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Doctor Faustus

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1755

Christopher Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus, written in 1604 at the height of the Renaissance in England, lends itself to countless interpretations. Critics have read it as an extreme humanist play, focusing on Faustus’s decision to pursue knowledge at all costs, even damnation, a concept which he does not initially believe in. Others, however, have read it as a medieval Christian morality play, a type of cautionary tale that demonstrates the battle for a human soul between primal good and evil forces like “God” and “The Devil.” Indeed, there is evidence in the text to support both of these as- sumptions. The truth is, the play is both. Faustus, a product of the transitional times in which he (and the playwright, Marlowe) lived, is a character so saturated in both medieval Christianity and Renaissance Humanism that he is incapable of committing to either. In the end, this spells his ruin.

As the play starts, Faustus has come to a decision. True to humanist fashion, he has set himself on a task of consuming all of the worldly knowledge he can, and in doing so “thou hast attained the end.” Faustus here begins his practice of referring to himself as “thou” (the Renaissance version of “you”) in addition to referring to himself as “I.” He will continue to refer to himself as “thou” or “Doctor Faustus” off and on throughout the play. By having Faustus refer to himself as both an insider (“I”) and outsider (“thou” and “Doctor. Faustus”), Marlowe underscores the division between fantasy and reality on which Faustus will tread on the road to his damnation.

This road is deliberately chosen by Faustus. Having reached the limits of human knowledge, he turns instead to the magic arts: “A sound magician is a mighty god. / Here, Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity.” With this decision to turn to magic to try to make himself a god, Faustus turns to the dark side, and the play takes a turn from skeptical Humanism to medieval mysticism. A true humanist, schooled in all of the natural sciences, would not believe in magic. This is one of the many paradoxes in the play.

After seeking out some magician friends, Faustus acquires the skill to conjure. His first major act is to call forth the devil, Mephistopheles, which he does with the aid of some Christian implements, such as holy water. When the devil appears for the first time, he is so hideous that he scares Faustus: “I charge thee to return and change thy shape. / Thou art too ugly to attend on me.” Faustus forces Mephistopheles to come back in the shape of a “Franciscan friar,” which is more pleasing to him. Faustus is willing to forsake himself and his religion, but only if the items he gets in return fit a certain mold. As Roland M. Frye notes in his article “Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: The Repudiation of Humanity,” “From this point onward Faustus’s hold upon reality steadily dissolves.”

Faustus’s delusions start with his failure to believe that Mephistopheles is actually in hell. Mephistopheles explains that any existence that does not include the grace of God is a hell, and so Mephistopheles suffers whether he is in the earthly realm or the underworld. Faustus refuses to believe the devil and forges ahead with his plan to surrender his soul to Lucifer in exchange for “four-andtwenty years” to have Mephistopheles as a servant to attend on Faustus and give him whatever power he needs.

Still, Faustus falters before he actually goes through with the process; pausing, he entertains the thought...

(This entire section contains 1755 words.)

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of God, although he quickly scolds himself for such thoughts: “What boots it then to think of God or heaven? / Away with such vain fancies and despair!” Faustus even goes to the other extreme, saying he will turn to Beelzebub and “offer lukewarm blood of new-born babes.” Again, the forces of rational Humanism and medieval theology war with each other within Faustus, but this is the first time Faustus has offered to murder for his cause. It is at this point that other forces start fighting with each other, namely a good angel and bad angel, who come in to try to fight for Faustus’s soul. This is much in the style of a medieval morality play. The evil angel wins the battle by tempting Faustus with the power he so desperately craves.

