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How long will a man lie i' th' earth ere he rot? - Hamlet, V, i, 168
The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus is Marlowe's misreading of the drama of the morality tradition, the Faust legend, and, ironically, his own Tamburlaine plays. In the development of the character of Doctor Faustus, we find one of the supreme artistic achievements of English dramatic literature, a milestone of artistic creativity and originality. The force of Marlowe's dramatic poetry resonates with lyrical intensity in its dialectic between world and will. Not only is Faustus the first true dramatic character of any psychological, moral, and philosophical depth in English literature of the modern period, but in his creation of this unique character we see Marlowe on the verge of Shakespearean characterization, that supreme artistic achievement that Harold Bloom calls the invention of the human personality.
The play itself is a study of the development of the inner self of a character, the evolution from a type who unfolds into a soul who develops. Bloom calls Marlowe Shakespeare's "prime precursor and rival Ovidian" (xx). All of Marlowe's major characters are of one type: each strives single-mindedly and obsessively towards one ever-evasive end. Faustus is the most philosophically oriented of this motley band, the one who comes closest to embodying the incredible vastness of human personality. Bloom notes that "Marlowe never developed, and never would have, even had he seen thirty" (xxi-xxii). While this judgment may be argued true, we must not regard his want of artistic maturity against Marlowe for the characterization he does achieve remains unprecedented in English literary history. The Faustus that we come to know, to loathe, and, at times, to idealize is both a human figure in all of his flaws and a natural force, "not so much intelligence as energy" (Steane 131).
Marlowe's tragedy stands in a uniquely transformative relationship to the tradition of England's morality plays; more than simply an evolution, the play assimilates, incorporates, and creates new uses for the conventional elements of the morality play. The morality play, the most popular examples of which include Everyman and Mankind, was rooted in the didacticism of medieval Christian theology and developed as a means for the conveyance of Biblical truth to the masses. Its basis, as a literary work, was "an archetypal human perception: the fall out of innocence into experience" (Potter 9).
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Other morality elements enter the formula of Marlowe's plays, only to be transformed by the artist's keen focus on dramatic character. The act of repentance, so essential to the morality plot, extends beyond the reach of Doctor Faustus, "the unattainable tragic ideal" (Potter 129). Potter argues that the myth of Faustus "emerges out of the overlapping dramas of old certainty and new ambition, old punishment and new despair" (129). Martha Rozett records that "the survival of the Vice, when it does occur [in Elizabethan tragedy], suggests a partial breakdown of the original didactic intent of the morality play and the introduction of a tragic vision which refuses to believe that evil can be totally overcome" (97). The shift in character emphasis allowed for further development of the Vice figure as a dramatic persona and for the protagonist as a tragic persona. The opening chorus follows the morality convention of describing both the rise and fall of the play's protagonist: "we must now performe / The forme of Faustus fortunes, good or bad . . ." (7-8). Instead of accepting the position of Christian advocate, however, the chorus chooses to "speake for" (10) the hero, thus blurring the usual condemnation of man's sinful nature. Faustus inverts the traditional morality plot convention of Man's temptation by evil and his eventual salvation by God. In his world, Dionysiac freedom, in the form of the opportunities offered by his bargain with Lucifer, is "his chiefest blisse" (27), and temptation comes from the Christian God. "One of the most ironic uses Marlowe makes of the morality tradition," Rozett notes, "is his transformation of Mephistophilis [sic] into the tempter in reverse" (224). Mephostophilis must continually struggle to keep Faustus from straying onto the path of righteousness. Faustus seems to repent, but only when he strays from his bargain with Lucifer. When he begins to ponder the heresy of his actions, he feels the pangs of fear of the threat of eternal damnation before he is forcefully drawn back into conformity with his diabolic bargain. Faustus' frustrated fears derive from the repeated placement of limits upon his desire, limits which he stubbornly refuses to maintain.
