Introduction: The Tragic Hero
All the tragic heroes of Marlowe are towering figures of superman size rising head and shoulders above all other minor characters of the plays and completely dominating over them. By the side of these titanic characters the minor ones look like tiny Lilliputians moving around towering Gulliver.
Marlowe seems to have conceived his titanic heroes more or less in keeping with Aristotle’s conception of a tragic hero. The hero should essentially be a superior person and according to Aristotle he must have some ‘tragic flaw’—that is some great defect-which ultimately brings about his ruin and disaster. His destiny or choice is to go down fighting rather than submit to insurmountable odds and thus to pluck a moral victory from a physical defeat. So in Doctor Faustus also we find Marlowe concentrating all his powers of delineation of character on Faustus. Mephistophilis may get a little bit of care but all other characters pale into insignificance before Faustus’s dazzling and dominating personality. “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.”
Doctor Faustus and His Tragic Flaw
Before the drama opens we know from the Chorus that Faustus was born in a town in Germany and his parents were ‘base of stock’. We also come to know that he got his higher education at Wittenberg and got his degree of doctor of Divinity from there. He also excelled all those who liked to take part in discussions relating to theology. The Chorus also tells us that he became puffed up with pride for his vast knowledge and scholarship and started indulging in black art of magic to attain super-human powers. As a result he was destined to have a great fall just like Icarus who tried to fly too near the sun with ‘his waxen wings’.
So in the very first scene of the drama we find that Faustus is disappointed with all branches of knowledge that he has so far mastered. Physic, Philosophy, Law and Divinity—all are absolutely inadequate for his purpose. In spite of mastering all these great branches of knowledge
“Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a Man.”
The soul of Faustus is afire with inordinate ambition yearning for limitless knowledge and with a craze for superhuman powers and supreme sensuous pleasures, he utters these memorable lines:
These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly:
O’ what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artizan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command;
A sound magician is a mighty God:
Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity.”
So herein lies the great tragic flaw in his character: he wants ‘to gain a deity.’ In spite of all his greatness and other humane qualities we sadly witness how this great flaw or drawback in his character brings about his ultimate doom and destruction. He perfectly knows that to achieve his purpose he will have to abjure God and the Trinity. He was also not void of conscience and that is why we find the Good Angel and the Bad Angel, the symbols of virtue and vice in his soul making their first appearance just after Faustus’s final decision in favour of cursed necromancy. In spite of all scepticism and atheistic bias of Faustus—and Faustus is decidedly a self-portrait of Marlowe, his emotional attachment to the medieval doctrines of Christianity is too deep to be rooted out. So the Good Angel, his voice of conscience, urges him to shun ‘that damned book’ and to read the scriptures. But the Evil Angel, the voice of his passion, scores a victory by luring away Faustus with the assurance that by mastering the black art of magic Faustus will be:
“Lord and commander of the elements.”
Then at the end of third scene of Act I we find Faustus telling Mephistophilis that he has already abjured the Trinity of his own will and has firmly made up his mind to sell his soul to the Devil to gain limitless powers with the help of Mephistophilis as his abject slave and ‘to live in all voluptuousness’ for twenty-four years. Then in the first scene of Act II we find Faustus finally surrendering his soul to the Devil and writing the bond with his own blood. It may be noted that Marlowe was a child of the Renaissance with its dreams and desires and Faustus expresses the ideas and aspirations of his creator quite faithfully.
Spiritual or Inner Conflict
Before accomplishing the object act of surrendering his soul to the Devil, Faustus experiences the trick of conscience and the two angels appear again to externalise the spiritual conflict in his soul between vice and virtue, between will and conscience. And henceforth, we find that the entire action of the play is fluctuating between the weak and wavering loyalties of Faustus to these two opposing forces. Generally this inner conflict takes place when a man is faced with two alternatives one of which he must have to choose but finds himself pulled in opposite directions. And Nicoll has rightly observed: “In Doctor Faustus Marlowe attempted something new, the delineation of struggle within the mind of the chief figure. This struggle is certainly somewhat primitive in its expression but it is a foretaste of those ‘inward characteristics’ towards which drama in its development inevitably tends. Faustus in this respect is unquestionably the greatest tragic figure in sixteenth century literature outside the work of Shakespeare.” In fact there is very little external action in this play—the delineation of a psychological or spiritual conflict in the mind of the hero is the chief thing. And with what great dramatic skill Marlowe has depicted this spiritual struggle, these waverings and vacillations in his mind! To gain limitless power and pelf, Faustus may discard godly order, may denounce the doctrines of Christianity and may take to necromancy.