Faustus, enraptured with the idea of being able to have Mephistopheles for his pet and to be able to “raise up spirits” whenever he wishes, makes the pact with Mephistopheles and Lucifer. It is only at this point that Faustus, confident in his decision, decides to ask Mephistopheles again about the nature of hell. Once again the demon gives an answer similar to the first one, saying that “All places shall be hell that is not heaven.” It is interesting that Faustus asks this question. He is confident he will not be damned in hell and that in his rational mind he has gotten the better end of the bargain. He thinks he will have twenty-four years of power and then get off easy, and yet the first question he asks Mephistopheles after officially pledging his soul to Lucifer is what hell is like. Yet once again, Faustus does not believe the devil’s answer, saying, “Come, I think hell’s a fable.” If this is so, then why does Faustus ask about hell? Is he so sure in his mind that he is safe that he wishes to taunt the devil? Or is there a nagging doubt from his Christian side that has prompted him to ask the question? This is another instance where Faustus’s contradictory beliefs introduce a paradox in the play.

From this point on in the play, the nagging doubts in Faustus’s mind increase in frequency. He asks for a wife from Mephistopheles, and the devil brings him another devil in the guise of a woman. This is not what Faustus requested, and so he is offended. But Mephistopheles cannot give him a human wife. The devil can give him power, but it has its limits. Instead, if Faustus asks for human women, he will bring more devils. Mephistopheles hints at this when he says he will bring women “as beautiful” as Lucifer was, before his expulsion from heaven. Faustus glosses over this and the other spells the devil demonstrates. Faustus is intent on his real wish, which is to “raise up spirits when I please.” His wish to be able to raise the dead is reminiscent of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, of which Faustus is aware. Faustus is at this point a humanist to the extreme, for if one carries along to a superlative degree the idea of believing in human power to better oneself, it turns into the belief that humanity can supersede God.

However, Faustus soon takes a turn back to his theological side. After reviewing Mephistopheles’s spell book, he sees the error of his ways. He asks the devil to show him the heavens: “Now would I have a book where I might see all characters and planets of the heavens, that I might know their motions and dispositions.” The devil shows Faustus, who in the next scene realizes that he is damned and curses Mephistopheles, “Because thou hast deprived me of those joys.”

Faustus now fights with himself more openly, first praying to God to save him, then begging Lucifer to forgive him for praying to God. He is a man unhinged, and he alternately clings to one ideology and then the other. In his more Christian moments, he believes in God and hell but thinks he is past the point of saving. In his more humanistic moments, he asks incessant questions of Mephistopheles, trying to disprove the existence of God and hell so that he will not be damned. “Tell me who made the world,” Faustus asks the devil, who cannot say God’s name, and so refuses. Instead Mephistopheles says: “Think thou on hell, Faustus, for thou art damned.” In other words, not only should Faustus forget his salvation, he should concentrate on the fact that when his contract with Lucifer comes due, his life could be made very bad in hell.

Faustus decides to stick to his damnation and starts to enjoy his power. Or at least he tries. Most of his attempts to use magic backfire, as in his attempt to play a trick on the pope, which ends with he and Mephistopheles fleeing before they are cursed: “Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell.” This is a hard lesson for Faustus. It is no accident that Marlowe chose to have his character try to provoke the pope, who in the medieval Catholic religion is the direct servant of God. Here, Faustus has aligned himself with evil and tries to win over good but cannot.

The rest of his attempts at magic are even worse, as they are squandered doing deeds for others, most of which do not fall in line with his original plan of playing a commanding role over all of creation. “I am content to do whatsoever your majesty shall command me,” says Faustus to the emperor, who has Faustus bring forth the spirit of Alexander the Great and his paramour.

At the end of his twenty-four years, Faustus has wasted all of his time and reflects on his plight, being once again of the medieval mind: “What art thou, Faustus, but a man condemned to die?” In one last attempt to please some scholars, Faustus has Mephistopheles bring forth the spirit of Helen of Troy. “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” Of course, it is not. None of the spirits that the devil has conjured have been human, but rather demons, just like the first demon Mephistopheles brought forth to Faustus for a “wife.” However, at this point, Faustus is lost, and in his delusion, he sees Helen, not the demon, whose “lips suck forth my soul.”

