Entertainment and Edification in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus
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...
(The entire section is 7,310 words.)