Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: A Renaissance Tragedy

By transplanting the Faust-myth into the English Morality framework, Marlow tapped the hidden potentials of both the myth and dramatic form. But Doctor Faustus was to be overdetermined thematically by its surrounding culture. This culture found in the myth of Icarus and Prometheusian archetype of betrayal, that is, human aspirations repeatedly colliding with some implacable and impersonal forces, social, political, natural or divine, and consequently yielding to frustration, common to human psyche. The Renaissance philosophy and art highlighted the perplexing juxtaposition of the angelic human being, a creature of reason under the paternal benevolence of God side by side with a human being as a beast of appetite subject to God’s terrible wrath. In philosophy, on the one side were the spiritual reconstructions, which emerging from Ficino’s neo-Platonism and Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration suggest that human being can exalt themselves by reason and love into something like divinity. On the other side there were the documents of counter-Renaissance, such as Machiavelli’s The Prince which studiously avoids transcendental moral reference in favour of pragmatic political tactics. This disparate Renaissance struggles to reconcile the beautiful aspirations of the mind with the fierce demands of the body corresponds to the battle which Nietzsche much later identified as the essence of tragedy between Apollo, the God of civilization, rationality and daylight and Dionysus, the God of frenzy, passion and midnight. Again in the Hegelian model, the renaissance tragedy like Dr. Faustus or Macbeth shows that tragedy is finally answerable less to an individual than to a culture, and less to opinion than to conflict.

Faustus rejects the traditional structural system of study, in which ‘Divinity’ was regarded, at that time, “the Queen of the sciences” as well as the discipline which gave meaning to all knowledge an experience. Therefore, Faustus’s alternative career is sorcery through which he hopes to gain “a world prophet, and delight/ of power, of honour, of omnipotence.” In this way, Doctor Faustus comes as a parable about the spiritual loss in a modern world, leading not only to damnation in the conventional sense, but to the fatal corruption awaiting all Renaissance aspiration.

The subsequent story after Faustus sells his soul away to Lucifer is an illustration of the orthodox moral, to borrow a rhetorical question from the gospel of St. Mathew:

“What profits it a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul.”

Now by a version of the foolish wish motif familiar from folklore Faustus discovers that purchasing the ability to violate the rules of nature is inevitably a bad bargain. The world he is going to command is a small and flimsy one and so the quest for transcendence generates only more claustrophobia. He cries in helplessness

“Ay, Christ, my saviour

Seek to save distressed Faustus’s soul”

But as he is committed to the twin paradigm of the sins of Adam and Lucifer, he cannot get rid of the fall. Instead, Lucifer performs before him the pageant of seven Deadly sins. The sins are visible on the stage, but more importantly, Faustus, under the influence of evil, performs them within himself on the psychological level.

Baulked in the Act III from the full pursuit of astronomy, in the Act III, Faustus turns to cosmography, a subject regarded at that time as a destructively unserious pursuit; in other words he descends from the heavens to the earth. When we hear from the chorus that

“…learned Faustus

To find the secrets of astronomy

Graven in the book of Jove’s high mountain

Did mount him up to scale Olympius’s top,”

we seem still to be dealing with a genuine search after knowledge. But after that, as the chorus at the beginning of the Act IV informs, the emphasis is no longer on the search for knowledge, but

“…Faustus had with pleasure ta’en the view

Of rarest things, and royal courts of kings,

He stayed his court, and so returned home.”

He even dabbles in the statecraft of Rome, by rescuing the anti-pope, Bruno, and humiliating the pope and his Friars. This step from cosmography to statecraft is similar to that from astronomy to cosmography. At the social level, he undergoes a similar descent—from the court of the Emperor through the Duke Vanholt to the scholars in Wittenberg.

Thus Faustus lives out his twenty-four years doing nothing great things as he has promised at the beginning. When the dream of power is lost, the gift of entertainment remains his sole solace. His fascination to see Helen is of course expressive of the Renaissance passion for beauty in its perfect form. But here more importantly Helen is associated with his failure to enjoy sensual pleasures and with his fear of losing both his spirit and physique as the Last Judgement is ensuing. In the first lines we are much more moved by the magnificent futility of the human protest against the inexorable movement of time as it enacts an inexorable moral law. In the next lines, however, is ordeal is confinement to earth:

“Oh, I’ll leap upto my god, who pulls me down?”

The image affirming the immensity of Christ’s Testament also declares its unreachable remoteness:

“See see where Christ’s blood streams in firmament.”

As Faustus pleads that “one drop “, then “half a drop”, would save his soul, he confesses his barren littleness of life in the vastness of the moral universe and he discovers the fulfilment of human pretensions to power and knowledge in the face of overwhelming cataclysm.

But it is not an attitude peculiar to that of the Renaissance—and this is one reason why the play still feels relevant: it is a perennial disease of the personality, a retreat from self knowledge that should be the end and beginning of all other knowledge, into a spurious kind of learning. In this Faustus may be a remarkably brilliant and errant scholar, but he is also an Everyman who compels Renaissance and modern audience as well to examine the perplexing choices of facing a creature of desire and doubt in a changing world.

1 Comment

  1. Lalitha

    I have read many explanations on Dr.Faustus. This essay is very scholarly and satisfying. Really Hats Off to the essay author.

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