Schmidt holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University and is an author and educator. His essay discusses Marlowe's play as both entertainment and edification.
Most people have wanted something so badly that, in moments of desperation, they imagined they would do anything to have it. Most learn to balance their desires with reality while a few people act on those desperate imaginings. Still, drama offers the possibility of exploring the implications of such impetuous actions, at least as experienced by characters in the play. In Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the main character decides to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for twenty-four years of absolute power. Part of the pleasure of reading or seeing the play comes from the viewer putting themselves in Faustus's predicament and imagining how they would respond to similar temptations. Marlowe's story also illustrates the Renaissance's prevalent belief that art should "teach and delight," that is, be entertaining while simultaneously presenting a morale.
Stories of people who bargain with the devil in exchange for worldly goods abound. These can be literal exchanges, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown" or W. B. Yeats's "The Countess Cathleen." This concept can also be treated thematically, as it is in such works as William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Herman Melville's Moby Dick. These tales illustrate, without evoking supernatural deals, characters whose obsessions drive them to sacrifice all the goodness in their lives.
In many ways, Marlowe's plays typify attitudes in Renaissance England. The intellectual and aesthetic rebirth known as the Renaissance began in Italy during the 14th century and, in the next two centuries, spread new ideas throughout Europe. Three aspects of Renaissance culture—Humanism, Individualism, and the New Science—figure as prominent themes in Marlowe's play.
Rejecting medieval social and religious attitudes, Renaissance Humanists privileged individual over collective values. Humanism encouraged people to realize their happiness and potential in this, the material world, rather than focusing solely on eternal happiness in the afterlife. By freeing intellectual inquiry from the confines of theology, a scientific revolution known as the "New Science" took place. The influence of Galileo and Copernicus spread. Thinkers like Francis Bacon, who emphasized the observation of nature over study of traditional writings about nature, developed what we recognize today as the scientific method.
Finally, the era's social, political, and economic changes meant that even people without a title or inherited wealth could advance in society. This led to the rise of the strong, ambitious personality type that characterized an upwardly mobile Renaissance individual. Marlowe's heroes epitomize this character type, aspiring to a greatness that extends beyond their current status. This overzealous ambition often results in ruthless and irrational actions; they have the power to make their own choices, yet those choices lead to their downfall. In this sense, Marlowe's work serves to caution the viewer against this kind of behavior.
In many ways, the Renaissance can be seen as a period of the over-achiever, of individuals who aspire for great things which they then struggle to reach. Consider men like Sir Philip Sidney or Sir Walter Raleigh, admired by their age as courtiers, warriors, and poets. Renaissance individuals strove for and sometimes attained ambitious goals: Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world and returned with abundant riches. The period was the first to advance the concept of the self-made man; a person could achieve considerable status through his actions, could raise his social standing through ability and determination. When readers of Machiavelli's The Prince and Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier realized the important role a person's image played in attaining success, they sought to fashion impressive images for themselves either through actions or fabrication. If Faustus typifies the Renaissance hero, Doctor Faustus shows the problems with unbridled individualism. Though Faustus has unlimited power, his actions are juvenile and selfish. He does no good deed, no charitable action, no feat for the good of his fellow human.
Marlowe's first stage success, the two-part Tamburlaine, probably appeared on the...
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In the following essay, Greg examines several aspects of the hero's downfall in Doctor Faustus, particularly how Faustus's pact with Mephistopheles leads not to a rise in grandeur and power, but to mere worldly gratification. Ultimately, the critic claims, Faustus "commits the sin of demonality, that is, bodily intercourse with demons." The quotations are taken from Greg's own collation of the 1604 and 1616 quarto editions of Doctor Faustus.
An English literary scholar and librarian, Greg was a pioneer in establishing modern bibliographical scholarship. Combining bibliographical and critical methods, he developed an approach to editing Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists.
When working lately on the text of Doctor Faustus, I was struck by certain aspects of the story as told in Marlowe's play that I do not remember to have seen discussed in the editions with which I am familiar. I do not pretend to have read more than a little of what has been written about Marlowe as a dramatist, and it may be that there is nothing new in what I have to say, but it seemed worth while to draw attention to a few points in the picture of the hero's downfall, on the chance that they might have escaped the attention of others, as they had hitherto escaped my own.
