Even so, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is worth reading and study because of the many remaining examples of the poet’s skill it contains. In addition to the adulterated poetry in this play there is also the problem of the tainted characterization and symbolism; for a while the personality of Mephistophilis is often caricaturized and while the exploits of Faustus are frequently rendered pure low comedy, still the Marlowe version of the two principal characters is evident in the sober and more consistent moments of the play. As an added contribution to existing Faustian literature, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is an artistic effort, although not comparable in-depth or scope to the treatment given to this theme by Goethe.
This drama should be regarded as a skeletal structure of the play written by Marlowe, for the surviving manuscripts are so interspersed with comic scenes and the lines themselves so often revised according to whims of the actors that the original writing must be culled out of the surviving version.
There is evidently more than what meets the eye in Doctor Faustus, otherwise, its story-element which is too brief and simple, has not by itself the power of creating a lasting impression and an abiding appeal. The play may have had an immediate interest to the people of the Renaissance age because it was written in and for that age, and also because Faustus typifies the genuine Renaissance passion for infinite knowledge. The play, it is true, is a typical Renaissance rendering of the story upon which it is based. But the fact that it is still a favourite of every reader of English drama in spite of three-and-half centuries of changing tastes and temperaments, proves that Doctor Faustus has its greatness not as a mere typical Renaissance play but as a play embodying eternal significance.
Central Figure of ‘Dr. Faustus’
Faustus, the chief and central figure of Marlowe’s play, stands not for a character, not for a man, but for everyman. The grim tragedy that befalls him is not a personal tragedy, but one that overtakes all those who dare ‘practise more than heavenly power permits.’ The terrible conflict that rages in his mind is not peculiar to him alone, but common to all who waver between truth and delusion. The play presents not the conflict between man and man, but the eternal battle between the world-old protagonists—Man and Spiritual Power. And the battle takes place not in any known battlefield but in the invisible and limitless region of the mind. And the object of fight—not sceptres and crowns, not kingdoms and empires, but the knowledge of man’s final fate!
Conflict in Dr. Faustus
The mystery of life is an alluring and impenetrable one. Innumerable have been the attempts of scholars and scientists, poets and prophets, to pluck out the heart of this mystery. Yet baffling one and all, it continues to be a mystery. Part at least of this mystery is due to the perpetual conflict between good and evil—a conflict without beginning and end. The conflict is terrible, but in that very terror there is an irresistible fascination. It is such a fascination that the play of Doctor Faustus exercises on its readers. Faustus, the Teutonic and medieval sceptic, personifies disbelief in all its strength and weakness. Tired of what he calls barren knowledge, he deliberately seeks to learn and practise magic, magic that has been practised since the beginning of the history of thought by those who have chosen the wrong road. Blind in his blind determination, Faustus becomes deaf to the counsels of good that are constantly whispered into his ears by the Good Angel. Such is the power of Evil that when once it takes a man by the throat, it will not leave him until it strangles him. This kind of crucifixion which carries with it its own moral, cannot but make an appeal to the mind of man in all ages and countries. Sin working out its own nemesis, brings the catastrophe of the play into vital relation with human conduct. And who can resist its appeal?
Fascinating Appeal: The Attempt to Acquire Forbidden things and the Attempt to Secure Martyrdom
And too, there is ever present in man an irrepressible temptation to reach that which is beyond his grasp, to conquer the infinite, to touch the impalpable, to see the invisible, to attain the impossible. In spite of examples from history, in spite of warnings and threats, man never gives up this instinct of his, never rests contented with what he has. He is forever eager to follow the dubious trail of some melting mirage of the mind and ready to stake his all, if necessary, in its pursuit’. Doubtful though of his success, he still throws his red gauntlet in the face of fate, defies chance and circumstance, and hopes to reach his goal. May be the roses of reward will not be his, but his surely will be crown of martyrdom. And both the attempts—the attempt to acquire forbidden things and the attempt to secure martyrdom have their fascinating appeal. And Faustus, as we know, is both the hero and martyr of forbidden knowledge.
