In Doctor Faustus, how can Faustus' downfall as a tragic hero be traced?

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The central character in Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus undergoes a gradual tragic downfall in a number of ways during the course of the play. Consider, for instance, these examples:

  • In the prologue to the play, Faustus’s potential is stressed. His downfall is foreshadowed, but he is compared to Icarus, a memorable and literally lofty figure from classical mythology.
  • When Faustus himself first appears on stage, his focus is still mainly intellectual, especially as he considers how he should spend his life – as a philosopher, theologian, doctor, or lawyer. Finally, ironically, he makes an especially bad choice: to dabble in black magic.
  • Dabbling in black magic is bad enough, but Faustus soon actually summons up a demon from hell to serve as his assistant.
  • When that demon actually appears and tries to warn Faustus not to proceed with his hellish plans, Faustus not only rejects this advice but actually mocks the demon who gives it.
  • As evidence that he is willing to commit his soul to Satan, Faustus even stabs his own flesh so that he can sign his Satanic contract with his own blood.
  • Later, having attained magical powers, Faustus uses them not in any grand ways but rather to present himself as a kind of cheap entertainer in the courts of powerful people.
  • Later still, Faustus not only rejects the advice of a wise old man but even calls on devils to attack the man. This is perhaps the low point of Faustus’s ethical behavior. Speaking to Mephastophilis, Faustus says,

Torment, sweet friend, that base and crooked age [in other words, the old man]

That durst dissuade me from thy Lucifer,

With greatest torments that our hell affords.

In seeking to visit pain on another person, Faustus reaches, in some ways, the nadir of his moral existence.

  • Whereas the play began with Faustus at least pretending to be an intellectual, late in the play he has become obsessed with the ephemeral flesh, as when he asks a demon to summon from the dead the legendary – and legendarily beautiful – Helen of Troy.
  • Finally, in the closing scene, Faustus not only wishes that he were an animal rather than a human being but also even curses his own parents for engendering him.

In short, Faustus, much like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, undergoes a slow but steady process of spiritual degeneration – a process which one might see, in some ways, as a tragic downfall.  As W. H. Auden famously said, when one reads a classical tragedy, one thinks, “What a pity it had to be this way.”  When one reads a Christian tragedy, such as Doctor Faustus, one thinks, “What a pity it had to be this way when it could have been otherwise.”






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How could one interpret Doctor Faustus from Christopher Marlowe's play of the same name as a tragic hero?

A tragic hero is one who has both good and bad qualities, but inevitably allows their negative qualities to cause their downfall.  The literary term for this fatal flaw is “hamartia.” 

While Faustus seems to be content utilizing his newfound knowledge and power to cause havoc and amuse the upper echelons of society, he did originally have more noble intentions.  Before he obtained the power, he wanted to have spirits “fly to India for gold” and “Ransack the ocean for orient pearl” (Marlowe).  He then wanted use the money to hire mercenaries, build a wall of brass around Germany, and free them from the Prince of Parma.  Faustus also imagined he would have demons read him unknown philosophy, which could have made him a better leader and expanded his knowledge of the universe. 

Faustus also wanted to “fill the public schools with silk” (Marlowe).  This was probably figurative silk, meaning great teachers, teaching materials, and all of the knowledge he had obtained.  If it was literal silk, it would have been an expensive fabric that teachers and students in public schools would have been unaccustomed to.  Either way, Faustus’ vision was for education to be of the utmost importance.

His hamartia, however, was selfishness.  All of his noble plans went by the wayside as soon as he gained power.  He spent his 24 years with knowledge that could have ended world hunger, war, and the overreaching of the Catholic Church, but used it instead to gain favor by amusing royalty and playing practical jokes.  At one point, he turns invisible and harasses the pope at a banquet, taking his food and striking him.  If he really had a quarrel with the Catholic Church, he could have used all of his knowledge and power to put an end to it, instead of just playing practical jokes.

The renaissance view is that Faustus was heroic because he sought knowledge forbidden to men by God and the Church.  In a time when knowledge of the world and of oneself was a noble pursuit, no knowledge should have been off limits.

Since Faustus did originally have some good intentions, and sought knowledge, he could have been a hero; however, he disregarded all of the good he could have done for his personal amusement, making him a tragic hero.

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