The play, which has taken a roller-coaster ride through competing ideologies, ends on the medieval note, as Faustus awaits his damnation, trying one last time to repent by throwing away the quest for knowledge that has damned him: “I’ll burn my books. Ah Mephistopheles!” Faustus is carried off to hell, which is unfortunately more real than his humanist side would have wished.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Renaissance Literature, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

The Poet and His Purpose

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4864

One cannot discuss the position of poetry in a society without understanding the position of the poet. In Renaissance England the conception of the poet as a seer and divine prophet is borrowed from the ancients and put to frequent use. Sidney says:

Among the Romans a poet was called Vates, which is as much as a Diviner, Fore-seer, or Prophet, as by his conjoyned wordes Vaticinium and Vaticinari is manifest: so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this hart-ravishing knowledge.

Thomas Lodge lists such Biblical and church worthies as David, Paulinus, and the “Byshop of Nolanum” as men who were not ashamed to be called poets. He then continues:

It is a pretye sentence, yet not so prety as pithy, Poeta nascitur, Orator fit: as who should say, Poetrye commeth from above, from a heavenly seate of a glorious God, unto an excellent creature man; an Orator is but made by exercise.

Since in this paper we are not interested in Neoplatonism or in any other formal philosophy, why did we bother to insert the above quotation? The answer is simple. In any society the ruling class soon learns, automatically, to use the value terms “good” and “bad” in a class sense, and this is equally true of religious terms. The conception of “divine right” is held by every ruling class that has a religious philosophy. So, when we learn that the poet is considered “divine,” we should not be surprised to find that he also must be an aristocrat. Thus Spenser declaims in the Shepheardes Calender:

O pierlesse Poesye, where is then thy place? If nor in Princes pallace the doe sitt: (And yet is Princes pallace the most fitt) Ne brest of baser birth doth thee embrace.

Spenser’s abstract statement that only people of gentle blood are poets is concretized by Puttenham in his critical treatise, where after saying “In other ages . . . we read that Kinges & Princes have written great volumes and publisht them under their owne regall titles,” he proceeds to give a list of royal poets that ranges from Julius Caesar to “our late soveraigne Lord, king Henry the eight,” In a passage which supports our contention that the aristocrat identified “good” with his class, Spenser declares that in the past, poetry was limited to princes and high priests and that the trouble with poetry now is that it has been touched by the base hands of common people:

Whilom in ages past none might professe But Princes and high Priests that secret skill, The sacred lawes therein they wont expresse, And with deepe Oracles their verses fill: Then was shee held in soveraigne dignitie, And made the noursling of Nobilitie.

But now nor Prince nor Priest doth her maintayne, But suffer her prophaned for to bee Of the base vulgar, that with hands uncleane Dares to pollute her hidden mysterie. And treadeth under foote hir holie things, Which was the care of Kesars and of Kings.

Today, says Spenser, we can be thankful that Elizabeth, at least, upholds this noble tradition by writing poetry. Puttenham openly declares that poetry is the art (if not the mere plaything) of the aristocracy. He frankly admits that he writes his treatise for this class alone. He says:

our chiefe purpose herein is for the learning of Ladies and young Gentlewomen, or idle Courtiers, desirous to become skilful in their owne mother tongue, and for their private recreation to make now & then ditties of pleasure, thinking for our parte none other science so fit for them & the place as that which teacheth beau semblant, the chiefe profession aswell of Courting as of poesie.

Puttenham’s position is extreme, not in limiting poetry to gentle-folk, but in reducing it to a mere toy for them to play with. But what are his geometrical figures, his “tapers reversed,” his “rondels displayed,” his “triquete,” his “Lozanges rabbated” but toys for the idle courtier? Isn’t it this sort of thing which the “sage and serious” Spenser is thinking of when he declares that among a section of the courtiers the “artes of school” are “counted but toyes to busie ydle braines.” Spenser does not like this attitude, because he considers poetry a science for people with gentle blood, a serious science. This passage from the Faerie Queene, which happens to be on the art of horsemanship, is equally applicable to the art of poetry:

In brave pursuit of honorable deed, There is I know not what great difference Betweene the vulgar and the noble seed, Which unto things of valorous pretence Seemes to be borne by native influence; As feates of armes, and love to entertaine; But chiefly skill to ride, seemes a science Proper to gentle bloud; some others faine To menage steeds, as did this vaunter; but in vaine.

