Is Dr. Faustus a moral play or a tragedy - and -What Makes Dr. Faustus a renaissence Play?
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(This is an answer to the quesion whether Dr. Faustus is a morality play. I wrote it for my students long back.)
The answer to it will be in two parts
The morality was one of the early form of drama, developed out of the mystery and miracle plays and flourished during the Middle Ages which received much popularity in the first half of the 15th century. Morality play was an allegorical drama of the 15th and 16th centuries in which the characters were personification of abstractions, as everyman’s vice, virtue and so on. Their purpose was to preach Christian path to salvation by depicting conflict between good and evil. In Christianity man can obtain salvation by practicing Christian virtues, by avoiding the pursuit of sinful pleasure, and by reposing implicit faith in God’s mercy and grace. Christianity also promises salvation to a sinner who sincerely repents for the sin he has committed by praying and not by giving way to despair. The morality at bottom dealt with some problem of good and evil.
It is obvious that Dr. Faustus is largely a morality play as it depicts a conflict between what Christianity considers to be sin and man’s desire for infinite knowledge, power, beauty and wealth. Dr. Faustus marks the culmination of the English morality tradition. As a morality, it vindicates humility, faith and obedience to the law of God. According to one critic this play is the most obvious Christian document, in all Elizabethan drama. Christianity considers ambition of infinite knowledge, power, beauty and wealth as equivalent to the scene of pride and one who nourishes these desires wants to be equal to God; a presumption which is unpardonable. It also lays down the stress that no man should dare to know secrets of God and mysteries of the universe. Even Bacon who declared that he had taken all knowledge to his domain, specifically excluded the mysteries and secrets of God and his universe from his pursuits.
Faustus the hero of the play is presumptuous enough to be a God, ‘to gain a deity’. As the existing branches of knowledge cannot enable him to attain his impossible aspirations, he enters into a compact with the Devil to achieve his heart’s desire. Faustus rejects all lawful knowledge, resorts to magic, summons the Devil and he himself makes the proposal. He signs a bond to yield his soul to the Devil for twenty four years if Devil promises him to gain infinite knowledge, gives him power and wealth and help him to experience all the pleasures of flesh. He persists in his resolution in spite of repeated warnings and even by Mephistopheles. But Faustus tells that Hell is just a ‘fable and old wives tale’. When Faustus realizes the colossal blunder he has committed in arrogance, he can repent but not give up despise. In consequences he cannot win God’s mercy. In fine, he utters that Christ’s one drop of blood can save him but God appears to him to be wrathful.
Rennaissance temper in Dr. Faustus
First part of the two
Many critics hold the opinion that Dr. Faustus is a character reflecting some important aspects of the Renaissance temper. The Renaissance which is supposed to have begun about the middle of the 15th century in Italy came to an end by the middle of the 16th century, is a very complex, social, intellectual and artistic phenomenon. It had various aspects. During this period most of the modern sciences began and Galileo’s telescope opened up the wonders of heaven. On the earth, the European navigators discovered almost every nook and corner of the glove. These two achieved fired the imagination of great Renaissance thinkers, writers, artists and even kings. But the most important contribution of the Renaissance was humanism, i.e. the intellectual and cultural movement that stemmed from the study of classical Greek and Latin literature and culture during the Middle Ages and was one of the factors giving rise to the Renaissance. It was characterized by an emphasis on human interests rather than on the natural world of religion. It encouraged the studies of humanities and generated the concept of an ideal man. The ideal man was one all of whose faculties must be harmoniously developed or in brief he should be a soldier, a scholar and a gentleman. Humanism was a highly ethical system of thought and was opposed to the political philosopher of Machiavelli who became very popular during Renaissance. Machiavellianism stands for the political principles and methods of craftiness and duplicity and the prince in order to retain power and expand his domain is justified to adopt the most unscrupulous means. The influence of Machiavelli is evident in the other plays of Marlowe. Another aspect of the Renaissance was the unbounded hunger for experiments or for learning and discovery. But it was nothing new. However, what was new in the Renaissance was the neglect of the boundaries within which, as has been taught by considered experience, this appetite must be guided if it were not to lead to disaster. And thus if any step was taken by Marlowe’s contemporaries it was backward. Marlowe also might have taken the step in ‘Tamburlaine’ and it seems improbable that he did; but if so he was seeking in Dr. Faustus to recover lost ground as speedily as possible.
The Renaissance passion for infinite knowledge, power and wealth, all the critics agree, is the motivating force in Faustus’ character. He states in his first soliloquy that all the branches of existing knowledge are unfit for his might intellect. The reward he will get by pursuing philosophy or medicine or law or divinity will be too paltry to satisfy his ambition of knowledge, wealth and power. Nothing short of the knowledge of the cosmos of the total creation will satisfy his infinite curiosity. Also the power he desires to wield should be greater that the power wielded by any monarch. Rather his desires to dominate all the ruling monarchs of the earth. In addition to this, he wants the power to exercise command over wind, stones, oceans and the like.
