How might one explain the meaning of envy and link it to the contents of Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus?

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herappleness's profile pic

M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Envy is the act of resenting the good fortune, power, health, or appearance (among other things) of other people. It also includes the act of wishing away those good qualities from those who possess them. It may even involve wishing other people ill only because they are happy, or fortunate. Regardless of how it is expressed, envy often stems from an emotional feeling of inadequacy that comes a consequence of making social, financial, or physical comparisons. 

The character of Doctor Faustus is rife with envy. Although he does not say it directly in the text, it is obvious that Faustus does nothing but compare himself with everyone around him, even with God, himself. He consistently wonders about how much smarter, well-liked, powerful, and worthy he could become, in comparison to his peers, and even in comparison to people much more powerful than he. This is why envy motivates him to acts of greed, one of them, to commit the unthinkable act of partnering with the devil to obtain whatever he wants.

This is because Doctor Faustus wishes to achieve a nearly magical status that would set him aside from everybody, and make him the best at everything. Even though there is no real purpose as to why he would want to achieve a demi-god role in a perfectly normal world, it is precisely because of his socially-ignorant nature that he does what he does. 

An  early example of envy can be found in scene III, where Faustus meets Mephistophilis and, after having gotten to know each other, Faustus asks Mephistophilis that he is given all the power and wishes that he can have. 

I'll join the hills that bind the Afric shore,
And make that country continent to Spain,
And both contributory to my crown.
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave,
Nor any potentate of Germany.
Now that I have obtained what I desire,
I'll live in speculation of this art
Till Mephistophilis return again.

These are examples of how Faustus looks at the powers of others and wishes that he would have more power than they do. Although this feeling brushes upon "greed" (another deadly sin), the fact remains that envy is produced by the comparison that one person makes of himself against the good fortune of others. Hence, envy might be a conduit to greed. Therefore, scene III shows how Faustus does not look upon great leaders with admiration, but with envy. This is why he wants his own power to superimpose theirs. 

vangoghfan's profile pic

vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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During Christopher Marlowe’s time and for centuries before then, “envy” was considered one of the “seven deadly sins.” In fact, Envy appears as a character in Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus in precisely that capacity. Envy was traditionally defined not so much as jealousy (the desire to have what another has) but as something far worse: the desire, because of jealousy, to deprive another person of what he possesses. Like all other sins, therefore, envy results from pride or self-centeredness, with more than a touch of wrath and resentment.

One place in the play where Faustus seems guilty of envy involves his confrontation with the Old Man late in the drama. The Old Man, a symbol of wisdom, personifies the opposite of envy. Rather than desiring or resenting anything that Faustus possesses, he instead wants to share the “Good News” of Christian belief with Faustus. He seeks to help Faustus guide his

 . . . steps unto the way of life,

By which sweet path thou may’st attain the goal

That shall conduct thee to eternal rest.

Rather than trying to hoard happiness and keep it entirely for himself, he seeks to show Faustus how to attain joy that will endure forever.

Instead of heeding the Old Man’s offer, Faustus instead begins condemning himself without ever asking for God’s forgiveness. Although his self-condemnation might seem virtuous, the fact that he never turns to God makes his self-criticism seem instead merely a reflection of his pride and self-centeredness.

However, rather than merely ignoring the Old Man, Faustus actually asks Mephastophilis to torment him “With greatest torments that our hell affords.” It is as if Faustus, unable to attain happiness and contentment himself, is not merely jealous of the Old Man’s peace of mind but actually tries to rob the Old Man of any joy and solace he now possesses.  This kind of envy, combined with the very viciousness of Faustus’s desire that the Old Man should be severely tormented, makes this moment of the play perhaps the lowest point in Faustus’s moral decline.

Many writers on envy have suggested that it is one of the few sins that people never boast about. Some people may boast about pride, gluttony, anger, lechery, etc., but few people are willing to admit to envy. Faustus, of course, never really repents of this sin, just as he never really repents of any sin. Instead, he spends most of his last few minutes on earth feeling sorry for himself.