The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus is a play by Ch. Marlowe written in 1604. In this play, Marlowe portrays Doctor Faustus as a man who, of his own conscious willfulness, brings tragedy and torment crashing down upon his head, the pitiful and fearful victim of his own ambitions and desires. Marlowe uses irony to portray the downfalls of his protagonist at the finest and sharpest point. His irony is based on theological concepts of sin and damnation and dramatically expressed in two major patterns of action. Thesis The human weaknesses, like a desire to master sacred knowledge and magic, make Faustus a tragic hero who has to fight with death.
A desire to master sacred knowledge is one of the main features of Faustus’s personality. Marlowe depicts that Faustus is dabbled in magic even before becoming a Doctor of Divinity, “being of a naughty mind & otherwise addicted.” Though “excellent perfect in the holy scriptures,” he “waxed a worldly man,” devoting himself to magic, astrology, mathematics, and medicine (Marlowe 1997). In the play, Faustus is still a man and no demon. Thus, his choice, no matter how often repeated, does not become irrevocable until his death. Following Rosner: Marlowe’s Faustus is “not satisfied” with the achievements of his education” (54). It is possible to say that his own curiosity and inquisitive mind lead him to tragic outcomes.
In the play, the dramatic situations are heated by moral choice and spiritual trials faced by Faustus. The pattern of moral choice leads him to the alternative of spiritual destruction. Critics (Rosner 54) underline that Doctor Faustus does not rely on the representation of physical pain and destruction for its tragic effects. It is primarily and fundamentally a tragedy of the spirit. The representation of suffering is not intense in Doctor Faustus; in addition to the agonies of Faustus’ last hour, there are recurrent indications of his pangs of conscience; but that is the extent of human suffering involved. For instance, Mephostophilis talks of suffering and of the pains of hell, but with the exception of one spontaneous outburst, he is not shown as a suffering creature.
FAUSTUS. Why, have you any pain that tortures others!
MEPHIST. As great as have the human souls of men. But, tell me, Faustus, shall I have thy soul? And I will be thy slave, and wait on thee (Marpowe 1997)
The character of Faustus is a tragic one faced with suffering and despair used as central themes in the play structure and meaning. Critics admit that there is a definite and integral relationship between the torments of Faustus’ death and the course of his career, just as there is between the nature of his suffering, as he comes to realize it, and the nature of the devil’s suffering as Mephostophilis explains it to him. It is the suffering of the damned that links the human and the diabolic in Doctor Faustus, not the pain of hell-fire but spiritual pain (Gates 56; “Faustus”. Norton Anthology 872).
Faustus becomes a tragic hero, unable to resist his desperation and anxiety. At the end of the play, Faustus’s desperation becomes a torment to him. Faustus’ career is characterized by the pattern of pleasure and fear: he who once set himself up as an example of manly fortitude to the spiritually tortured devil now lives in servile fear of the devil’s threats of physical pain; such threats, together with the lure of new pleasures, stifle the spiritual doubts and pains that periodically afflict him (Rosner 54). “Faustus’ mistaken admiration for the carnal husk of words themselves rather than their spirit does lead him into damnation and subjects him to the law established by his pact with Lucifer” (Gates 56). Marlowe uses irony to establish the tragic element of the play: the ironies cloak the repeated exercise of Faustus’ moral choice and his relationships with the devil. There remains the irony of the contrast between the actual accomplishments of his magical career and the original dreams of wealth, honor, and omnipotence which provoked that career. The play is based on ambiguity on matters of faith. A huge part of his play’s attraction lies in what we might call its defacement of religious institutions: the poisoning of a nunnery, the murder of monks, the repeated and gleeful mockery of Christian beliefs” (Boehrer 83).
In choosing the not-God in his desire to be as God, Faustus has provided not only for his own destruction but also for his own degradation (Rosner 45). Instead of reaching the stature of a demigod or even commander of the world, Faustus becomes an entertainer (Rosner 23). As a scholar, Faustus is limited by mortality; thus, it gains his satisfaction by playing practical jokes on the Papal court; the man who looked forward to controlling the lives and power of all earthly rulers now becomes the magician of the Emperor, building castles in the air, and presenting spirits that resemble great men of the past. As Faustus himself declares:
Than have the white breasts of the queen of love:
From Venice shall they drag huge argosies,
And from America, the golden fleece
That yearly stuffs old Philip’s treasury;
I learned, Faustus will be resolute (Marlowe 1997)
Faustus is a tragic hero because the suffering which grows out of that choice is as spiritual as the evil which produces it, an agony of mind and will (Rosner 41). Faustus reflects typical traits and motives of a human but tries to escape punishment and control the universe, to reconstruct the cosmos in naturalistic, non-theistic terms (Gates 56). At the end of the play, he declares:
Then will I headlong run into the earth:
Earth, gape! O, no, it will not harbor me!
