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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



John Larson
[Written while the author was a freshman at
The University of Oregon, and should be read
with understanding of the same. —JL]

Doctor Faustus woodcut from the 1620 titlepage

Doctor Faustus - Selling His Soul to Make a Point

In Dr. Faustus, Christopher Marlowe has vividly drawn up the character of an intelligent, learned man tragically seduced by the lure of power greater than he was mortally meant to have. The character of Dr. Faustus is, in conception, an ideal of humanism, but Marlowe has taken him and shown him to be damned nonetheless, thus satirizing the ideals of Renaissance Humanism.

       M. H. Abram's A Glossary of Literary Terms defines Renaissance Humanism, stating that some of the key concepts of the philosophy centered around "the dignity and central position of human beings in the universe" as reasoning creatures, as well as downplaying the "‘animal' passions" of the individual. The mode of the thought also "stressed the need for a rounded development of and individual's diverse powers... as opposed to merely technical or specialized training." Finally, all of this was synthesized into and perhaps defined by their tendency to minimize the prevalent Christian ideal of innate corruption and withdrawal from the present, flawed world in anticipation of heaven. (p. 83)

       The character of Faustus is reasoning and very aware of the moral (or immoral) status of what he is undertaking. His opening speech is devoted to working out logically why he is willing to sacrifice both the road to honest knowledge and his soul in favor of more power. (I, 1-63) He exhibits, in his search for power, anything but animal passion; he indeed exhibits a chilling logic as he talks himself out of the possible delights of heaven. Not only is he intelligent, he also demonstrates a broad base of learning, another quality admired and upheld by humanists.

       In several sections of the play, Faustus goes into beautifully vivid descriptions of the wonders he will accomplish with his power. (I, 78-97; III, 104-111) This seems an ironic parody of what Philip Sydney (a well-known humanist) described in his Defense of Poesy as the poet's prerogative of describing a reality better than that which may actually be attained. Faustus is rarely more humanist than when he describes what he will do with his hell-bought power.

       Marlowe's attack on humanism is subtle. He demonstrates an admirable complexity of narration as he weaves these grand-seeming gestures of the power of the individual in with the essential damnation that walks hand-in-hand with man. There is little or nothing which Faustus does which is not unto itself humanistic. His downfall is woven into the fact that he is and will always be human– thus, flawed. Marlowe creates a character who is intelligent, broad-based in his education, logical, and poetic... and still damned. Despite his humanism, he is unequivocally corrupt, a quality which Renaissance Humanism as a philosophy tended to gloss over.

       When Faustus achieves his power, he time and again fails to take advantage of it for any but the silliest operations. From the viewing of the Seven Deadly Sins (V, 277-322) to enchanting an offensive knight with horns (X, 52-80), the man's professed intentions of greatness are shown for the hopeless dreams they really are– they contain neither truth nor purpose, in the end, despite what Sydney stated.

       Marlowe points out again and again in conversation with the wise (if evil) demons and devils the nature of hell. He states it quite simply that "All places be hell that is not heaven." (V, 125) Of earth, Mephastophilis asserts that "this is hell, nor am I out of it." (III, 76) Both these spite the humanistic love of the world, or as Abram's Glossary puts it:

...[Renaissance humanists] tended to emphasize the values achievable by human beings in this world, and to minimize the earlier Christian emphasis on innate corruption and on the ideals of asceticism and of withdrawal from this world in a preoccupation with the world hereafter. (p. 83)

       Christopher Marlowe was not a Humanist, as evidenced by how clearly the tragedy that was Dr. Faustus exemplified the downfall of a humanist and reinforced themes which conflicted with the basic tenets presented by Renaissance Humanism. If this reading is to be believed, the man was in fact violently and intelligently opposed to it. It is difficult to imagine a more effective and thorough attack on the mentality and methodology of the humanist than Dr. Faustus.

Text copyright ©1999-2010 John Larson. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

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