One should never forget that the Renaissance also considers itself a learned age. Naturally, the aristocracy considers learning aristocratic, and the literary critics at times almost identify the two. As we remember, the “hexametrists” felt that the way to remove poetry from the people was to use a learned form that only the educated poet could master. Notice how Puttenham equates learning with the court when he speaks of “the authors owne purpose, which is to make a rude rimer a learned and a courtly Poet.” Not a little justification for this attitude could be found, indeed. Leaving aside the polyhedral learning of numerous courtiers, one only has to think of the linguistic attainments of Elizabeth or the classical interests of Lady Jane Grey. Spenser considers the patronage of learned men and the desire to be learned the very hallmark of nobility:

It most behoves the honorable race Of mightie Peeres, true wisdome to sustaine, And with their noble countenaunce to grace The learned forheads, without gifts or gaine: Or rather learnd themselves behoves to bee: That is the girlond of Nobilitie.

Learning, and in no superficial sense, is considered necessary for the formation of the perfect courtier by all the writers of courtesy books in that age, and the nobleman in many cases attempted to live up to the standards therein set.

Nash’s preface to Greene’s Menaphon addressed “to the Gentleman Students of both Universities” is replete with the idea that poetry is a learned and gentlemanly occupation. He declaims against the playwrights “that could scarcelie latinize their necke-verse if they should have neede,” and implies that a university education is necessary for him who would be a poet. Sidney says that the poet must be the monarch of all sciences. As a matter of actual opportunity, who but one closely connected with the aristocracy in the sixteenth century could pretend to such a title?

The critics, aristocrats themselves for the most part, infer that the poet should be of gentle birth; yet we are faced with the well-known fact that publication is often considered beneath the dignity of the aristocrat. Few persons of rank dare the disapproval of their coterie by openly publishing, as does James I of England. We all know the subterfuges employed: one poet pretends that his publisher published without his permission; another declares he has been forced to give a true copy of his verses, because a mangled pirate edition of his verses has already appeared. Many actually do not bother to publish at all. Puttenham complains:

I know very many notable Gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably, and suppressed it agayne, or els suffred it to be publisht without their owne names to it; as if it were a discredit for a Gentleman to seeme learned and to shew himselfe amorous of any good Art.

The courtiers who were known as poets slighted the fact. Sidney throws out, “I knowe not by what mischance in these my not old yeres and idlest times, [I have] slipt into the title of a Poet.” K. Myrick, in Sir Philip Sidney as a Literary Craftsman, declares that this aristocratic attitude toward poetry is a deliberately cultivated air of graceful negligence and borrows Castiglione’s term “sprezzatura” as the most exact word. This “sweet disorder,” to use Herrick’s term, which Myrick declares is almost the same thing, this seemingly effortless production of good poetry is, then, a pose of the Renaissance courtier. It does not contradict the position that the poet must be a gentleman, since the attitude of “sprezzatura” does not reflect upon the value of poetry, it simply describes the “air” the courtier poet must assume.

The Purpose The conception of the purpose of poetry by the poets and the critics of the Elizabethan age is of fundamental importance to the student who seeks to determine the content of their criticism. This problem has been the burning one in literary criticism from the Greeks to the present time and is the lodestone around which all other critical problems cluster. Find out what a given critic says on this point, and there will be revealed to you the fundamental philosophic and social preconceptions on which his work is built.

