Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1054

When Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus appeared on the London stage in 1594, audiences did not name it an overwhelming success. Today, however, critics and theatre-goers alike consider it Marlowe's masterpiece. Contemporary critical debate focuses on several, related critical issues: what motivates Faustus's character? When does his damnation occur? And does the play have a "middle?"

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Critics interested in assessing the play's quality consider the unity of Doctor Faustus's structure to be central. For some, it has a beginning—Faustus's contract with the devil—and an end—Faustus's damnation—with little of consequence in between. The frivolous ways Faustus uses his powers supports this position, suggesting that the hero learns or changes little as the narrative action progresses. As Wilbur Sanders wrote in Shakespeare's Contemporaries: Modern Studies in English Renaissance Drama, the "unity of Doctor Faustus is ... something that we have to create for ourselves."

The play's complex textual history further complicates the issue. Two different published versions of the play appeared in 1604 and 1616, and theatre manager Philip Henslowe contracted revisions from other writers. This leaves the authorship of the play's middle sections open to debate, though Marlowe certainly wrote the play's beginning and end. Few believe Marlowe wrote the middle of Doctor Faustus alone, and some believe he had little part in it at all.

Audiences and critics agree that Faustus seems an essentially selfish, superficial man who uses infinite power foolishly. In Further Explorations, L. C. Knights saw Faustus's motivations as essentially immature, driven by ''the perverse and infantile desire for enormous power and immediate gratifications." This does not trivialize that desire, however, for ''we should see the pact with the devil and the magic ... as dramatic representations of the desire to ignore that 'lightness of limitation', which, according to Whitehead, 'is essential for the growth of reality' [from Religion in the Making]." While Faustus's efforts to transcend limits distract him from understanding reality, the audience gains insight from the magician's errors. Faustus's excessive ambition must be condemned, whether in terms of Renaissance Aristoteanism, which validates moderate behavior, or Freudian psychoanalytic theory, in which the ego's reality principle must negotiate between the pure desire of the "id" and the absolute law of the "superego." The audience learns to question immoderate behavior, but the play leaves a viewer unsatisfied about Faustus's motivation. Perhaps Faustus will realize what the audience already knows, that eternal suffering is a high price to pay for the power to perform a few, trivial practical jokes.

If Faustus's agonizing over whether or not to repent forms the play's dramatic middle, the play's dramatic unity depends on the timing of his damnation. If he can seek mercy until the last moment—an option open to him theologically, though one he fails to see—then the play has suspense until the end as audiences wonder if Faustus will see his error and repent. If, on the other hand, Faustus seals his fate in the first act, when signing the deed, then, as Cleanth Brooks wrote in A Shaping of Joy: Studies in the Writer's Craft, all that follows would be merely "elegiac." The play falls flat, absent of actual dramatic conflict.

Pinpointing the exact moment of Faustus's damnation can be difficult. Some believe that his damnation follows his signing the deed, uttering as he does the same words that Christ said before he died: "Consummatum est"; it is finished. "On a purely legalistic basis, of course, Faustus's case is hopeless," wrote Brooks. ''He has made a contract and he has to abide by it."

The play offers other options, however, and Brooks notes that even after Faustus has signed the bond, the Good Angel appears, urging him to ''Repent, yet God will pity thee." Also, at various points in the play, it seems important to Mephistopheles to distract Faustus from repenting, so some form of reconciliation between Faustus and God must be possible. Finally, the Old Man appears just in time to prevent Faustus from committing suicide, at Mephistopheles's instigation, and he too holds out the possibility of mercy. In each case, though, Faustus fails to believe that mercy can mitigate his offence, which he realizes deserves punishment.

According to Peter Davison, the exact moment of Faustus's damnation comes as he kisses the spirit of Helen of Troy. When Faustus first conjures up her spirit, he warns the spectators neither to speak with nor touch her, for, as Davison noted in International Dictionary of Theatre: Plays, "verbal or physical intercourse with spirits is unforgivable." Later, however, Faustus makes his redemption impossible by kissing the spirit of Helen. As he does, he asks Helen, not God, to make him immortal. As they kiss, he says, "Her lips suck forth my soul." By doing so, Faustus exchanges the "heaven" of Helen's lips for the heaven of spiritual delight. Davison wrote: "Faustus has triumphed in going beyond man's terrestrial limits, but he has been simultaneously damned and it is as a damned soul that he will be 'eternalized.''' The Old Man appears before Faustus kisses Helen still holding out the possibility of salvation, but when the Old Man returns after the kiss, he says: "Accursed Faustus, miserable man/That from thy soul excludest the grace of heaven."

Like the Renaissance itself, which mixed ancient and modern ideas, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus constructs desire in ways both medieval and modern. The morality play in which Faustus sees the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins presents a medieval notion of sin. For Sanders, "Marlowe's introduction of devils who are medieval in temper ... [revives] the earlier psychomachia form (the 'battle for a soul' of which Everyman is the best example).'' The more modern idea that punishment may be psychological comes from Mephistopheles's description of hell as not a place but a state of mind. According to Brooks, Marlowe's use of demonic apparatus to externalize emotional states—and in that sense, his model of temptation—seems essentially modern and psychological. Brooks wrote: ''the devils ... are always in some sense mirrors of the inner states of the persons to whom they appear." These two positions share common ground, however. Brooks would no doubt agree with Sanders when he wrote: ''Marlowe is studying the collision between the old wisdom of sin, grace and redemption, and the new wisdom of humanist perfectibility.''

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