In Christopher Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus, the protagonist, Dr. John Faustus, struggles between following God or Lucifer. Faustus is a divided soul, pulled between competing interests and needs. There are many examples of dichotomy that are established in Marlowe’s play that back up the notion of why Faustus was being torn between two different worlds. Some of these binaries include the author and Dr. Faustus, good and evil, religion versus magic, and between Medieval and Renaissance thinking.
Faustus started out as a morality tale in a Protestant-leaning region of what is now modern-day Germany, in a time and place which believed in the literal Devil on Earth, it was a frightening tale, and warned against godlessness, worldly ambition, and of course, magic. For the audience, Faust’s religious salvation was at stake. Legend goes that the Devil himself appeared at one of Marlowe’s shows, so even the audience was fearful of the Devil’s notice. Today, the name “Faust” has become synonymous of tales of power by people who turned their backs on principles and values for the knowledge and power to achieve their own self-centered goals. But with their ambition and their power being more than they can handle, inevitable doom is made more tragic by their inability to seek forgiveness (Sciortino and Wallace).
However, there are also Faustian tales of redemption, where Faust has in the end came out a better man, overcame his human nature, and won God’s approval. That was the Faust of forward-looking, idealistic Europe becoming like a God. The possible plot outcomes reflect attitudes of Europe through the ages. Five hundred years ago it was unthinkable that Faust could be have found salvation; but hundreds of years later, it had become essential. Europe changed, and so did Christianity. Faust is also Europe itself, organically changing from being a religious dominated society and culture in the Medieval Europe and thinking to a free-thinking Renaissance. It, like Faust, has turned away from the from God and personal salvation, to ambitiously take its chances in the material world, dependent upon science and technology to achieve salvation for all—in time. So, the Faust story appears to also be the story of western civilization, and its destiny, prophetically written as the change began. The result of success is utopia; of failure, is destruction (Sciortino and Wallace).
Marlowe is alluding to seeing himself in Faustus or his dark side that he is not allowed to show in public through his writing. The play opens with a chorus, which gives us the reader an introduction and some background into who Faustus is, the chorus mention the birth of Faustus, his academic success, achievements and arrogance. Faustus studied and received a high level of training and has quite extensive knowledge about theology and philosophy (Malueke 7). Marlowe was born in Canterbury during the same year Shakespeare and Galileo were born. In the year 1579, Marlowe is said to have received a grant of £1 per quarter at the King’s School where he was born (Malueke 9). Christopher Marlowe saw himself in Faustus but was not born into wealth or had the same advantages as him so he made an alter ego where he can express his frustrations and publicly speak out on certain subjects.
Christopher Marlowe uses a vast vocabulary, which was full of extreme or exaggerated language, which takes the reader or audience into an imaginary world covered in references to myth and to the limits of geographical knowledge. He generates a sense of excitement and of the importance of dignity to his subject matter. His use of proper names which were elaborate and polysyllabic, an example of one such would be Mephistopheles which sustains that sense of dignity, as does his obsession with repetition. It is a combination of passion and control that marks out Marlowe’s poetic achievement from those of his predecessors, an achievement which critics have described as a ‘poetry of excess’ (Galle 103).
The graphically descriptive language Marlowe uses to help us and the reader visualize the devilish aspects of the play, provides an array of images that appeal to all the senses, for instance in scene 13, Dr. Faustus says on line 81-85 “Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud, That when you vomit forth into the air My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,So that my soul may but ascend to heaven.” In four lines Marlowe can draw on sight, smell, taste and movement to evoke feeling of an evil cloud as something that is tangible and can be seen by us, only to contrast it with heavenly elevation in line 85. It is probably the most dramatic moment in the play, and Marlowe uses some of his rhetoric to create an unforgettable portrait of the mind of a man who is about to be carried off to eternity of punishment. Faustus flip flops from one idea to another, but no escape is available, and he ends by reaching an understanding of his own guilt (Galle).