Faustus goes beyond emerging from its own historical context as a historically representative document and creates for itself a new context from which it must be understood. Marlowe will forever be remembered as the father of English dramatic verse. Besides the masterful definition of blank verse as the verse of the stage, Ward succinctly summarizes Marlowe's contribution to the history of English literature: "the innovation lies rather in the quality of the verse, which harmonised with the vigorous movement of the action, the stir of life in the characters, and the exuberant passion of the diction" (325). The character of Doctor Faustus emerges from a period of the birth of radical new philosophies and theological doctrine. The adjective "Faustian" indeed describes the archetypal figure that emerges from the English Renaissance of the individual who strives for present gratification without regard for consequence. Marlowe subtly captures the essence of contemporary concern with the self in a dramatic context. The playwright takes as his focus "the preoccupation of the self" which so characterizes English and American Puritanism (Rozett 65), a characteristic also of the romantic hero, for whom "self-assertion become[s] an explicit artistic credo . . ." (Wilson 3). Rozett notes that "the use of self-examination as a substitute for confession points to an increasing recognition in the society as a whole of man's own responsibility for the state of his soul and for the choices he makes. This aspect of Protestantism became one of the defining characteristics of modern consciousness" (73). The period was dominated by "the presumption of the intellect, the Faustian aspiration for unlimited knowledge" (Rozett 62). Aspiration becomes one of the most important characteristics of the Elizabethan tragic protagonist (Rozett 92). Rozett notes that "the characteristic of the morality play protagonist most clearly retained by the Elizabethan tragic protagonist [was] the susceptibility to vice or error which brings about his fall" (102). Pride, that old recurrent figure of morality plays, becomes a psychological force in Faustus, no longer an external diabolic and occasionally comic pressure upon the protagonist, but an element of human nature and a builder of character.
The Elizabethans maintained an ambivalent attitude toward pride, presumption, boldness, aspiration, ambitiousness, and similar characteristics which contributed to their "receptivity to tragedy by enabling the stage characters who possessed these qualities to evoke a mixture of sympathy, admiration, and repudiation" (Rozett 60). Faustus reveals a vigorous self-confidence before and during his first encounter with Mephostophilis, taunting him to "Learne . . . [of his] manly fortitude" (313). Faustus' self-confidence, pride, and aspiration allies him with such figures as Phaeton and Icarus, ambitious literary and mythological characters who sought to move beyond their proper spheres and were destroyed in the process. "Phaeton is the classical embodiment of Elizabethan pride and aspiration; his desire to rise above human limitations is an emblem of the ambitions of Tamburlaine, Faustus, and a host of aspiring minds" (Rozett 114). The chorus warns that Faustus' "waxen wings did mount above his reach" (21), thus establishing his mythological heritage. Faustus desires god-like power, the power to "joyne the Hills that bind the Affrick shore, / And make that Country, continent to Spaine, / And both contributary to my Crowne" (335-337, italics in original). "The logic of the [Protestant] concept of assurance", Rozett writes, is that the damned man is damned "only if he believes himself to be" (106), and Faustus does believes himself to be damned only because his immense imagination reaches a single obstacle: he can not fathom a God so gracious enough as to extend forgiveness even to him; that is, the Apollonian tendency of his imagination can not fully contain the thought of the all-powerful, ever-evasive powers which lie beyond his perception. Like Macbeth, Faustus becomes paranoid as he nears the end of his allotted time on Earth and refuses to repent, thereby willing his own damnation. He continues to regard himself above the doctrine of Christian theology, beyond redemption and grace. Faustus' despair throughout the play maintains an elaborate dialectic with possibility of salvation. Gill writes that the very language of despair never sounds in the play without a corresponding ring of salvation. The hope of salvation amidst his seeming sentence of damnation threatens his sensuous enjoyment of his allotted twenty four years. The Christian tone reinforced by this movement between Faustus' increasingly powerful sense of despair and the hope he finds in exploring new avenues of thought and deed is merely the Apollonian illusion he casts over the hidden and threatening Dionysiac reality. Total freedom can be achieved only by complete surrender to the complex forces which reign over the universe, forces which Faustus stubbornly and heroically refuses to admit exist. Faustus' final soliloquy is "a study of despair" (Stock 164), a heart-rending song of terror and stubborn self-absorption.
The apex of the play, the final speech subverts the morality play overtones by revealing the complex inner struggle of a man tormented by despair of damnation, yet obsessed with expanding his own self-consciousness despite the suicidal consequence of such an action. Rozett finds that Doctor Faustus shares with The Conflict of Consciousness the theme of "despair ofsalvation" (106). Does the play actually embody a rejection of the morality play tradition and "its assurance that divine forgiveness remains always within reach" (Rozett 209)? The play's shift from God to man pushes aside the questions of salvation and explores, more profoundly, the psychology of the man who has yet to be saved, the drama as a psychological process instead of recreation.
