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  • Christopher Marlowe

Doctor Faustus - critical review: Is Doctor Faustus a victim?

Christopher Marlowe's 'Doctor Faustus' portrays individuals inferiority and victimhood to the ambiguities, and constraints, of the human condition. Published in both 1604, and in 1616, both long after the death of Marlowe in 1593, the texts supply a duality in itself with their certain alterations on specific ideology in terms of morality, theology and identity. In this review, my analysis will focus on the A Text. Doctor Faustus follows the tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil in order to get twenty-four years of increased power, prosperity and pleasure. Marlowe incorporates the idea of a Renaissance man and the desire and consequence of omniscience, in which knowledge not only leads to an increased hubris but often a rejection of the power of God. This idea of knowledge undermining the status of God is particularly significant due to the 1492 breakthrough in human knowledge about the world: as Columbus founded America. This necessarily raised questions on the omniscience of God: as this land was absent from the biblical text, and as a whole was an overall threat to certainties they had believed before. With this desire for knowledge, Faustus wants not only to "stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man", but reach the heights of a deity. Through reading the play through different theological lenses, debates are necessarily created about the meaning and definition of human vulnerability. In terms of Faustus as a character, it seems that he sought his own destructive end. However, in terms of humanity itself, Faustus seems to encapsulate the vulnerability that all humans are necessarily faced with.

It could be argued that Faustus is portrayed as a victim against God. This argument supports the idea that 'Doctor Faustus' is a Calvinist text, and therefore focuses on the idea of predestined and unchangeable election, in which Faustus is not one of the elected, which leads him to his sinful actions. This idea is supported by George Santayana in 'three philosophical poets' (1910), as he argued that 'Faustus is damned by accident or by predestination.' This idea could be supported by the quotation in text A: "Never too late, if Faustus can repent", significantly different from text B, in which 'can' is altered to 'will.' The verb 'can' suggests that he can only gain mercy if he has the ability to do so, meaning only if he is elected. Furthermore, the quotation "My heart's so harden'd I cannot repent" could suggest he is a victim to the wrath of God, since it may suggest that God has prevented him from repenting, due to his 'hardened' heart by nature, echoing this idea from Romans 9:18: "Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth." This idea makes us sympathetic towards Faustus, as it suggests that all his actions are a result of a predestined electoral that he should not be saved.

However, I think it could be more convincing to argue that the play suggests humans have free will over their eternity, and therefore advocate that Faustus is a token of warning, instead of victimhood. It could be interpreted that it does not portray a character who is subject to eternally predestined fate: but instead a more Lutheran approach in which salvation is only based on 'sola fida': faith alone. Through this idea comes the idea of a dual nature: in which Faustus' relationship with his demonic 'other' echoes his free will. It has been argued that Faustus' allying with Mephistopheles is a process to reduce the boundary between himself and the demonic 'other', and the end of the play is a 'fusion' between the two. However, instead, it could be argued that Faustus' free choice is not a process of becoming and morphing into this alternative nature, but instead, dismissal of his innate dual nature, which is in all humans, and a choice to become subject to only one side. This dual nature is displayed through Faustus and Mephistopheles, in which Mephistopheles could symbolise, as a person in itself, the idea of 'original sin', which entered the human condition innately when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of good and evil. This 'original sin' that entered human nature is therefore symbolic of hell itself, therefore by giving into it, and abandoning belief in God, one is giving in to the idea of going to hell. This connection between the demonic and hell can be seen through Mephistopheles quotation: "Why this is hell, nor am I out of it", mirroring Satan's declaration in Milton's Paradise Lost: "myself I am hell", as well as Mephistopheles' claim "Hell hath no limits [..] for where we are is hell […] all places shall be hell that is not heaven". This idea that wherever heaven isn't, which is where God is, is hell, could suggest that the denial of God is necessarily hell, meaning through giving in to the hellish side of human nature, you are by definition abandoning God. This universality to this nature of humanity, in which all contain the sinful and corrupted that Mephistopheles symbolises, can be shown through the fact that not only Faustus can conjure up Mephistopheles, but Wagner and Rafe as well: suggesting Mephistopheles is a present part of all man's psyche, but Faustus' story is unique in which he fully gives up the human side of his nature, and gives in and becomes subject to the demonic side. This is shown through quotes such as 'O might I see hell, and return again, how happy were I then" along with comparing the feeling of seeing the sight of hell to "Paradise was to Adam" showing this complete subjection to the demonic side of his nature. This idea, that the play is a tale of a man giving up his dual nature and becoming subject to only one side of it: the demonic, could possibly explain his lack of mercy or grace. Through interpreting Faustus and Mephistopheles as two 'sides' of human nature, it could be argued that by giving up the side of humans that God created and giving in to the side which entered the human consciousness with the temptation of Satan, he no longer "loves thy Lord with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind" [Matthew 22:37], as he necessarily abandons God, echoed through the fact that the summoning of Mephistopheles itself is due to him hearing him "rack the name of God" and "abjure the scriptures and his saviour Christ." The Lutheran idea of 'sola fida' suggests that he had a choice throughout the entirety of the play, despite all his sins, to regain mercy from God, and therefore have control over his eternity, as long as he had faith. The phrase "throw me down to hell" and "Faustus hath lost [..] heaven", shows his lack of belief that God will still have mercy on him after all his sins, which necessitates his subjection to his other, demonic, side of his nature. This Lutheran idea of free will and faith alone in the text could further be justified through the fact that Faustus' dual nature remains present till the very end, in which his pure nature is shown through Faustus makes exclamations such as "I'll leap up to my God!", giving hope to the audience that he will put his faith in God, and be saved, however, his last words are "Ah, Mephistopheles", showing this last ultimate subjection and belief in the devil, and therefore the demonic side of his nature, instead of his belief in God. Therefore, through this Lutheran reading, it could be portrayed that the play is labelled a 'morality play' more appropriately, as it's warning can reach out to all of humanity, whom all are equipped the same dual nature of both demonic and perfect, therefore necessarily with the same potentiality as Faustus. It becomes a theological warning to not give in to this demonic aspect of human nature, and with that abandon the perfect.