You stars that reigned at my nativity,
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus, like a foggy mist (Marlowe 1997
As an intellectual, he is also aware of the exploit in its philosophical dimensions and scientific knowledge. Using this theme, Marlowe shapes this fundamental pattern of human experience by making it grow out of a freely repeated moral choice, linking Faustus’ sin with the primal or original sin of Christian theology. The tragic and dramatic elements can be explained by the fact that it is this burden and responsibility of moral choice in a Christian context that adds the final degree of universality to his figure and his career (Gates 89).
Using dramatic situations and tragic scenes, Marlowe emphasizes the conflict of good and evil through the two Angels who depict the alternatives Faustus continually faces. Their presence in the play has often been attributed to the influence of the morality tradition, and certainly, to the extent that they are concrete embodiments of the conflict in Faustus’ mind, they appear to be a characteristic device of morality play (Rosner 65). In the first place, angels and devils in Marlowe’s time were not considered abstractions or even metaphors for the operations of the human mind; they were conceived as real spiritual beings created by God and granted certain powers and functions. The same can be said of the career of Faustus, though here, the moral nature of the protagonist is more complex, and the incidents which lead him to his tragic destruction are ranged in order of increasing intensity and deepening ironic significance. Faustus replies to Angels:
Why the signiory of Embden shall be mine.
When Mephistophilis shall stand by me,
What can God hurt thee, Faustus? thou art safe
Cast no more doubts.–Come, Mephistophilis (Marlowe 1997)
Among these was the power to influence by suggestion, though not constrained, the mind of man. Critics (Rosner 23) admit that Faustus never directs his attention to the Good and Evil Angels as dramatic entities; he neither speaks directly to them nor shows any sensible awareness of their physical presence.
One of the main dramatic tensions throughout the play is provided by the possibility of Faustus’ repentance (Rosner 54). If that possibility were not real, neither the admonitions and urgings of the Good Angel nor the manifest concern of the devils to lure and frighten Faustus away from godly thoughts would have any dramatic meaning or validity. “Since Faustus is actually the type of person who is drawn compulsively to what is blasphemous, daring, and imprudent, it is not at all clear that his choice is so free after all” (Rosner 87). All these factors merge into the crisis of the last act, where the Old Man urges Faustus to call for mercy and avoid despair. Marlowe’s vision of evil in this play is the vision of Christian theology: Faustus’ tragedy is a spiritual one; the irony which characterizes it is the irony of moral evil, the irony of sin. Doctor Faustus, by abuse of his freedom and revolt against the natural order, willfully chooses his own destruction under the guise of self-glory (Gates 56). Marlowe has introduced a familiar theological concept, a concept which was traditionally treated, together with despair, as one of the most serious obstacles to repentance and salvation (Rosner 54).
In sum, the representation of suffering is not very great in Doctor Faustus; in addition to the agonies of Faustus’ last hour, there are recurrent indications of his pangs of conscience; but that is the extent of human suffering involved. Mephostophilis talks of suffering and of the pains of hell, but with the exception of one spontaneous outburst, he is not shown as a suffering creature. Yet what suffering there is in the play is central to its structure and meaning; there is a definite and integral relationship between the torments of Faustus’ death and the course of his career, just as there is between the nature of his suffering, as he comes to realize it, and the nature of the devil’s suffering as Mephostophilis explains it to him. One by one, Faustus examines the branches of higher learning as they were organized in the universities of his day: philosophy, medicine, law, and theology. One by one, the fields of secular learning are rejected because their ends do not satisfy his demand–but notice what the demand is. He does not pursue knowledge for the sake of truth, but for power, superhuman power, the power over life and death.
Boehrer, B. Disorder in the House of God: Disrupted Worship in Shakespeare and Others. Comparative Drama 38 (2004), 83.
Gates, D. Unpardonable Sins: The Hazards of Performative Language in the Tragic Cases of Francesco Spiera and Doctor Faustus. Comparative Drama, 38 (2004), 59.
Marlowe, Ch. Dr Faustus. 1997. Web.
Rosner, J. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Barron’s Educational Series, 1985.
“Faustus”. Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th edition, Volume A. W W Norton & Co Inc; 6th edition, 1993, pp. 971-1029.