Introduction: Conflict—The Essence of Tragedy
Tragedy is regarded as the highest aspect of the dramatic art as in it our emotions are more profoundly stirred than in comedy thereby rendering it more universal in its appeal. And conflict is the essence or the soul of the tragedy and it is born of some strong motivating cause. This conflict may be on two planes: physical plane and spiritual plane. Hence there may be external conflict, and internal or spiritual conflict.
The external conflict generally occurs between the forces of two rival groups. The hero belongs to one of these rival groups and the conflict often takes the form of a battle, a conspiracy or the like. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Edward II and the Jew of Malta, all illustrate this external conflict as it takes place between the hero and his adversaries. But the hero’s heart and soul is the great battlefield for the internal or spiritual conflict. Two opposite thoughts, desires, emotions, loyalties or affiliations may contend against each other in human soul giving rise to most acute spiritual conflict. And of all tragic conflicts, the most tragic one is the losing battle of the good in man against the evil that ultimately comes out triumphant. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the most outstanding tragedy before Shakespeare, illustrates this supreme spiritual conflict in the most forceful manner.
“Doctor Faustus”: Internal or Tragic Conflict
Marlowe’s contribution to English or Elizabethan drama was great and manifold. And one of his greatest is the introduction of this internal or spiritual conflict in the mind of his proud and ambitious hero in Doctor Faustus. Nicoll has rightly observed: “All previous dramas including Tamburlaine had dealt with the single-minded individuals. If a struggle in the heart of hero was introduced, that struggle normally took the form which is to be seen in the Morality plays—the struggle being symbolised by conflicting bodies of minor characters. In Dr. Faustus, Marlowe attempted something new—the delineation of a 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.”
So in Doctor Faustus we find the conflict or the psychological struggle raging in the heart and soul of the hero. In fact there is hardly any external action in this play—“the delineation of a psychological struggle or spiritual conflict in the mind of the hero is the chief thing.” But then why is this struggle and to what is this due? 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. Now Faustus is inspired by the spirit of Renaissance, by dreams of gaining limitless knowledge and super-human powers. These he can attain only by taking to unholy necromancy, by discarding godly order or by denouncing doctrines of Christianity. Faustus may reject all these intellectually but he is definitely attached to them emotionally. Hence starts the conflict in his soul—the waverings and vacillations. The conflict may be said to be the conflict between will and conscience externalised by the Bad Angel and Good Angel respectively. So the heart of Faustus is the field where the forces of good and evil are trying to overwhelm each other. We can follow this conflict and career of Faustus in the play in three stages.
The First Stage
In the first part of the drama we have the scenes that depict how intellectual pride and inordinate ambition lead Faustus into a vicious bargain with the Devil. In the very first scene we find that Faustus is disappointed with all branches of knowledge like Physic, Philosophy, Law and Divinity as they are absolutely inadequate to serve his purpose. Finally he decides in favour of the black art of magic as:
“These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly.”
And he convinces himself that:
“A sound magician is a mighty god”
That is why Nicholas Brooke has observed that “the dramatic tension of the Faustus story as Marlowe presents it, lies in the fact that Faustus is determined to satisfy the demands of his nature as God has made him—to be himself a deity—that is forbidden: it can be achieved by a conscious rejection of God who created him in his own image, but denied him (as much as Lucifer) fulfilment of that image.” But Faustus’s emotional attachment to the medieval doctrines of Christianity is too deep to be rooted out. Hence just after his final decision in favour of necromancy he feels the prick of conscience and in this very scene the Good Angel and the Evil Angel make their first appearance on the stage. These two Angels, in fact, represent the two aspects of human mind. Hence here the Angels are externalising the inner conflict between vice and virtue, between will and conscience raging in the mind of Doctor Faustus. And we will find that, henceforth, the entire action of the play is fluctuating between the weak and wavering loyalties of Faustus to these two opposing forces. The Good Angel urges Faustus to shun ‘that damned book’ and to read the scriptures. But the Evil angel 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.” After meeting and talking to his two friends who also encourage and inspire him to go for necromancy Faustus is determined that: “This night I’ll conjure, though I die therefore.” 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 absolutely 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. His imagination takes wings and he tells us:
“Had I as many souls as there be stars,
I’d give them all for Mephistophilis.
