Allegory and Symbolism—Their Meaning
In Greek, ‘Allegoria’ means to imply something else. Allegory is just a form of art presenting a second meaning beneath the surface meaning. It may be taken as an extended metaphor in which the characters, action or ideas stand for some others. The meaning is always implied not expressively stated. Hence, the reader of an allegory is expected to get not only the apparent or surface meaning of the story but also the second meaning or the hidden truth lurking behind it.
Very often allegories are simple stories conveying metaphorically some spiritual or ethical ideas with a didactic purpose. All Morality plays in English literature are more or less allegorical. We also get allegories in the form of prose, poetry or drama. Spenser’s Fairie Queene, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Swift’s Tale of a Tub are outstanding works in this form of art.
Symbolism in general means the presentation of objects, moods and ideas through the medium of emblems or symbols. It is a conscious and deliberate technique of the use of symbols in art and literature. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word ‘symbol’ means “thing regarded by general consent as naturally typifying or representing or recalling something by possession of analogous qualities or by association in fact or thought.” Thus lion symbolises courage, the moon symbolises a lovely face and the cross symbolises Christanity. So symbols are words that mean much more than their simple literal meaning.
Moral Allegory in the Play
A close and critical study of Doctor Faustus enables us to go deeper and get the hidden truth or moral allegory of the play that relates “the form of Faustus’s fortunes good or bad.”
This engrossing tale of a proud and an inordinately ambitious medieval magician who sold his soul to the Devil is undoubtedly allegorical. It has a moral allegory of universal significance. In spite of Marlowe’s agnosticism and atheistical inclinations his “Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” turns out to be a religious, rather Christian, moral sermon, and the sermon is that whoever shuns the path of virtue, denounces God and His laws, and aligns himself with the forces of the evil to gain limitless power and position is doomed to despair and eternal damnation. So Hudson has rightly said: “No finer sermon than Marlowe’s Faustus even came from the pulpit. What more fearsome exposure was ever offered of the punishment man brings upon himself by giving way to temptations of his grosser appetites?” And the mournful monody of the Chorus makes the moral allegory of the play crystal clear:
“Faustus is gone; regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practise more than heavenly power permits.”
Then the introduction of the stock devices of the Miracle and Morality plays, such as the Good and Bad Angels, the Devils, the Old Man, The Seven Deadly Sins etc., clearly points out the moral and allegorical aspect of the play. All the above characters or apparitions deserve symbolical or allegorical interpretation. We may take them up one after another for such interpretation.
(i) Significance of the Good and the Evil Angel
Two Angels and Tragic Conflict
It should be noted that there is hardly any external action in the play. We find that the real action presented in the play is the spiritual conflict within the soul of the hero—a conflict, we may be sure, between law and desire, religion and scepticism, or between curiosity and conscience. Hence, Ellis Fermor rightly remarks that “the scene is set in no spot upon the physical earth but in the limitless regions of the mind and the battle is fought, not for kingdoms or crowns, but upon the question of man’s ultimate fate. Before him lies the possibility of escape to spiritual freedom or a doom of slavery to demoniac powers. Thus, and in such terms is staged the greatest conflict that drama has ever undertaken to present.” And in the light of this remark Faustus may stand as the symbol of man in general with the strange admixture of virtue and vice in his soul. And then the Good and Evil Angels also appear in the play with their own symbolic significance personifying the two aspects of Faustus’s character. The former stands for order, virtue or goodness and the latter represents the baser spirit of Faustus, his indomitable passions and desires. One stands for his conscience and the other, his curiosity for ‘unlawful things.’ Hence, Harold Osborne has rightly observed: “The Good and Evil Angels are really externalisations of the two aspects of Faustus’s own character on the one hand, conscience, and on the other, that aspiration to the novel and romantic that led to his downfall.” It may be noted that Marlowe is quite original in the use of his angels and they differ a lot from those abstract figures in the Morality plays.
(ii) Significance of Helen and the Old Man
As Faustus’s fascination for Helen, the ‘only paragon of excellence’ reveals the Renaissance characteristic of love and adoration of classical art and beauty, Helen epitomises the charms of classical art, learning and beauty. And her shade or apparition may also be the symbol of sensual pleasures of life which are but transitory, and lead to despair and damnation. If it is so, the Old Man represents Christian faith with its obedience to laws of God and its need for prayer and penitence that can assure eternal joy and bliss. The Old Man also represents another moral aspect; that is one who has firm faith in God can boldly face the temptations and tortures presented by the forces of Evil and ‘can ascend to heaven while the fiends sink back into hell.’