As soon as Faustus has decided that necromancy is the only study that can give his ambition scope, he seeks the aid of his friends Valdes and Cornelius, who already are proficients in the art—
Their conference will be a greater help to me/Than all my labours, plod I ne'er so fast.
Who they are we have no notion: they do not appear in the source on which Marlowe drew—"The historie of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus ... according to the true Copie printed at Franckfort, and translated into English by P. F. Gent."—and Cornelius is certainly not the famous Cornelius Agrippa, who is mentioned in their conversation. But they must have been familiar figures at Wittenberg, since on learning that Faustus is at dinner with them, his students at once conclude that he is "fallen into that damned art for which they two are infamous through the world." The pair are ready enough to obey Faustus' invitation, for they have long sought to lead him into forbidden ways. "Know", says Faustus—
Know that your words have won me at the last/ To practise magic and concealed arts./blockquote>
At the same time, though they are his "dearest friends," he is anxious not to appear too pliant, adding, a little clumsily (if the 1604 text is to be trusted)
Yet not your words only, but mine own fantasy,
and he makes it plain that he is no humble seeker after instruction, but one whose personal fame and honour are to be their main concern—
Then, gentle friends, aid me in this attempt, And I, that have with concise syllogisms Gravelled the pastors of the German church, And made the flowering pride of Wittenberg Swarm to my problems, as the infernal spirits On sweet Musaeus when he came to hell, Will be as cunning as Agrippa was, Whose shadows made all Europe honour him.
His friends are content enough to accept him on these terms. Valdes, while hinting that common contributions deserve common rewards—
Faustus, these books, thy wit, and our experience Shall make all nations to canonize us—
paints a glowing picture of the possibilities before them, adding however—in view of what follows a little ominously—
If learned Faustus will be resolute.
Reassured on this score, Cornelius is ready to allow Faustus pride of place—
Then doubt not, Faustus, but to be renowned, And more frequented for this mystery Than heretofore the Delphian oracle—
but only on condition that the profits of the enterprise are shared—
Then tell me, Faustus, What shall we three want
However, it soon appears that for all their sinister reputation the two are but dabblers in witchcraft. They have, indeed, called spirits from the deep, and they have come—
The spirits tell me they can dry the sea And fetch the treasure of all foreign wracks, Yea, all the wealth that our forefathers hid Within the massy entrails of the earth—
but they have made no use of this knowledge, they have never become the masters—or the slaves—of the spirits. Even to raise them they must, of course, have run a mortal risk—
Nor will we come unless he use such means/Wherby he is in danger to be damned—
but they have been careful not to forfeit their salvation for supernatural gifts; they have never succumbed to the temptation of the spirits or made proof of their boasted powers. Nor do they mean to put their own art to the ultimate test. When Faustus eagerly demands,
Come, show me some demonstrations magical,
Valdes proves himself a ready teacher—
Then haste thee to some solitary grove, And bear wise Bacon's and Albanus' works, The Hebrew Psalter, and New Testament, And whatsoever else is requisite We will inform thee ere our conference cease—
and guarantees to make him proficient in the art—
First I'll instruct thee in the rudiments/And then wilt thou be perfecter than I
Knowing the depth of Faustus' learning, and satisfied of his courage and resolution, they are anxious to form a partnership with one whose potentialities as an adept so far exceed their own. But Cornelius leaves us in no doubt of their intention to use Faustus as a cat's-paw rather than run into danger themselves—
Valdes, first let him know the words of art, /And then, all other ceremonies learned, /Faustus may try his cunning by himself.
The precious pair are no deeply versed magicians welcoming a promising beginner, but merely the devil's decoys luring Faustus along the road to destruction. They serve their purpose in giving a dramatic turn to the scene of his temptation, and except for a passing mention by the students, we hear no more of them.