Furthermore, it could be argued that Faustus should not be portrayed as a victim, through assessing his attitude to knowledge. Faustus' desire for omnipotence can be clearly seen, through the fact that his endeavour into the "metaphysics of magicians", which leads to his downfall, is in order to gain individual "power [..] honour [..] omnipotence." This lack of victimhood can be argued further through his inclination to become as powerful as a God. It is written that he wants to "stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man [..] try the brains to gain a deity", describes his own words as "heavenly" and the phycological evil angel exclaims "be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky." This connection of divinity: "gain a deity", "Jove", "heavenly", with humanity: "mind of man", "on earth", "words", incorporates this renaissance idea of the hope of knowledge leading to a superior status over others, and gaining the status of a God through the agency of knowledge. This superiority comes with the desire for power, as when Faustus regards his endeavour, he claims that he will make the spirits "fetch me what I please", followed by the listing of active verbs: "I'll have", "I'll make". Furthermore, he claims "Had I as many souls as there be stars I'd give them all for Mephistopheles", showing this idea of free will, and concluding that with this he would be "great emperor of the world", and "join the hills that blind the African Shore/And make that land continent to Spain." This description of physical alteration of the world further suggests his ideal of having the status, and knowledge being the replacement, of God. This idea echoes the Renaissance period of the importance of intellectual endeavour, and notably the hope and power that the scientific revolution gave humanity in their definition of themselves and the world around them. Therefore, it could be argued that this attitude to knowledge, which seems necessarily connected to power, suggests that he is not a victim but instead his downfall is a result of excessive pride and hubris.

Overall, Faustus does not seem to be a victim to anything but human nature itself. The play seems to show that ultimately, what we are must inferior to is our own nature, and the play defines what our 'nature' is through commenting on contextual ideas for what it meant to be human: both secular and theological. Faustus' quest for knowledge is innate in all human nature, evidently shown through the biblical story of Adam and Eve's sin due to eating from the tree of knowledge, and this was being particularly emphasised and practised during the Renaissance, with the appeal for intellectual endeavour, and its connection with power, increasing. This is exaggerated through the most tempting arguments coming from the 'bad angel', instead of the good, echoing a generalised idea of the nature of the human temptation during the Renaissance. Furthermore, through a theological perspective, human nature is corrupted by original sin and therefore all individuals are innately present with the demonic, as is Faustus with Mephistopheles. However, with this portrayal of victimhood, it could be argued that Marlowe suggests humans have free will within this: the idea that humans have choices within their overall capabilities as humans. Through reading the text through a Lutheran perspective, one can argue that it shows our autonomy over our eternity in that we can choose which side of our dual nature (demonic or perfect) that we become ultimately more subject to. Furthermore, within this desire for knowledge, especially prevalent in the Renaissance period, echoed through the desire of characters to return to figures and the history of the classics, there seems to be a warning to not allow that to necessitate hubris and assumed superiority. This idea is shown through the Chorus' conclusion: as they warn the audience not to "practise more than heavenly power permits", showing this ultimate inferiority of humans to what they may direct their intellectual studies towards. Therefore, Faustus may, in the end, be a victim to both knowledge and the force of evil, both necessary elements of human nature, but his downfall itself has been brought about by his own free will. This makes his endeavour and intention: to become superior and 'God-like', an ultimate failure, as through his rejection of the God of classical theism, he becomes not more powerful, but merely increasingly inferior, to alternative forces: knowledge and the demonic.

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