Faustus may discard and denounce God and the Trinity, but he is definitely attached to them emotionally. So a guilty conscience dogs him from the beginning to the end. And the heart of Faustus turns out to be the field where the forces of good and evil are trying to overwhelm each other. We can follow this tragic conflict and troubled career of Faustus to its terrible end.
In the closing scene of the drama the spiritual conflict of a doomed and dejected soul reaches its climax and then culminates in an overwhelming catastrophe. Faustus realises to his utter dismay that he is doomed to eternal damnation with the least hope for redemption. The poignant soliloquy of Doctor Faustus starting just before an hour of his final doom reveals in a very forceful manner the deep agony of a horror-struck soul facing its impending doom. His last minute frantic appeal to the ‘ever-moving spheres of heaven’ to stand still or to the ‘Fair Nature’s eye’ to rise again to make perpetual day—‘That Faustus may repent and save his soul’—is absolutely of no avail—
“The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.”
And when the final hour strikes, there is thunder and lightning and the Devil’s disciples come and snatch away the trouble torn soul of Faustus to hell to suffer eternal damnation.
To conclude we may quote the very relevant remarks of E.A. Baker regarding this great tragedy:
“This great symbolic tragedy deals with a theme which was part, not only of the author’s inner experience but of the very stuff which nourished the Renaissance spirit. The pride of intellect by which both the Faustus of Marlowe and the Lucifer of Milton fell, was the most subtlest and dangerous temptation of the age. After wandering for centuries through the mists of ignorance, man found himself once more before the tree of knowledge. There, within his reach, burned ‘like a thousand lamps the coveted fruits of his desire; but there, too, coiled about the roots, lay the old serpent, still unconquered, still thirsting for his soul’s blood.”
Role and Significance of Dr. Faustus in the Play
It has already been mentioned, that on Faustus, however, Marlowe concentrates all his attention and all his powers of subtle character-portrayal. He has achieved the very difficult task of laying bare Faustus’s mind at some extraordinary and critical moments. The play opens with Faustus in his study, taking stock of his accomplishments and considering the plans he should pursue in the future. Seeing one by one the books in the shelf before him, Faustus realises how logic, law, physics and divinity which have yielded up their treasures to him, have not been able to quench his intellectual thirst. They have proved to be but feeble instruments for the display of the forces of his will, and afforded him no opportunity of surrounding himself with beaming manifestations of the transcendent might of his own will. Dissatisfied with mere knowledge and philosophy, Faustus (in the first scene) is in the mood of a man, “who wakes from a dream of mountain tops to find himself still in the plains, or of a man who, having reached the mountain-top, is more than ever oppressed by his earth-bound nature and by the mocking distance of the skies towards which he had seemed to be climbing; yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man.” Faustus recognises the power of magic—‘a sound magician is a mighty God.’ And it is magic, that ravishes him; and nothing shall daunt his determination to command all things that move between the quiet poles-with the help of the metaphysics of magicians and heavenly necromantic books. Valdes and Cornelius, professed magicians, are sent for by Faustus to help him in his efforts at mastery of magic. Meanwhile the Good Angel and the Bad Angel—‘who dramatically objectify the double impulses of appetite and conscience’—appear on the scene, the one discouraging and the other encouraging his resolve. Valdes and Cornelius serve the purpose of inflaming Faustus further, ‘with the splendid pictures of material pomp and sensual delights’ they present. They lend him books and instruments of magic with instructions for their proper use at the proper time.
At night, in a solitary grove, Faustus begins his incantations to conjure forth Mephistophilis. As the spirit appears, Faustus realises the virtue in his heavenly words, the efficacy of his spells and the force of magic. His vanity is inflated, and he hails himself as a conjurer-laureate who can command great Mephistophilis. For ‘letting him live in all voluptuousness’, and for the unconditional service of Mephistophilis during this period of time, Faustus brushes aside the timely warnings of conscience and enters into a compact with the Devil, signing the bond with his own blood.
