How can we look at Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus as a play?

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Although Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus is generally (and understandably) read as one of the great tragic works of the English Renaissance, a case can be made for also seeing it as a very dark comedy featuring an absurd protagonist. Reasons for approaching the play in this way include the following:

  • In the very first scene of the drama, Faustus rejects one possible career and mode of life after another, often for very foolish and illogical reasons. At the same time, he displays an almost ridiculous amount of pride. At one point, for instance, he paraphrases the Bible:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us.  Why, then, belike we must sin, and so consequently die: Ay, we must die an everlasting death.

As practically every edition of the play makes clear, this is a gross misunderstanding and misquotation of the Biblical text, which continues: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Faustus, who has actually studied theology, completely botches a central tenet of the Christian faith in the words quoted above. Most significantly, however, the arrogance he displays in this opening scene would have seemed quite foolish to many of the play’s first audiences.

  • Later, having summoned Mephastophilis with elaborate Latin incantations, he asks the demon, “Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee?” To which Mephastophilis replies in a deflating and ego-puncturing way,

That was the cause, but yet per accidens,

For when we hear one rack the name of God,

Abjure the scriptures, and his savior Christ,

We fly in hope to get his glorious soul . . . .

Faustus, in other words, could have spared all the elaborate Latin incantations and simply blasphemed if he wanted a devil to appear.

  • Later still, Mephastophilis tries to warn Faustus of the pains of hell – a warning Faustus should take seriously since Mephastophilis is quite familiar with those pains from personal experience. Instead, Faustus responds by essentially asking why Mephastophilis is whining:

What, is great Mephastophilis so passionate [that is, whiny]

For being deprived of the joys of heaven?

Learn thou of [that is, from] Faustus manly fortitude . . . .

In other words, Faustus, having never been in hell, is telling this devil to buck up and imitate the great courage of Faustus. Little wonder, then, that Mephastophilis seems to take Faustus less and less seriously – and show him less and less respect and concern – as the play proceeds.

  • Even in the final scene of the play, Faustus cuts a somewhat absurd figure, especially when he keeps insisting that he must go to hell when he makes no effort (by praying) to avoid that fate.  Perhaps the nadir of Faustus’s development as a character is when he tries to blame his parents for the damnation he expects is coming: “Cursed be the parents that engendered me.”  Right until the very end of the play, Faustus foolishly refuses to accept responsibility for his own fate, just as he foolishly refuses to pray to God for forgiveness.  By the end of the work, it will be hard for some readers to take Faustus completely seriously as a truly tragic figure.


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