, p. 250.

[46] Georg Henrik Von Wright, The Tree of Knowledge and Other Essays (Koln: Brill, 1993), p. 195.

[47] Inf.XXVI.125-141.

[48] Boitani, p. 38.

[49] Graves, p. 88.

[50] Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (A-text, 1604) (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005), Epilogue, line 8.

[51] Faustus.I.i.21-2.

[52] Faustus.I.i.62.

[53] Hamlet.II.ii.293-7.

[54] Harry Levin, Christopher Marlowe: The Overreacher (London: Faber and Faber, 1953), p. 129.

[55] Arthur Mizener, ‘The Dualism in Dr Faustus’, in Judith O’Neill ed., Critics on Marlowe: Readings in Literary Criticism (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1973), p. 115.

[56] Nicholas Brooke, ‘The Moral Tragedy of Doctor Faustus’, in John Jump ed., Marlowe: Doctor Faustus – A Casebook (London: Macmillan, 1993), p. 124.

[57] Helen Gardner, ‘The Theme of Damnation in Doctor Faustus’, in Jump, p. 95.

[58] Levin, p. 130.

[59] Stanford, p. 7.

[60] Faustus.II.i.118-119.

[61] Faustus.I.iii.92.

[62] Faustus,II.i.7-11.

[63] Brooke, p. 118-120.

[64] Levin, p. 141-2.

[65] Faustus.V.i.40.

[66] Brooke, p. 130.

[67] Faustus.V.ii.39-40.

[68] Faustus,V.ii.111-116.

[69] Gardner, p. 96.

[70] Faustus.Epilogue.4.

[71] C.P. Cavafy, trans. by Rae Dalven, ‘Ithaca’, in The Complete Poems of Cavafy (London: Hogarth Press, 1966), pp. 36-7.

[72] Boitani, p. 69.


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