Second part the above.
As far as wealth is concerned he must possess all the wealth available from every corner of the earth. It is only in his insatiable aspirations that Faustus represents some aspects of the Renaissance temper. Faustus’ practice of necromancy to achieve his irrational ambition and his compact with Lucifer to achieve his objective has a touch of Machiavellianism. Faustus ignoring every tenet of Renaissance Humanism as well as Christian morality does everything even sells his soul, is willing to be damned in hell eternally to achieve his ends. But the play is actually a condemnation of these aspects of the Renaissance temper. The very systems of thought and values which he rejects in the end destroy him. By choosing this ideal without recognizing his human limitations, he forfeits both physical and spiritual integrity. What he aspires to achieve is, by the nature of things, impossible. That is why Faustus has been called as over ambitious person. It must be almost observed that the ambition to achieve the possible is as old as mankind. The Greek legend of Icarus embodies his temper as well. Daedalus of Crete invented wings. Thus he tried to fly up to the sun. As he fixed the wings with the help of wax and as he flies high, the heat of the sun melts the wax and Icarus fell to his death.
In conclusion it can be said that in Dr. Faustus, Marlowe denounces this ideal of unlimited power not only because it was beyond human power but also on moral and religious ground. Faustus realizes too late the blunder he commits due to his inflated ego and unbounded belief in his intellectual superiority. His real sin is that he cuts himself off from the humanity, in his praise and lives in splendid insulation but in league with the power and wealth he desires is not for the good of his fellowmen or for any other noble cause but only to pamper his own ego and conceit. Thus Marlowe does not eulogizes this aspect of the Renaissance temper but by making it the motivating force in the play shows its hollowness.
The second part of the answer:
According to Nicholas Brooke, “Faustus’s attempts to assent his will in opposition to both God and Devil, and he fails, as it is obvious he must.” Also if we stick to the text it becomes obvious that the play is not so much concerned with the hero but with ideas and the way they are dramatized. The human aspect of drama lies in the predicament than in character. As Brooke observed- “It is not the stupidity of Faustus of which we are most aware of the end of the play, but his appalling situation, a man cut off from all contact with humanity, dragged to Hell for eternity and seeing the visions of Heaven as he goes.”
Bur according to the older view, Dr. Faustus is a kind of Renaissance superman condemned to tragic failure. Bur this view ignores the morality elements. According to Brooke, “Marlowe choose deliberately to use the morality form and to use it perversely to invert or at least satirize its ideas normal intuition.” Some of the morality element in the play are conflict between virtues and vice but vice is depicted as powerful virtues are almost helpless. Also clowns burlesque the virtues presented but in the end the virtues triumph. In this play it is the ‘bad’ hero who is burlesqued by Wagner and the clowns, even though these scenes are badly written. These scenes emphasize the damnable activities of Faustus without any splendor.
A few thins differentiate this play from ordinary Morality plays. First, is the resolution of Faustus to explore the power of magic to its utmost? Also Faustus is careful in the play not to give the devil overpower him. He orders Mephistopheles to come in the shape of a friar and he obeys. Mephistopheles also agrees that he appears at Faustus’ conjuring. Marlowe also depicts Mephistopheles as a “voluntary agent not as vulgar slave”. And the famous definition of Hell which Mephistopheles gives Faustus has imaginative suggestion of Heaven and Faustus rejects it with contempt. He teaches Mephistopheles the lesson of fortitude. In the Morality play, a character succumbs to the temptation due to a failure of will but this is not the case with Faustus, rather he accuses Mephistopheles of feebleness. Thus, by showing that Faustus makes his choice voluntarily and with full knowledge, Marlowe has “invented the structures of Morality; the course of Faustus’ resolution is to damn himself; his temptation, his weakness is in offers of repentance.” In the play, Faustus tries to be resolute, he panics several times. After signing the bond Faustus becomes blatantly confident and he rejects hell as ‘fable and old wives tales’. Still Mephistopheles does not provide him a wife and the answer to his question about the maker of the universe. All that Faustus has achieved is the vision of Helen and a casual delight. He could not acquire complete knowledge as Marlowe did not possess it. He has only acquired power to Muse royalties and cheap tricks and stoops to the level of cheating a horse dealer. In fine, he realizes and repents. The morality is still invented.
Brooke’s conclusion is that Dr. Faustus is an invented Morality play in its design. But he also considers it as a moral tragedy.
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