Faustus suffers from a painful misrecognition of his own limits. He defines himself absolutely and will not budge from that definition. Despite his fears, the eager German suffers from no external injury. His pain is psychological, the terror of the recurring threat of dismemberment by demons. Ellis-Fermor concludes that Faustus is a record of the loss of humanity between the mind and the surrounding universe, the essence of spiritual tragedy (62). "The two truest elements" in Faustus' nature are "an instinct for beauty so powerful that it trembles upon the very borders between the sensuous and the spiritual, and a ruthless, scientific honesty of thought and devotion to truth . . ." (Ellis-Fermor 63). "Faustus' academic imagination is not simply the obnoxious occupational disease of a second-rate scholar; it is, more profoundly, the decorous manifestation of a psyche which, like its Marlovian ancestors, is bound by its own egoism" (Altman 376). Indeed Faustus is so confined by his own ego that in his very first encounter with Lucifer's henchman, he believes that he has actually conjured Mephostophilis and begins to command him as his own minion, quickly revealing his desire for dominance. But Mephostophilis soon teaches him of the existence of forces which lie beyond even Faustus' control:
Mephostophilis: I am a servant to great Lucifer,
And may not follow thee without his leave;
No more then he commands, must we performe.
Faustus: Did not he charge thee to appeare to me.
Mephostophilis: No, I came now hither of mine owne accord.
Faustus: Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee? speake.
Mephostophilis: That was the cause, but yet per accidens...
(I, iii, 268-274; see Note 1)
The most frightening discovery in the play is that Faustus, and indeed all individuals, has limitations, that one can not know all, that the mind can not outreach certain boundaries. Frustrated in his studies, Faustus is driven by an all-encompassing desire that has no particular aim. His studies prove to be of little use to him once he has mastered them. Medicine, logic, philosophy, divinity: man has developed these disciplines in the hope of extending his grasp of the universe, of becoming master of all there is. "Each discipline," writes Altman, "represents a category of knowledge that can help man to manager his present condition, but not to make any essential change in it" (373). Faustus' symbolic compact with Lucifer represents the soul's struggle to separate itself from common humanity, to distinguish himself by becoming God. "Essentially, Marlowe is testing the viability of an imagination that seeks to liberate itself from the trap of a fallen history and reassert its dominion over nature" (Altman 375). Faustus is the Apollonian hero waging war with the Dionysiac commonality of human existence, struggling to form an individuality amidst the chaos of the intoxicating submission to Dionysiac integration. When Faustus question Mephistophilis, he limits his answers to affirmations or negatives. For Altman, the play's "other meaning" "lies in the contrast between the hero's humanistic attempt to restore his freedom and his sadly diminished capacity for true freedom; in his ignorance of his own inadequacy; and, above all, in the discovery that hell is really the circumscribed consciousness" (388). When he begins to sign the contract with the devil in his own blood, his body turns fiercely against him. We may read this scene as the subtle force of Nature leaving clues for Faustus to turn away, taunting and teasing his efforts to be his own creation. "The staying of my bloud" and the contemptuous naming of hell as a "fable" portends the disastrous consequences of seeking to yield control over the daemonic.
Why does Faustus use his new god-like powers to perform parlor tricks? In submitting himself to the Apollonian design of fashioning his own self, he blinds himself to the creative sustenance of union with Nature. Faustus "can invent nothing that is substantially new" (Altman 381). By glutting himself and indulging in playful human fantasy, Faustus believes he can extend his own limitations, but he fails to realize that, while stretching those boundaries of his imagination, he nevertheless remains confined by that same mental capacity. Indeed, his tricks are new discoveries in a world he has always known. Because he refuses to envision a power greater than his own, despite the strangely passionate pleadings of Mephostophilis, Faustus claims he will repent "When I behold the heavens" (552). Like a child learning to take his first unsteady steps, he celebrates his discovery of sensual pleasures. "Moved by very primal instincts of pleasure and pain," writes Douglas Cole, "the man of extraordinary intellectual prowess and unbounded individual aspiration gradually cedes control of himself to the destructive demons" (138). Even the parade of the seven deadly sins, critically regarded as a scene of low comedy out of context in the play, identifies Faustus with Adam. Both see a new world opened up before their eyes, a world apparently created for them which they both believe they can rule. Where once he saw limitless potential, Faustus begins to confront the harsh reality of his will in conflict with the external universe. Beginning with the body, Faustus vanquishes the confines of space by traveling across the universe. The parallel scenes in which Wagner and Robin make their own attempts at conjuration sadistically mock the intense inner struggle of Faustus the solipsist. Their parlor games "remind the audience that the knowledge for which Faustus sold his soul offers little beyond trickery and is available to whoever possesses the book" (Rozett 232-3). The extent of Faustus' magical powers, from traveling across the universe to making horns grow on Benvolio and making grapes appear before the Duchess, are merely keen manipulations of sensual perceptions. Hoping for divine knowledge, Faustus offers his soul for the illusion of substance. Driven by the fear that all his work is in vain, Faustus find this illusion offers only a temporary appeasement for his troubled desires because "ultimate fulfillment or satiety can be the most fearful prospect of all for a self that suspects itself in the 'concerted' space between desire and possession . . ." (Snow 71). Faustus' name means nothing to Benvolio, which stings his pride. He must strike out against Benvolio and his colleagues in order to refuse their lack of belief in his supremacy.