It is customary to begin the discussion of purpose with an examination of the Puritan attack on poetry and the answers of her defenders. We shall follow the tradition here. It is also customary to end the discussion with the replies to the attack. This, however, we shall not do, for it will be our contention that the questions under discussion in this particular controversy are not the ones which best reveal our writers’ conceptions of the purpose of poetry. Gosson’s main criticism and that of the other Puritan attackers is that poetry is immoral. They attack the playhouses as hotbeds of vice, they denounce the lewdness of poetry, and for the most part they are with Plato in asking that the poets be banished from the commonwealth. When we ask what are the vices the Puritans complain against, we discover that to a large measure they are foreign. A great part of the attack is against the Italianate fashions of the day. Like the moralists of all ages, they see wickedness in anything which comes from beyond the national boundaries. As Gregory Smith points out, these Puritans are middle-class men. They are moved as much by social and nationalistic stimulants as by “morality” in the more restricted religious sense. That the Italian influences are finding their way into England via aristocratic channels make them doubly unacceptable. On the other hand, the defenders of poetry are courtiers and aristocrats who are hardly conscious of the existence of the popular art that the Puritan knew, and their attitude to the problem is quite different. Naturally, the defenders are as much against “vice” as are the Puritans. Differences arise only when one begins to give content to these abstractions. So the defenders marshal the old arguments. The purpose of poetry is the “winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue,” the poets “win men to virtue by pleasant instruction,” poetry is the sugar coating to the pill of ethical truth, the end of poetry is to “teach and delight,” and so forth. Thus, the defenders are as “moral” as their attackers. The question now arises as to what the “morality” of the defenders is. As we have seen above, the poet must be of gentle birth to write true poetry. It follows that the same requirement is requisite in the reader if he is to appreciate this poetry. Puttenham A scene from the television movie Don Quixote, which was originally written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is explicit as to the audience the poet writes for. He says:

Our maker or Poet is appointed not for a judge, but rather for a pleader, and that of pleasant & lovely causes and nothing perillous, such as be those for the triall of life, limme, or livelyhood, and before judges neither sower or severe, but in the eare of princely dames, yong ladies, gentlewomen, and courtiers, beyng all for the most part either meeke or of pleasant humour.

Again, Puttenham speaks of certain types of poetry as fittest to entertain the “pretie amourets in Court . . . their delicate wits requiring some commendable exercise to keepe them from idlenesse.” Now, when the critics require that the poet must be of gentle blood and they state that his audience is composed of gentle ladies and noble lords, one may suspect that the “morality” and “purpose” of poetry may be in some way connected with the aristocracy. The whole system of patronage implies that one end of poetry is to please the aristocracy. Spenser, who feels that he is not receiving as much patronage as he should, looks back with longing to a past age, when the good poet received a just reward:

But ah Mecoenas is yclad in claye And great Agustus long ygoe is dead: And all the worthies liggen wrapt in leade, That matter made for Poets on to play: For ever, who in derring doe were dreade, The loftie verse of hem was loved aye.

Patronage was a necessity for the poet in Renaissance England. As Miss Sheavyn says, “Not a single writer who persevered in his vocation was free from obligations to patrons.” Unfortunately, there were more writers than there were patrons, with the result that wealthy men were besieged by crowds of poets and would-be poets. Most of the patrons attempted to meet the situation by scattering their largess in small sums of money among a large group of writers. Only a few, such as Sir Philip Sidney and his sister Mary, had the discernment to reward generously the real poets among the mass of claimants. The end of unorganized, casual patronage was unfortunate for all concerned. The wealthy were annoyed by perpetual appeals and most of the poets had to cast all self-respect to the winds in order to write fulsome dedications to some noble lord in hopes of a few crowns recompense. The favors that came their way were not sufficient to keep body and soul together in most cases, and the professional penmen lived in sordid poverty. Nash describes his plight at not being able to gain patronage sufficient for his needs:

All in veine, I sate up late and rose earely, contended with the colde and conversed with scarcitie; for all my labours turned to losse, my vulgar Muse was despised and neglected, my paines not regarded, or slightly rewarded, and I my selfe (in prime of my best wit) laid open to povertie. . . Wereupon . . . I . . . raild on my patrones.