Faustus takes the utmost possible advantage of the service of Mephistophilis. It is this fallen angel with his sinister sincerity and unaffected frankness that resolves for Faustus the doleful problems of damnation, and indirectly helps to heighten the intrepidity of the sin-steeped scholar and his spiritual arrogance. It is Mephistophilis that clears Faustus’s doubts in astronomy and cosmography, helps him to ride triumphantly in a chariot round the world, scanning the planets in the firmament and the Kingdoms of the earth. It is with the help of Mephistophilis, the embodiment of his dearly purchased power, that Faustus surfeits his sense with carnal pleasures, not coarse delights, however, but highest and deepest enjoyments. His longing is for the fairest maid of Germany, for the beauty of Helen that makes man immortal with a kiss. He chooses no other song but that of Homer, no music but that shaken from Amphion’s harp. He uses sweet pleasure to conquer deep despair. Faustus’s mind is delighted with the dumb-show of Devils that Mephistophilis presents before him. Even the repulsive masque of the Seven Deadly Sins attracts and soothes him for the time being.
Travelling far and wide, Faustus displays his new-won power. He fools the Pope and the Friars to the top of his bent, calls up the Spirits of Dead Alexander and his paramour before the Emperor, and plays a practical joke on the horse-courser. In the midst of all this, however, the horror of damnation seizes him every now and then. It increases with the passing of years and the drawing near of the end. He is unable to take advantage even of the last chance that is given to him by the Old Man. He would well have listened to the advice of the Old Man, repented for his sin and rectified his character, but the pull of the evil forces with which he had associated himself for long, is too much for Faustus to resist. Moreover, Mephistophilis is there near at hand threatening—
Thou traitor, Faustus, I arrest thy soul
For disobedience to my sovereign lord;
Revolt, or I’ll in piecemeal tear thy flesh.
Faustus’s own pleasant vices turn into instruments to plague him. The last scene in which Faustus is torn between conflicting feelings, is the best of its kind, the most memorable in Marlowe’s plays, the most poignant in English tragedy. The Good Angel and the Bad Angel— ‘Faustus’s own thoughts objectified’—do their duty for the last time. Faustus spends the last hour in bursting out in a powerful soliloquy—counting the minutes by the ‘sand-grains of his agony.’ He implores the ‘ever-moving spheres of heaven to stand still’ calls upon the sun to rise ‘and make perpetual day.’ But what do they care for his prayers and pathetic appeals?—
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
One is always alone in suffering. Faustus’s fate is not different. No response is there to his cries of anguish and his appeals for mercy. He longs to leap up to Heaven, but where are the wings to his spirit? In the heat of his anguish, he beholds Christ’s blood streaming in the firmament. One drop of that blood, he realises, will save him. But then his heart is rent by the Devil for the very naming of Christ.
‘A threatening arm, an angry brow’ torment his mind. He appeals to the hills to hide him, to the mountains to fall on him, to the earth to harbour him, to the stars to save him. He curses himself, his birth, his parents, and Lucifer. There is no more salvation for him, only damnation. As the clock strikes twelve, Faustus is borne away to hell by the devils and we recall his words: The reward of sin is death: that’s hard.’ And we listen to the Chorus who speaks the epilogue and points the moral.
Faustus is a tremendous figure of terrible tragic stature as delineated by Marlowe. The well-versed Wittenburg scholar rises to be the ally of Lucifer and the enemy of God. Insatiable hunger for knowledge and the power that knowledge gives is the dominant passion of Faustus. And this becomes as fatal a passion as the consuming lust of power is in the case of Tamburlaine. “Faustus is the Paracelsus of Marlowe. Over the soul of the Wittenburg doctor the passion for knowledge dominates, and all influences of good and evil, the voices of damned and of blessed angels reach him faint and ineffectual as dreams, or distant music or the suggestions of long forgotten odours, save as they promise something to glut the fierce hunger and thirst of his intellect.” It is interesting to note how in Faustus, the scholar never disappears in the magician. He is ever a student and a thinker. He wants all ambiguities to be resolved, and all strange philosophies explained. Even in the last scene, when the two scholars take leave of him, Faustus retains about him an ‘atmosphere of learning, of refinement, of scholarly urbanity.’ Faustus is made of the stuff of which heroes are made. He has an unbridled passion for knowledge infinite, a limitless desire for the unattainable, a spirit of reckless adventure and a tremendous confidence in his own will and spirit. And, too, he has dignity, tenacity, patience, profundity, and a vein of unsuspected humanity and tenderness. But all these are thrown into the background by the isolation of his position and the horror of the course he pursues. He weaves the threads of his tragedy with his own hands, signs his own death warrant. Himself the battlefield for one of the greatest mental conflicts of man, Faustus creates in us a feeling of loss and a sense of waste. What abiding wonders would he not have achieved in the realms of the mind had he pursued pure scholarship and legitimate studies. Missing the honour of a master-mind, he has only the recognition of a magician. He would have been a scholar-prince, but he chose to be a conjuror-laureate.