Despite its Christian theme, Doctor Faustus belongs to a pagan realm of Apollonian and Dionysiac forces. Faustus is an Apollonian tragic figure, artfully struggling to place limits upon the overwhelming Dionysiac world depicted by the ultimately triumphant and removed Christian figures of God and Lucifer. Faustus' aspirations embody Nietzsche's Apollonian force, especially "the special art realm" of the dream (19). Tamburlaine is a Dionysiac figure, embodying the spirit of intoxication. For all his mighty aspirations, however, Faustus can not accept "that thin line which the dream image may not cross, under penalty of becoming pathological, of imposing itself on us as crass reality: a discreet limitation, a freedom from all extravagant urges, the sapient tranquility of the plastic god" (21). Though wavering at times, Faustus maintains a dream image of himself as master of his own freedom. The start of the play finds him a man looking for miracles, questioning what lies beyond the many books which clutter his study: "Affoords this Art no greater miracle?" (37). Having conquered the Apollonian realm of figures and lines, he seeks a new subject on which to whet his appetite and thus turns to knowledge of that which can not truly be known, the Dionysiac realm. He receives his first taste of Dionysiac reality in his initial encounter with Mephostophilis, who defines hell as more present than Faustus has hitherto believed: "Why this is hell; nor am I out of it" (304).
Faustus sees himself and all of humanity as fallen creatures, yet he rejects this condition as the final judgment: "Why then belike / We must sinne, and so consequently die, / I, we must die, an everlasting death" (71-3). Many critics interpret Faustus' failure to conclude the verses from 1 John and Romans in this scene as proof of a faulty logic and a belief in the inevitable harshness of Christian existence. These interpretations devalue Faustus' life-long studies and achieved learning. To fully appreciate the adamant force of Faustus' ambitions and curious nature, we must read him as a man who believes he has reached the ends of the limits of his world. He continues on during the course of the play to find that elusive satisfaction in his own powers he failed to find in the regular course of study. Not until he meets the spirit of Helen does Faustus "[enter] that pagan world to which his mind truly belonged" (Ellis-Fermor 80), and he begins to realize the immense power of his own imagination and the potentially creative and destructive forces it conveys. He is ultimately damned when he finally crosses the threshold from the Apollonian to the Dionysiac, an experience which should result in "the essence of Dionysiac rapture" (22), but instead ends in absolute terror and despair. We encounter Faustus in the opening scene as an eager student who has reached the ends, not of human knowledge, but of his own patience with the tedious process of learning. Contrary to Nietzshe's prediction, Garber predicts that the conclusion to the collision of aspiration and limitation is descent and enclosure, descent from the highest perches of self-confidence into the enclosure of the chains of human limitation (5).
Where Hamlet's genius lies in the extraordinary humanistic depth of his philosophical self- exploration brought about by his failure to resolve himself to action, Faustus' genius reveals itself through his utter resolution to assert the primacy of his massive will in the face of certain damnation. Hamlet defines the limits of his own will and the boundaries of his freedom in these famous lines:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action . . . III, i, 91-6
This passivity contrasts with Faustus' belief in the infinite imagination of the human mind and thus its infinite power:
All things that move betweene the quiet Poles
Shall be at my command: Emperors and Kings,
Are but obey'd in their severall Provinces:
Nor can they raise the winde, or rend the cloudes:
But his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as farre as doth the minde of man . . .