Dr. Faustus by many is considered a tragedy, Faustus shorting coming came when he fell short of God’s grace and was sent to Hell, he had the chance to ask for repentance in his final speech, but he was conceited. Susan Snyder says “Marlowe was accused in his own time of holding unorthodox religious views. One target of his attacks, according to both the Kyd deposition and the Baines memorandum, was Scriptural mira- cles. Kyd and Baines report statements by Marlowe that such miracles were not the work of God but of clever conjurors who could trick simple people with their arts” (Snyder 565)
Throughout the play we see Faustus struggling with doing what is right and being pulled between good and evil In Doctor Faustus, good and evil are presented as two feuding ideas: God and Heaven on one side, and the Devil and Hell on the other. Opposing views of this division also are represented through characters such as the old man and the Good Angel opposed to Mephistopheles and the Bad Angel. Initially, this struggle between good and evil is Faustus’ major internal conflict as he is deciding whether to make the blood bond. However, by the time Faustus views the seven deadly sins, evil persists as the dominant force and is the path that Faustus follows to his final damnation. But even early on Faustus is plagued on where to align himself. Susan Snyder once again states that “As a Christian soul, Faustus is caught between his two angels, swinging between remorse and desperate pleasure-seeking, not lost until the final moment. In theological terms he is not damned until he dies; deliverance is always possible if he will repent and call for mercy, and in the dramatic tradition of the morality such deliverance was often postponed until the last minute. At several points Faustus seems capable of breaking through to God before the devils return him to spiritual insensibility (Snyder 567).”
These two angels appear when Faustus hesitates on in his decision to give his soul to the Devil and considers repenting. The Good Angel encourages him to seek God’s mercy and tells him that it is never too late to do so. The Bad Angel persuades Faustus not to repent, saying that he is too damned to ever be able to be worthy of God’s forgiveness and so he is better off just indulging in his desire for knowledge, power, and enjoyment. The angels are symbolizing the opposing pulls of sin and repentance, or the opposing sides of Faustus’ own conscience, However, they also have a presence as actual entities. In Scene 1 Act 1 the Good Angel says “O, Faustus, lay that damned book aside, and gaze not on it, lest it tempt thy soul, And heap God’s heavy wrath upon thy head! Read, read the Scriptures: —that is blasphemy to which the Bad Angel replies “Go forward, Faustus, in that famous art Wherein all Nature’s treasure is contain’d: Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky, Lord and commander of these elements.” Later, in Scene 2 of Act 1 lines 20 and 21 the traits of good versus evil are in full view when the Good Angel tells Faustus to ‘think of heaven and heavenly things” while the Bad Angel tells Faustus to ‘think of honor and wealth’ (Golden 205).
Upon reading Dr. Faustus what stands out and is apparent right away is the authors use of magic and religion throughout the story. During the sixteenth century, England began a transition period between Catholicism and Protestantism. During the English Reformation, Protestants were harsh about the Catholic faith and certain elements were removed from Protestantism services. Elizabethan audiences wanted to watch plays that had religious figures and had magic (Scribner 475). Marlowe use of fireworks onstage was highly controversial, but it gave him the opportunity to discovery religious conflict. Doctor Faustus was a scholar who has mastered all the subjects available, is bored, and decides to involve himself in magic. Although at first, he has his reservations on to it, he decides to research the taboo subject of the dark arts and devilry, he finally overcomes those hesitations and decides to do a spell, which summons the demon Mephistopheles. When Mephistopheles appears, Faustus orders him to become his servant; however, Mephistopheles is service to the Devil (Davidson). This rejection inspires Faustus to make a deal with the Devil saying that Mephistopheles will be his servant on earth for twenty-five years in exchange for Faustus’ soul after that time is up. Throughout the play, Faustus suffers a series of religious crises in that he is unable to decide whether to continue practicing magic or to find salvation from God. However, each crisis ends with a reaffirmation of his commitment to Lucifer and the use of magic is to further degrade religious beliefs and figures. Faustus mocks religious ceremonies attacks the Pope and friars, and marvels at the seven deadly sins (Butturff).
To put the opposite of religion and magic into perspective in this play we must look at the time period in which it was written. Marlowe wrote his play during a time of huge scientific strides in the upended period following the division between the Protestant and Catholic faiths. Writing for an audience whose minds are thinking about the future of science and religion, Marlowe presents us with more than a stereotype of the damned. Faustus is a character struggling to understand why he must choose between his duty as a scholar wanting to learn dark magic and his religious duty. (Harrison 3-4) Faustus consistently claims that he is not in danger of damnation or harm: ‘What power can hurt me? Faustus, thou art safe,’ ‘If heaven was made for man, ’twas made for me. I will renounce this magic and repent,’ ‘Yea, God will pity me, if I repent,’ ‘Tush, Christ did call the thief upon the cross; Then rest thee, Faustus, quiet in conceit’ (Doctor Faustus 2.1.24; 2.3.11-11; 2.3.16; 4.5.26-27).