Faustus goes to conjure alone, and alone he concludes his pact with the devil. What use will he make of his hazardously won powers? His dreams, if self-centred, are in the heroic vein:
Oh, what a world of profit and delight, Of power, of honour, and omnipotence, Is promised to the studious artizan! All things that move between the quiet poles Shall be at my command, emperors and kings Are but obeyed in their several provinces, But his dominion that exceeds in this Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man: A sound magician is a demi-god.
More than mortal power and knowledge shall be his, to use in the service of his country:
Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please, Resolve me of all ambiguities? Perform what desperate enterprise I will ... I'll have them read me strange philosophy And tell the secrets of all foreign kings; I'll have them wall all Germany with brass, And chase the Prince of Parma from our land.
Whatever baser elements there may be in his ambition, we should, by all human standards, expect the fearless seeker after knowledge and truth, the scholar weary of the futilities of orthodox learning, to make at least no ignoble use of the power suddenly placed at his command.
Critics have complained that instead of pursuing ends worthy of his professed ideals, Faustus, once power is his, abandons these without a qualm, and shows himself content to amuse the Emperor with conjuring tricks and play childish pranks on the Pope; and they have blamed this either on a collaborator, or on the fact of Marlowe's work having been later overlaid and debased by another hand.
The charge, in its crudest form, involves some disregard of the 1616 version, which is not quite as fatuous as its predecessor, but in broad outline there is no denying its justice. As to responsibility: it is of course obvious that not all the play as we have it is Marlowe's. For my own part, however, I do not believe that as originally written it differed to any material extent from what we are able to reconstruct from a comparison of the two versions in which it has come down to us. And while it is true that the middle portion, to which objection is mostly taken, shows little trace of Marlowe's hand, I see no reason to doubt that it was he who planned the whole, or that his collaborator or collaborators, whoever he or they may have been, carried out his plan substantially according to instructions. If that is so, for any fundamental fault in the design Marlowe must be held responsible.
The critics' disappointment is quite natural. Although it is difficult to see how any dramatist could have presented in language and dramatic form the revelation of a knowledge beyond the reach of human wisdom, there is no question that much more might have been done to show the wonder and uphold the dignity of the quest, and so satisfy the natural expectation of the audience. Marlowe did not do it; he deliberately turned from the attempt. Instead he showed us the betrayal of ideals, the lapse into luxury and buffoonery.
And what, in the devil's name, would the critics have? I say "in the devil's name," because all that happens to Faustus once the pact is signed is the devil's work: "human standards" are no longer relevant. Who but a fool, such a clever fool as Faustus, would dream that any power but evil could be won by a bargain with evil, or that truth could be wrung from the father of lies? "All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," is indeed an aphorism to which few Elizabethans would have subscribed; but Marlowe knew the nature of the power he put into the hands of his hero and the inevitable curse it carried with it.
Of course, Faustus' corruption is not a mechanical outcome of his pact with evil. In spite of his earnest desire to know truth, and half-hidden in the Marlowan glamour cast about him, the seeds of decay are in his character from the first—how else should he come to make his fatal bargain? Beside his passion for knowledge is a lust for riches and pleasure and power. If less single-minded, he shares Barabbas' thirst for wealth—
I'll have them fly to India for gold, Ransack the ocean for orient pearl, And search all corners of the new-found world For pleasant fruits and princely delicates...
Patriotism is a veil for ambition: he will
chase the Prince of Parma from our land And reign sole king of all our provinces... I'll join the hills that bind the Afric shore And make that country continent to Spain, And both contributary to my crown: The Emperor shall not live but by my leave, Nor any potentate in Germany.
His aspiration to be "great emperor of the world"...
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In the following review of a 1937 production of The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, which originally appeared in The New York Times on January 9, 1937, Atkinson illustrates how the manner in which the play is staged enhances its effectiveness. Atkinson maintains that the result of the masterful staging in this production "is a Dr. Faustus that is physically and imaginatively alive, nimble, active—heady theatre stuff.''
As drama critic for The New York Times from 1925 to 1960, Atkinson was one of the most influential reviewers in America.
Although the Federal Theatre has some problem children on its hands, it also has some enterprising artists on its staff. Some of them got together at...
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