Nevertheless, the poet must look for patrons and promise them fame by immortalizing their deeds.

Spenser puts the deeds of great men foremost as subjects of poetry and implies that when the aristocracy declines, poetry declines along with it. Poetry is thus doubly dependent on the aristocracy for patronage and for subject matter; but the aristocracy is equally dependent upon poetry. It is only through the songs of the poet that the fame of noble deeds is known to posterity:

The sacred Muses have made alwaies claime To be the Nourses of nobility And Registres of everlasting fame To all that armes professe and chevalry.

This sentiment has added significance when one considers that it occurs in one of the dedicatory sonnets to the Faerie Queene. The purpose of these sonnets is to promise immortality in the poem to the lords who will patronize the poet. This is the theme of almost every sonnet. The one dedicated to the Earl of Essex begins:

Magnificke Lord, whose vertues excellent Doe merit a most famous Poets witt, To be thy living praises instrument, Yet doe not sdeigne, to let thy name be writt In this base Poeme, for thee far unfitt.

The close connection between poetry and the ruling class is further attested by the fact that one of the most frequent defenses of poetry is based on the approbation of poetry by princes. Sidney mentions among others, Alexander, Caesar, and Scipio, while Webbe says that among other honors poetry has received must be mentioned the fact that “Kinges and Princes, great and famous men, did ever encourage, mayntaine, and reward Poets in al ages,” because they recognized that the everlasting verses of poets alone could assure their immortality. In his Arte of English Poesie Puttenham devotes seven continuous pages to a listing of the “noble Emperours, Kings and Princes that have bene studious of poesie.”

It would constitute a serious omission if we failed to take note of the fact that one of the main incentives to poetry, one of the “purposes” of poetry, is to praise England. That the very people who make poetry an aristocratic thing are also strongly nationalistic is no cause for surprise. Not only is the Elizabethan age nationalistic to such an extent that all literature of the age is colored by it, but particularly nationalistic are the members of the ruling class which for all practical purposes is the nation. This is plainly shown in the Bastard’s last speech in King John about the return of the nobles to their fealty:

Now these her princes are come home again, Come the three corners of the world in arms, And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue, If England to itself do rest but true.

Thus, an ever recurrent note in these treatises is the plea for more national literature and the praise of that which exists. Webbe’s faith is typical:

That there be as sharpe and quicke wittes in England as ever were among the peerlesse Grecians or renowmed Romaines, it were a note of no witte at all in me to deny. And is our speeche so course, or our phrase so harshe, that Poetry cannot therein finde a vayne whereby it may appeare like it selfe?

The aristocratic and the national purpose is blended in the queen. When Spenser writes “In that Faery Queene I meane glory in my generall intention, but in my particular I conceive the most excellent and glorious person of our soveraine the Queene, and her kingdome in Faery land,” he says that one of the purposes of his poem is to praise Elizabeth both as a person and as the representative of England and her glory. The figure of Elizabeth is a symbol which unites the aristocratic and the national ideals. Spenser is always conscious of this. In the Shepheardes Calender he promised to sing the praises of the queen, and in his great poem he carried out that promise.