(iii) Significance of the Show of the Seven Deadly Sins
We have this pageant of Seven Deadly Sins in the sixth scene or second scene of Act II. This spectacle also shows that Marlowe in his Doctor Faustus adopted some of the conventions of the old Miracle and Morality plays. So the Seven Deadly Sins—Pride, Covetousness, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth and Lechery—of good old Morality plays are also very much here in this play in a grand spectacle to cheer up the wavering and dejected soul of Doctor Faustus. But Marlowe is quite original in his treatment of the scene. In the ‘Faustbuch’, or ‘Faust Book’ it is a masque of the seven animal forms representing the seven principal Devils. We get this pageant of Seven Deadly Sins also in Spenser’s Faerie Queene and this also might have been a source for Marlowe.
Some critics are of the view that the show is meant for comic relief for the audience. But this is hard to accept. In fact the show is not meant for any comic relief but is really meant for bringing back Faustus to the path of hell when he was much irritated by Mephistophilis for not giving right answers to some of his questions related to the creation of this universe. And we find Lucifer, Belzebub alongwith Mephistophilis appearing on the stage, the moment, Faustus, to a great extent disillusioned, utters the name of Christ with a fervent appeal to save his soul:
“Ah, Christ, my saviour,
Seek to save distressed Faustus’ Soul!”
They put up the show to cheer up his drooping mind and lure him back to the path of hell; and they succeed mightily when Faustus in rapture expresses his delight after the show:
“Oh, this feeds my soul!”
Symbolically it means Faustus’s abject surrender to these deadly sins who lead to the path of hell. In fact the sins are already there in his soul and the show of the sins simply symbolises or externalises them. Another point to note is that Pride leads the procession. In fact Pride deserves this, as Pride is the worst vice that brings about the downfall. And our Faustus was puffed up with pride to fly too near the Sun with ‘waxen wings’ to bring about his own ultimate doom and damnation.
(iv) Significance of The Character of Mephistophilis
If in Doctor Faustus there is any other character other than Faustus that deserves some consideration, it is Mephistophilis. He is with Faustus from the very beginning of his proud career till his tragic downfall. He is considered to be one of the seven spirits of second rank. He is also called Lucifer’s vice-regent. But the Mephistophilis of Doctor Faustus with his ‘signs of remorse and passion’ is Marlowe’s unique creation.
Of course we may treat Mephistophilis as the villain of the play as it is he who seems to lure away Faustus to the path of hell. But a closer study reveals that Faustus himself with his extreme pride and inordinate ambition is the root cause of his own damnation. The point is made clear when Mephistophilis in the very third scene of the Act I tells Faustus in response to his query:
“For, when we hear one rack the name of God,
Abjure the scriptures and his Saviour Christ,
We fly in hope to get his soul;
Nor will we come, unless he uses such means
Whereby he is in danger to be damn’d.”
So it was Faustus who first racked the name of God and abjured ‘the scripture and his Saviour Christ’ and only then Mephistophilis, the Devil, flew ‘in hope to get his soul.’ And this leads to the symbolic significance of the character of Mephistophilis. The evil is actually in his own soul and Mephistophilis is the symbolic representation of it. He is nothing but a projection of the self of Faustus. We may also say with a critic that ‘he symbolises power without conscience, the danger of which is the motif of the play.’ And this power without conscience ultimately brings about the downfall and eternal damnation of Doctor Faustus. If Mephistophilis sometimes warns him against the evils of practising the black art of magic, that is, the brighter aspect of Faustus’s mind, an acute struggle between the good and the evil rages in his soul. So Mephistophilis may also be said to be externalising the split conscience of Doctor Faustus.
Then again, we may also treat Mephistophilis as the symbol of dramatic irony in the play. Having bitter experiences of hell as a fallen angel, Mephistophilis warns Faustus of the evils of necromancy and the suffering in hell. But Faustus with his pride and ambition turns a deaf ear to all this, shuns the path of virtue and dreams of becoming ‘as great as Lucifer’ or to be as powerful ‘as Jove in the sky’ and ‘Lord and Commander of these elements.’ And thus Mephistophilis is made the symbol of dramatic irony that intensifies the tragic appeal of this great drama.