An Interesting Story
The story of Doctor Faustus may be synoptically stated thus. There was once a German scholar, John Faustus by name. He was a Doctor of Divinity—excelling all ‘whose sweet delight disputes in heavenly matters of theology.’ Not satisfied with ‘learning golden gifts’, he took to the study of cursed necromancy. He was convinced that ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’, and that if he became one, all things that move between the quiet poles will be at his command. So he decided to enlarge his sphere of knowledge by cultivating magic. He conjured up Mephistophilis, servant to great Lucifer—‘arch-regent and commander of all spirits.’ Mephistophilis told Faustus that he could not serve him without Lucifer’s permission. Faustus then voluntarily offered to surrender his soul after twenty-four years, if during that period Mephistophilis promised to be his slave and did his biddings. Lucifer agreed, and demanded a promise executed in Faustus’ blood. Faustus did so and set out in quest of knowledge and pleasure, travelling about invisible. He had an aerial flight ‘seat in a chariot burning bright’, and visited Trier, Paris, Naples, Campania, Venice, Padua, Rome. By way of demonstrating his power and superiority, Faustus fooled the Pope, called up the spirits of Alexander and his paramour, provided grapes to the Duchess of Vanholt in mid-winter and, at the request of his scholar-friends, summoned the spirit of Helen of Troy—Helen whose face ‘launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium.’ At times Faustus was seized by the desire for repentance but the exhilaration of pleasure was too great, and the powers of Evil too strong. Finally, as the period of contract expired, Faustus made frantic appeals to God and Christ: but precisely at the stroke of twelve, he was borne away by the Devils to his everlasting doom.
Plot of ‘Doctor Faustus’
As already mentioned Doctor Faustus consists only of scenes, of fourteen short scenes. Marlowe never cared to arrange them in Acts and Scenes according to the traditional manner. Some of the recent editors, have, however, attempted to do so. According to this arrangement the First Act consists of the first four scenes. The next two scenes constitute the Second Act. The seventh, eight and nineth scenes, with the Chorus preceding it, is the Third Act. Scenes ten, eleventh and twelveth with Bologue are marked off as the Fourth Act. The last two scenes form the Fifth Act.
Whatever argument we like and follow, the fact remains that the interest and appeal of the play does not in the least depend upon its division into Acts and Scenes, or Movements or Episodes. Lacking as it does structural unity and technical perfection, the play has the greater merit of unity of character. It is the dominating figure of Faustus that holds the play together and imparts to it such dramatic quality and emotional appeal as can never belong to it by any other method. As in Hamlet, so in this drama, the central personality himself is the play, a living play with living acts and scenes, and incidents and episodes. His adventure itself in the realm of knowledge is full of dramatic possibilities; and the conflict in his mind between his allegiance to the Devil and his desire to repent for it and seek God’s pardon is, of course, dramatic in the extreme.
Characterisation of ‘Doctor Faustus’
Characterization in Doctor Faustus is, in general, weak and shadowy. Marlowe concentrates all his power of character delineation on Faustus. Mephistophilis too, gets his share, though to a much less degree. But all the other characters are faint and feeble. In fact, Marlowe seems to have designed these minor characters, Valdes and Cornelius, the scholars, the Old Man, the Good and the Evil Angels, in such a manner as to heighten the character of Faustus by contrast. “Each and all of these subordinate characters are dedicated to the one main purpose of expressing the psychological condition of Faustus from various points of view—the perplexities of his divided spirits, his waverings of anguish and remorse, the flickerings of hope extinguished in the smoke of self-abandonment to fear, the pungent pricks of conscience soothed by transient visions of delight, the prying curiosity which lulls his torment, at one moment, the soul’s defiance ‘yielding to despair, and from despair recovering fresh strength. To this vivisection of a ruined man, all details in gloomy scene contribute. Even the pitiful distractions—pitiful in their leaden dullness and blunt edge of drollery—with which Faustus amuses his worse than Promethean leisure until the last hour of his contract sounds, heighten the infernal effect.”
Despite defects Doctor Faustus is a great play and a great tragedy. A close examination will reveal to us how wonderfully Marlowe has succeeded in producing a work of art from the chaotic Northern and Teutonic Faustiad. The most striking thing that endows the play with a tragic unity is the character of the hero—whose mind is a battleground between the forces of curiosity and conscience. Marlowe’s indisputable merit consists in delineating with great tragic power the figure of a great tragic hero. Marlowe’s Faustus, scholarly and sceptical, defiant and desperate, combines in himself the characteristics of a medieval rebel and a Renaissance adventurer. It is the psychological study of this character that Marlowe draws with great mastery, and it is this that makes Doctor Faustus more a dramatic poem than a drama proper. The mental conflict of Faustus is presented with great tragic intensity, enhanced every now and then by the whispers of the Good and Bad Angels. We witness the course of this conflict with alternating moods of fear, pity, sympathy, and awe, till in the final scene when Faustus cries out his very soul, we just watch incapable of having any one particular feeling. Plot or no plot, Doctor Faustus engulfs the reader in the waves of tragedy that fret and foam in its serious scenes.