Faustus does not accept that his days are numbered and will end in his eventual damnation and he will enter the eternal tortures of hell., at the end of the play it is quite clear that Faustus is going to be sent to Hell, why would Marlow end it in such a way? Marlowe left the reader and audience with a large question to answer, how do we know what is allowed in the eyes of God by man when the world is constantly changing and shifting by what is morally and culturally acceptable in order for us to gain God’s grace and acceptance when it is our time to be judged. Faustus was in a world where knowledge and power is increased through the access of science and religion is ever expansive, how was Dr. Faustus was faced with new moral dilemmas and sets of decisions new to his world. So, Faustus left his trust in science rather than obeying the word of God. The most prestigious universities in Elizabethan England were closely tied to the political and religious spheres. For example, the school’s history notes that ‘in 1530, Henry VIII strong armed the University to accept his divorce decree from Catherine of Aragon, and during the Reformation in the 16th century (Harrison 8-9). The education that Faustus would have received at a University such as that would have shaped how Faustus accepted the theology of the Anglican church. His mastery of theology shows that he was knowledgeable about Protestant approved sciences.
Lastly when we analyze Dr. Faustus, we can make that claim that he was a Renaissance thinker in a Medieval world not ready to accept how he thought. During this time God was the center of everyone’s world, The Renaissance took place in Italy during the fifteenth century and had a huge impact on all of Europe, it brought along with it an emphasis on the individual themselves and approaching the natural world through the lens of scientific inquiry. In the medieval academy, theology was the queen of the sciences. Rohit claims that “In the Renaissance, though, secular matters took center stage. Faustus, despite being a magician rather than a scientist (a blurred distinction in the sixteenth century), explicitly rejects the medieval model. In his opening speech in scene 1, he goes through every field of scholarship, beginning with logic and proceeding through medicine, law, and theology, quoting an ancient authority for each: Aristotle on logic, Galen on medicine, the Byzantine emperor Justinian on law, and the Bible on religion (Rohit 1). “Faustus is adamant on becoming a full Renaissance Spirit who does not allow tradition or authority his path for seeking knowledge and wealth, this is yet another example by not only Faustus but by Marlowe himself. Neither had traditional views and it can be interpreted as the hypocrisy of the church saying people should be content in where they are in life and be accepting because if they were destined for more God would have made them more. Faustus and his modern thinking challenged the very notion in Act 1 Scene 1 in lines 8 and 9 Faustus says “Is to dispute well logic’s chiefest end? Afford this art no greater miracle? Faustus is not happy not knowing the ins and outs of a subject and he feels as if he must dedicate his time and effort to one concentration when he is wants to know everything.
For the medieval person, pride was one of the greatest sins that a person could commit. In their lives, this concept was based upon the fact that Lucifer’s fall from heaven and into Hell was based on his pride when he tried overthrowing Heaven against God. Thus, for the average medieval person, aspiring pride became known as one of the cardinal sins. According to the medieval view, Faustus has a desire for knowledge not granted or accessible to him, so in order to gain this knowledge, Faustus makes a contract with Lucifer, which brings about his damnation. When we look at the overall picture of the play from this standpoint, Faustus deserves his punishment; then the play is not so much a tragedy as it is a morality play. The ending is an act of justice, when the man who has transgressed against the natural laws of the universe is justifiably punished. The chorus at the end of the drama re-emphasizes this position when it admonishes the audience to learn from Faustus’ damnation and not attempt to go beyond the restrictions placed on humanity basically telling audience to know their place and to not step out of line otherwise, they will face a similar fate. The character of Faustus can also be interpreted from the Renaissance point of view. At the time of this play, there was a conflict in many people’s minds, including Marlowe’s, as to whether to accept the medieval or the Renaissance view. Should they allow themselves to be slaves to the traditional ways of thinking or should they be allowed to free express themselves and allow themselves the opportunity to have more opportunities in life.
We could take this play and examine it now and say Christopher Marlowe was ahead of his time with his way of thinking, now most people are free thinkers and although they walk a moral and religious code set out by the Bible, they do not allow it to inhibit their knowledge and how they think. People are free thinkers and if the play is a tale about anything, it is a tale of challenging the status quo.