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Doctor Faustus is probably Christopher Marlowe’s most famous work. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, and author of nondramatic poetry as well, Marlowe wrote only seven plays. If Shakespeare had died at an equally young age—twenty-nine rather than fifty-two—Marlowe might be the more famous of the pair. Marlowe was one of the first English writers to perfect black verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—and to use it with flexibility and poetic effect in drama. He was killed in a tavern brawl.
The manuscripts of Doctor Faustus, surviving in different versions, were revised by theatrical companies after Marlowe’s death in 1593. Printed versions of the play, one in 1604 and another in 1616, indicate further editorial adjustments, particularly involving the comic scenes. Scholars do not agree about which version is more authentic. They agree that Marlowe wrote the tragic scenes, but disagree about the authorship of the comic scenes. Moreover, they question whether the comic scenes comment on or detract from the main plot.
The comic scenes of Doctor Faustus, however, follow the medieval practice of the farce or interlude—humorous, clownish, or boisterous amusement that entails variations on or exaggerations of Faustus’s dealings with Mephostophilis. For instance, the servants and the clowns try to conjure devils, and Faustus’s sale of a horse to a horse-courser, who returns to pull off Faustus’s leg after the horse proves to be a creation of black magic, parody Faustus’s own more serious deviltry. The episode involving Faustus’s pulled-off leg, actually a bundle of hay that dissolves, suggests Faustus’s own bodily disintegration at the end of the play and the disintegration of his chances for salvation. Faustus remains giddy with hollow, short-lived successes. He never experiences the somber reflection that usually grips the living in the presence of mortal decay. Overall, the comic elements present thematic reminders of how evil lures by deceit and blunts or vulgarizes sensibility.
Marlowe based Doctor Faustus on the early sixteenth century German doctor Johann Faust, a practitioner of magic, who was thought to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and magical power. Marlowe dramatizes tales that gathered around Faustus’s name, those typically involving the conflict between human aspiration and human limitation. His version of the life of Faustus greatly enriches and extends its scope. He incorporates many literary, philosophical, and religious contexts.
In particular, Marlowe structures Doctor Faustus as a morality play combining religious instruction with vivid entertainment. The morality play, a medieval poetic drama, mingles tragic and comic aspects of ordinary life with Christian liturgical services and the homily. Its concern is humanity’s earthly existence and spiritual state, but especially humanity’s well-being in the afterlife. Death stands as preoccupation, as in the play itself, because it ought to bring every moment of life into sharp focus. The present should be viewed as a preparation for eternal life; the struggle for salvation calls for faith, endurance, repentance, and constant alertness. Furthermore, the morality play is allegorical; it personifies virtues and vices. Good and bad forces in a person’s heart and mind are presented in the likeness of living men and women, and they act in accord with their names or natures. For example, in the morality play, the main character, representing all, encounters characters such as Faith, Hope, and Charity as well as Pride, Lust, and Envy. The ensuing struggle demonstrates life’s trials and the soul’s particular relation to God, and Christ’s blood is shed for its salvation. Medieval culture had emphasized that believers should detach themselves as much as possible from things of this world.
Through elements of the morality play, Marlowe makes Doctor Faustus’s situation expressive of the lives of all believers. For example, he presents the conflicting dialogues of the Good and Evil angels and Faustus’s response to them as a form of spiritual decision-making in slow motion that is intended to teach through contrasts. These dramatic encounters, as with those involving Faustus and Mephostophilis, and the varying comic ones, illustrate that acts of choice and their motivations have temporal and eternal consequences.
In addition, Marlowe sets the morality-play framework of Doctor Faustus within the wider context of Renaissance Christian humanism, in which intellectual and cultural currents greatly differ from the medieval period. He makes Doctor Faustus represent the new learning that highlights the importance of individual thought, expression, and worldly experience. Christian humanism seeks to extend boundaries of knowledge beyond the religious sphere, with a revival of classical learning. It stresses all knowledge of human and physical nature, the arts, and sciences together. It values and appreciates the present life—the good things of the here and now and the almost unlimited potential of humans to be, have, or do what they would. For example, the discovery of the New World had greatly broadened physical, intellectual, and imaginative horizons. Human beings, having wondrous capabilities and possibilities, should realize them through generalized curiosity about all things. Struggles to understand how the world works and to discover how its parts are connected makes humans more than they already are.
Initially, Faustus exemplifies the new humanistic learning and its open-ended possibilities; he is a person at the height of human knowledge and is the greatest theologian in Europe, despite humble origins. Although typifying the high aspiration of the Renaissance, he grows discontent, unhappy with the constraints of his learning and his life, unable even to approximate his personal ambitions. He wants, for example, observable proof of answers to ultimate or cosmic questions and increasingly seeks fame or worldly renown and sensual gratification, epitomized in Helen of Troy. He turns to forbidden, occult things, acting against his better knowledge.