Another function of poetry is to perfect, as do the courtesy books, the courtier in the morality of his class. The most notable statement of this purpose is, again, Spenser’s. In the letter which contains his exposition of the whole intention of his work, Spenser writes: “The generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.” This being his main purpose, Spenser adds, he has “coloured it with an historicall fiction.” If we believe the poet, his fable and poetry exist only in order to sugar the pill for his courtier audience. Sidney in his Apology advances as one of his main arguments the theory that the nobleman learns how to conduct himself by means of poetic examples: “But even in the most excellent determination of goodnes, what Philosopher’s counsell can so redily direct a prince, as the fayned Cyrus in Xenophon? or a vertuous man in all fortunes, as Aeneas in Virgill?” Then, too, everyone has noticed the great amount of space devoted to politics in the Arcadia, to mention only one aspect of this work professedly written to amuse the leisure hours of a noble lady. R. W. Zandvoort says of the riot scenes in the Arcadia:

But if Sidney’s view of democracy need cause no surprise, the brutal tone he adopts whenever referring to the lower classes as a whole or to any single member of them is harder for a modern reader to understand. . . Evidently, one could be ‘the president of Noblesse and of Chevalree’ and hold a baseborn rustic of less account than a hound or a horse.

K. O. Myrick denies that in the political passages Sidney was merely reflecting the prejudices of his class and contends that he had a noble purpose. “I believe,” says Myrick, “he was trying to quicken in his courtly readers a sense of responsibility toward the state.” It is of no moment to this paper which of these interpretations we accept as valid. Both are grist for our mill, since both point out that the purpose of the Arcadia, according to Sidney’s own practice, is aristocratic.

Although most of our Renaissance critics would agree that the deeds of noble princes comprise the chief matter of poetry and that the registering of noble names is one of its chief purposes, James VI feels that the affairs of kings are materials too lofty for the poet:

Ye man also be war of wryting any thing of materis of commoun weill, or uther sic grave sene subjectis . . . because nocht onely ye essay nocht your awin Invention, as I spak before, bot lykewayis they are to grave materis for a Poet to mell in.

The only king who at this time wrote a critical treatise wanted no poets meddling in his business. One is afraid that this very personal opinion cannot stand against the overwhelming tendency of the critics to place these “grave materis” among the foremost ones of poetry. Perhaps, too, James was thinking of topical rather than historical writing. If so, there are no dissenters.

The classical nature of the bulk of Elizabethan criticism has been often remarked, but I do not think that the close connection between the aristocratic purpose and this classicism has been sufficiently indicated. It must be remembered that in the Renaissance the term “art” covered a broader field than it does today. Not only were the pageants and the dances which played such a large part in courtly life considered art forms, but the very forms of polite living were felt to come within the domain of aesthetics. To the new Elizabethan aristocracy the acquisition of courtly manners was a conscious artistic process. As we have remarked, literary works, as well as the many courtesy books, were written to train the aristocrat in formal living. It is not surprising, then, that in this society, consciously attempting to be formal, literary criticism should put emphasis upon the formal and decorous element in art. Thus, whereas the great art of the period is romantic, the criticism is strictly classical. The ever-articulate Spenser bears witness to the feeling that courtly living is an art. Courtesy is inseparable from the court:

Of Court it seemes, men Courtesie doe call, For that it there most useth to abound; And well beseemeth that in Princes hall That vertue should be plentifully found, Which of all goodly manners is the ground, And roots of civill conversation.

Although the young nobleman needs training in the art of living, it is, at the same time, something inherent in his blood and cannot be acquired by a low-born person:

True is, that whilome that good Poet sayd The gentle minde by gentle deeds is knowne. For a man by nothing is so well bewrayed, As by his manners, in which plaine is showne Of what degree and what race he is growne.

One must pause here to note how very central to our problem this quotation of Spenser’s is. The author of the Faerie Queene was familiar with those sections of Il cortegiano which we have used in the part of this work dealing with Italy where the interlocutors decide that gentle birth is a prerequisite for gentle manners. Henry Peacham is even more positive than Castiglione. He declares nobility to be “of it selfe essential and absolute.” In Orlando furioso Ariosto (whom Spenser had read) offers the reverse of this proposition, declaring that ungentle birth makes for ungentle manners:

Convien ch’ovunque sia, sempre cortese Sia un cor gentil, ch’esser non pùo altramente, Che per natura, e per habito prese Quel, che di mutar poi non è possente. Convien, ch’ovunque sia sempre palese Un cot villan si mostri similmente. Natura inclina al male; e vienne a farsi L’habito poi difficile à mutarsi.