By him I’ll be great emperor of the world.”
And then he starts indulging in day-dreams.
Undoubtedly, Faustus abjured God and the Trinity and decided to surrender his soul to the Devil of his own will, but in the beginning of Scene I of Act II, we find Faustus experiencing the prick of Conscience and a tussle between will and conscience starts raging in his soul. It begins to dawn on him that he is going to be eternally damned and can in no way be saved. And he gives vent to his sense of despair thus:
“Ay, and Faustus will turn to God again,
To God? He loves thee not:
The god thou serv’st is thine own appetite,
Wherein is fix’d the love of Belzebub:”
The Good Angel and the Evil Angel, the symbols of his passion and conscience make their appearance again. But the lure of wealth and honour scores over the voice of conscience that urges him to pray and repent. He is now determined to write the bond with his own blood for surrendering his soul to the devil. But when Faustus starts writing the bond his blood coagulates. Then again when he has already ‘bequeath’d his soul to Lucifer’ he has optical illusion: the words ‘Homo, fuge’ have been inscribed on his arm. All these are outward expressions of the voice of virtue in him.
The Second Stage
In this stage is depicted Faustus’s pathetic struggle to escape his impending doom and damnation and his deep sense of helplessness. This is revealed when he confesses to Mephistophilis that:
“When I behold the heavens, then I repent,’
And curse thee, wicked Mephistophilis,
Because thou hast depriv’d me of those joys.”
The two Angels appear again—one urging him to pray and repent so that he may still have God’s mercy and the other tells him that as he is a spirit, God can never pity him. Faustus very sadly realises “My heart’s so harden’d, I cannot repent:” And he would have killed himself out of despair had the sweet pleasures provided by Mephistophilis not dispelled his gloom of despair. Again at the end of this very scene the conflict in his soul becomes very acute when Mephistophilis refuses to answer some of his questions and the Good and Evil Angels reappear to externalise his inner conflict.
This time the Good Angel’s appeal has some effect on his mind. But the Evil Angel tells him that the devils will tear him to pieces if he listened to the voice of conscience. Realising the critical situation Lucifer himself, Belzebub and Mephistophilis appear before him and finally warn him not to think of God so that there may not be any breach of his bond. And Faustus has to submit to the demand of the Devil once more. And to pull up his drooping mind the Devil puts up the flimsy show of Seven Deadly Sins.
The spiritual conflict takes the most acute turn in the first scene of Act V after Faustus has raised the spirit of Helen and when the Old Man, the symbol of the good and divine in him, appears before him. His was the last attempt to guide his steps ‘unto the way of life’. The acute mental tension is revealed forcefully in the following lines:
“Where art thou Faustus, wretch what hast thou done:
Damn’d art thou, Faustus, damned, despair and die.”
Out of desperation, Faustus is just going to commit suicide; but it is the same Old Man who prevents him from taking this desperate step with a fervent appeal ‘to call for mercy, and avoid despair.’ But alas! Faustus ultimately seals his own fate by surrendering himself into the arms of sweet Helen to make him ‘immortal with a kiss’ just to forget the intense agony of his troubled and despairing soul.
The Final Scene
In the closing scene we find the climax culminating into a terrible catastrophe. Faustus has realised that he is doomed to eternal damnation without the least hope of redemption. The most poignant soliloquy of Doctor Faustus starting just before an hour of his final doom reveals forcefully the deep agony of a horror-struck soul. His last-minute frantic appeal to the ever-moving spheres of heaven to stand still or to the sun to rise again to ‘make perpetual day’ “That Faustus may repent and save his soul!”—is absolutely of no avail. And when the final hour strikes the Devil’s disciples snatch away the agonised and trouble-torn soul of Faustus to hell to suffer eternal damnation.
We may now conclude with the very illuminating remark of Ellis-Fermor. “In Marlowe’s great tragic fragment, the conflict is not between man and man for the domination of one character over another, or in the inter-action of a group of characters. But as in Aeschylus’s Eumenides, the protagonists are man and the spiritual powers that surround him, the scene is set in on spot upon physical earth but in the limitless region 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 to 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.”