Like some other humanists, Marlowe’s Faustus retains the superstitious belief that black magic or diabolism, though unholy, is achievable and would raise him to the superhuman heights he seeks. He thinks the fact of death and the dread of it, as well as the existence of evil and its depth, renders orthodox forms of knowledge inadequate. He might make the tragic quality of life more manageable or tolerable by means of magical or demoniac practices. He knows that these practices involve yielding his soul to the Devil or to one of the Devil’s surrogates; the personal appearance of a devil in this world was accepted as proof that black magic works. Faustus, in return for his soul, receives use of supernatural knowledge or power for twenty-four years, the parallel with hours of the day indicating the brief time in comparison with eternity. His supposed supernatural ability is a mystery operating outside the laws of God and nature. He thinks it attainable by select intellectuals only. It was thought to bring worldly gratification and a sense of self-sufficiency, or independence from faith. It would momentarily compensate for the destruction that haunts life and provide demonstrable answers to life’s final questions, goals otherwise unreachable.
Still, Faustus realizes, though sporadically, that attempts to remedy somehow the brevity of human life—the toil and trouble inherent in it—by means of a power other than God are sinful and false, bringing damnation. Also, he wavers in convincing himself that the soul dies with the body, that he will accordingly escape damnation, his contract with Lucifer voided. His indecision, a delirium of self-deception, demonstrates the perversion or deformity that is the actual nature of evil, something he sees in the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins but fails to understand. In addition, because of his pride, the root of the Seven Deadly Sins, Faustus never recognizes Mephostophilis, Lucifer, and Beelzebub as sly, worldly-wise tempters and tricksters, temptation always and everywhere being present in life; nor does he recognize the devils as unwilling servants of God, a means of divine justice.
Furthermore, Marlowe adds another source of tension and conflict to his play, the doctrine of predestination. Formulated by John Calvin, the sixteenth century reformer and theologian, the doctrine declared that Christ’s redeeming death extended to the elect souls alone, those predetermined by God for salvation; others, for whom it is denied, human nature being inherently sinful, will be damned. The English church, making concessions to Calvinists within it, taught a form of the doctrine, that some souls are predestined to be saved, remaining silent about the others. As Marlowe suggests through Faustus, the church, existing to draw people to Christ, may, through its Calvinistic teaching, push them away.
In his opening soliloquy, Faustus reflects upon his life and the patterns of his thought and feeling, which had been shaped by the morality play, Christian humanism, and predestination. Apparently, he develops a pessimistic fatalism, a layer upon layer of inability or helplessness, a combination of perverse reasoning, foolishness, delusion, and madness. He thinks that whatever he chooses the result is the same—death in this life and damnation in the next. He cites Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans—“The wages of sin is death”—but he omits the rest of the verse—“But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” His refusal of that “gift”—something Christ has already done for him—is eventually revealed for the arrogance and blindness it is. As the play unfolds, Faustus reaffirms his belief that his condemnation cannot be transcended through an appeal to God’s grace, his pact with the Devil strengthening his certainty that his sins are too great to be forgiven and that his destiny is predetermined. He ignores that a sincere prayer to Christ, however briefly or humbly said, will be answered; that God’s mercy, without limit, open to all who ask, and so easily acquired, will make whatever happens work for his good. Christ’s “free gift” will do for him what he cannot and need not do for himself. Nevertheless, Faustus makes his assurance of doom a self-fulfilling prophecy, rejecting the goodness of good—Christ’s redeeming sacrifice.
Faustus’s disappointment in his pact with Lucifer begins immediately, as he learns what he already knows: that God made the universe, that Hell is wherever God is not, and that his choices will lead him to Hell for eternity. His dissatisfaction continues, his desire for power and fame reducing him to diversionary trifles: mocking the pope, conjuring up grapes in winter, pursuing images of beautiful women; all are devils disguised to fulfill his wishes. The comic subplot also illustrates the futility of his pact. For example, the least-educated clown summons a demon; magic is shown to be nonexistent; and a demon appears whenever anyone disavows Christ. Faustus surrenders true power—the power of faith, choice, and intellect—for empty gestures that perish with occurrence.
The final scene of the play summarizes the tragic irony of Faustus’s life; the clock counts the minutes left in the life of a person who, having determined life’s length, remains incapable of calling upon Christ when there is no unpardonable sin. Faustus will not accept that divine mercy predominates over divine justice, and he wants to hide from God. Hell, shadowing him throughout the play, completes its objective because the terms of his contract have been fulfilled. Isolated, alienated from God, and screaming in futility that he will burn his books, Faustus is confronted by devils, who tear him apart limb by limb; only his soul remains intact, taken to Hell.