As gentle manners are cultivated as an art in the Renaissance, it is not surprising that the same requirements are demanded for the production of art as for gentle manners. What is true of gentle manners is equally true of art; gentle blood is necessary. In order to buttress this contention the aristocratic critic turns to the Neoplatonists and takes from them the idea of the identity of the good and the beautiful.

For the Renaissance writers, who follow Plato as seen through the eyes of Ficino, the beauty of outward things springs from the beauty of the soul. The beauty of the world is an emanation of the spirit of God, and the beauty of a woman is a result of the formative energy of her soul. Spenser denies that the beauty is merely a question of externals. It is a reflection of the beauty of the good soul:

How vainely then doe ydle wits invent, That beautie is nought else, but mixture made Of colours faire, and goodly temp’rament Of pure complexions, that shall quickly fade And passe away, like to a sommers shade, Or that it is but comely composition Of parts well measurd, with meet disposition.

The next step is to equate the good and the aristocratic ethic from which it follows that beauty and aristocracy are one:

For all that faire is, is by nature good; That is a signe to know the gentle blood.

No doubt this feeling for form in life springs, too, from a new consciousness of the formal character of the new state. The growth of the political structure from a collection of semi-independent barons to a monarchy headed by a ruler with supreme power is reflected in literature by the progression from the poorly constructed productions of the Middle Ages to the more artistic forms of the Renaissance. The very political structure of the state is conceived of as a work of art. Samuel Daniel, in his “Defence of Rhyme” gives us this concept:

Let us go no further but looke upon the wonderfull Architecture of this state of England, see whether they were deformed times that could give it such a forme: Where there is no one the least piller of Majestie but was set with most profound judgement, and borne up with the just conveniencie of Prince and people: no Court of justice but laide by the Rule and Square of Nature, and the best of the best commonwealths that ever were in the world: so strong and substantial as it hath stood against al the storms of factions, both of beliefe and ambition, which so powerfully beat upon it, and all the tempestuous alterations of humourous times whatsoever.

Saintsbury points out, in his History of Criticism, that between the date of Jonson’s “Timber” (1625–1637) and the date of Dryden’s “Essay of Dramatic Poesy” (1668) there is practically no substantial literary criticism in England save for the prefatory matter to Gondibert (1650). Saintsbury attributes this gap to the disturbance caused by the Civil War. It seems to this writer that mere physical disturbance is not sufficient reason for this cessation of critical writing. As this whole essay has pointed out, not only is the social basis of English literary criticism before the Civil War aristocratic but also, as we have seen in the section on tragedy, the king was considered to typify the highest ideal in art. If the purpose of this criticism was, as we contend, aristocratic, what is more natural than that it should pass out of sight during the Puritan, middle- class domination of the Commonwealth period, to reappear with the Restoration of the monarchy? Does not the fact that it disappeared during the nonaristocratic period support our thesis that this criticism is aristocratic in purpose? The exception which Saintsbury mentions, the prefatory matter to Gondibert, was written in Paris by two royalist exiles, a fact which strengthens our suppositions. Naturally, in the place of this aristocratic criticism, one could not expect a new type to spring up in the few years of the Commonwealth. A new tradition, in criticism or anything else, is not started so easily. Nevertheless, we can find indications that point to a different conception of the purpose of poetry. Milton, for instance, says that poets are the defenders of a people’s liberty and the “ strenuous enemies of despotism.” Here we have a purpose of poetry which is the antithesis of the monarchicalaristocratic. It is explainable only by those who are aware that a change in the social structure of society is reflected in even the most abstract realms of human thought.

Source: Vernon Hall Jr., “The Poet and His Purpose,” in Renaissance Literary Criticism: A Study of Its Social Content, Peter Smith, 1959, pp. 215–28.


Critical Overview