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Understanding of Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan tragedy, Dr. Faustus, can be framed in terms of the Renaissance philosophy and the Elizabethan tragedy, which takes a different turn on some points from the Aristotelian tragedy, for instance such as the Elizabethan tragedy’s requisite death of the tragic hero. Dr. Faustus demonstrates the Renaissance philosophy that pits the dichotomy of good, angelic humanity against evil, depraved humanity. Marlowe’s play also is a model of the Elizabethan tragedy.
Marlowe constructed the character of Dr.
Faustus to represent within himself both characteristics of the Renaissance view of humanity as divinely good and hellishly evil. First, Dr. Faustus is presented as a scholar of all things including divinity, the highest Renaissance scholarly discipline. Then, Faustus is shown as dissatisfied with the limitations of humanity and grasping for unlimited knowledge, which is a Biblical allusion to Adam and Eve who ate of the Tree of Knowledge. Throughout the play, Faustus descends to lower and lower planes of knowledge in his pursuit for the “power” and “omnipotence” that comes from knowledge.
At the beginning, Mephistopheles answers all Faustus’ questions but draws the line on talk of the universe, which can be seen to stand for astronomical and cosmological studies–the very studies that science is deeply involved in today:
CERN; Hubble; SoHo; etc). Faustus must be content with merely mapping the universe instead of understanding it. Marlowe ultimately shows in Dr. Faustus the futility of the quest for ultimate knowledge and the inevitable end result of abandoning moral integrity for omnipotent knowledge.
Dr. Faustus also represents a Classic Elizabethan tragedy. First, the tragic hero has a flaw or makes an error in judgment that leads to his own doom. It’s hard to say whether Faustus had a fatal flaw in his character or whether he was doomed by a faulty understanding that lead to a fatally disastrous error in judgment. All along the way, Faustus has doubts and hesitations which speak for an integrity of his moral character. If he has a fatal flaw, it might be that he did not reckon the power of evil highly enough, that he thought that with omnipotent knowledge, he could free himself from the chains of evil he wrapped so blithely around himself. Adam and Eve also fell to the punishment from the lure of knowledge.
Of course, quite often Faustus’ fatal flaw is said to be greed and irreverent disregard for goodness. One clue to forming a literary stance on the question lies in examining his hesitations and second thoughts. In addition to this, the questions addressed in Marlowe’s play are nobel universal questions pertaining to the highest order of considerations: the meaning of life and death, the quest for knowledge, the respective power of of good and evil. In further accord with elizabethan tragedy, the play Dr. Faustus employs comedic relief through the presence of clowns that also acts as a means of giving information about the characters and the action of the play. The clowns in Dr. Faustus are Rafe and Robin. In Elizabethan tragedy, the clowns (rural, country simpletons who misuse language accidentally) and fools (urban dwellers who play with language and “misuse” it intentionally for wit) generally replace the Greek Chorus that carried the task of moving the story along with information not performed on stage, but in Dr. Faustus, Marlowe employs both the Greek-style Chorus and Elizabethan clowns.
Finally, in keeping with Elizabethan tragic form, Faustus gets himself in so deep, his tragic flaw or error in judgement is so aggregious that it leads ultimately and necessarily to his death, thus fulfilling the fate of an Elizabethan tragic hero. Since Faustus has overestimated what he can attain from an arrangement with Lucifer and since he underestimated the power of Lucifer’s evil, his ultimate end must be and is death even though he recognizes his mistakes and pleads for pardon.
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