Aspiration, limitation, hope, and despair: Marlowe's play empowers the stage as the space for exploration of such issues, to the benefit of the art and of audiences ever since. Marjorie Garber writes that "as audiences and readers have long been aware, much of the dramatic tension in Marlowe's plays derive from the dialectic between aspiration and limitation" (3). Dollimore believes that "In Dr. Faustus . . . sin is . . . a conscious and deliberate transgression of limit" (115). For Faustus, sin is the assertion of will. As early as 1 Tamburlaine we find Marlowe's exploration of the limits of the aspiring mind:
Our soules, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world:
Still climing after knowledge infinite,
And alwaies mooving as the restless Spheares,
Wils us to weare our selves and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect blisse and sole felecitie,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crowne.
II, vii, 21-9
Where Tamburlaine's mind was confined to ambitions of earthly conquest, Faustus seeks a more metaphysical goal: complete knowledge of the secrets of the universe. In the end, the reappearance of the Good and Bad Angels signals the voice of medieval theology and literature's return, only to be rejected one final time. Strangely, given his egoistic personality, Faustus finally becomes a compassionate being at the end of the play. He slowly comes to accept the ends dictated by Dionysiac Nature and resolves to provide whatever comfort he can to his students. This compassion strikes the audience's emotional core and disturbs our negative judgment of him. We finally feel a complex mix of compassion, jealousy, admiration, and loathing in the figure of this strange, strange man. Marlowe sets a monumental precedent in allowing a compassionate response to Faustus, dangerous theologically, but revolutionary in literary and artistic terms. Wilson argues that "For most romantics . . . self-knowledge is but a preliminary step toward affinity with a transcendental realm; thus it is not an egotistical enterprise . . ." (98). Wilson also describes two stages which comprise the romantic ideal (189). The first stage is characterized by introspection: "a rejection of corrupted established authority and the sterile, rationalistic world order than provides it sanction; a plummeting of the interior consciousness in a desperate attempt to locate an authentic means of transcendence; and a reliance on the self - as a transforming force, source of knowledge, or center of moral authority - that borders on solipsism" (189). The second stage involves the "ultimate transcendence of self- consciousness, an absorption into cosmic consciousness that involves the hero's acceptance of communal responsibility" (189). Faustus never fully reaches the level of transcendental connection with the universe, although he approaches when he bids his students to "Talk not of me, but save your selves and depart" (1870). This compassion hearkens once again to the morality tradition, where the example of the sinning individual serves as a model for others.
Like a drowning man, Faustus fights for his life amidst a swirling world of diabolic intent. He resorts to his learning but knows that this education will now slow the striking clock. Faustus must appear alone in this final culminating appearance on Earth and on the stage. His final soliloquy must be an opportunity to fully develop the explosive dramatic potential of the new dramatic frontier. The Nature he once sought to conquer spurns his supplications, refusing to harbor him from Lucifer. "No Faustus, curse thy selfe" is the expression of his final acceptance of his own limits, the realization that he has devised his own end (367). The closing of the play portrays the final and total usurpation of morality elements in the humanistic drama of character. Marlowe's creative assimilation of the traditions of the historical English drama is nearly perfect as "the Morality Play simply offered the form in which Marlowe could externalise the struggle that he saw and found interesting in the Faust story" (Steane 367). The revolution in dramatic representation reaches its climax as the play ends with the complete and total collapse of daemonic Dionysiac Nature upon the singular mind of Faustus. Faustus has never actually been granted any power at all; Mephostophilis has performed all the tricks that Faustus thinks he cleverly conjured. His power must have been an illusion if even a clown can conjure a minion of Hell. Garber notes that Marlowe's plays often move towards "closure in enclosure; the inner stage, or discovery space, becomes a version of hell, and a place of final entrapment" (6). In the final scene, Faustus finds his own study transformed into the hell predicted by Mephostophilis. Faustus finally learns the truth of Mephostophilis' earlier definition of hell as a world itself, all-encompassing Nature in all of its amoral fierceness.
1. The Bowers text of Faustus employed in this essay is a combination of both the A (1604) and B (1611) texts. For an understanding of the editor's selections, see the Textual Introduction to the play in Bowers edition, pages 123-159.
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