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The tragedy of Renaissance man's overreaching urge in Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus."


The tragedy in Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" stems from the protagonist's overreaching ambition and desire for limitless knowledge and power. Faustus makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for worldly gains. This leads to his ultimate downfall, highlighting the Renaissance theme of the dangers inherent in human hubris and the relentless pursuit of forbidden knowledge.

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Discuss how "Doctor Faustus" by Marlowe is a tragedy.

It is hard to see any way in which this excellent play could not be regarded as anything other than a tragedy. Faustus, and the way that he willingly makes a decision to trade his soul for power and prestige, captures an archetype that occurs in many stories worldwide. Faustus makes a free decision to make this exchange, though he ignores the act of repentance that would be enough to let him escape eternal damnation. Indeed, part of the tragedy lies in the way in which Faustus is presented as being in hell from the moment he makes his pact. The frivolous and flippant way in which he uses his powers only reinforces his damnation. The fact that he is unaware of this highlights the tragedy of the play.

The way in which the pride and arrogance of Faustus prevents him from repenting directly results in his eternal damnation. The final scene of the play, where we see Faustus desperately trying to argue himself out of a situation from which only repentance can liberate him reinforces the tragedy of the play as we are made to see the way in which pride, ignorance and fear of punishment prevent him from gaining the salvation that it tantalisingly within his reach. The ending of the play, indicated by his damnation, is tragic because of the way that another outcome was always possible, had he been aware of it and had enough strength to embrace it.

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Discuss how Marlowe's Doctor Faustus illustrates the tragedy of Renaissance man's overreaching urge.

There is a sense in which Doctor Faustus is a character who represents both what is best and what is worst about the Renaissance period. He is a character who has massive ambition and believes that through knowledge, science and learning man can gain immense power and incredible wisdom. This is expressed in various places in Act I scene 1, where Faustus talks about the power he hopes to gain and the wealth he will have. This introduces a clash of Renaissance values, which praised and extolled man's ability and reason, and medieval values, which placed emphasis on God's sovereignty and man's humble dependence on God. The bargain Faustus makes with Mephistophilis could be seen as an attempt to do away with God, and certainly Faustus spends the rest of the play trying to ignore God and his reality. It is only at the end of the play, near his damnation, that Faustus tries desperately to make amends for what he has done. Note what he says in the last two lines of the play:

Ugly hell gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books—ah, Mephistophilis!

Critics have argued that the pledge he makes to burn his books represents the clash between Renaissance and medieval values. Renaissance values argued that the quest for limitless human knowledge was a worthy and noble goal to strive for, and saw learning as the chief way in which this goal could be accomplished. Medieval values, however, dictated that such a goal was a result of sinful human arrogance and pride. The words of Faustus seem to suggest his recognition of the dangers of overreaching oneself and gaining too much knowledge, and his desire to return to a world view that recognises the limitations of man rather than only focusing on his potential.

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