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Christopher Marlowe’s play “Doctor Faustus” presents a story that is filled with various forms of significant philosophical conflict. While, on the surface, the play is intended to focus on the “form of Faustus’ fortunes,” the scope of the play includes commentary on several other important themes (Prologue.8). Marlowe uses Faustus’s position to demonstrate a sharp contrast between the values of the medieval time period with the developing values associated with the Renaissance movement.
Faustus’s story shows a direct conflict between the traditional and the modern in its form, its ideology, and its view of religion. Since Marlow maintains an ongoing struggle between these various elements throughout the play, a struggle also exists between the tragic and comedic elements of the story. Marlowe’s ambiguity toward the primary direction of the play creates a situation in which the ultimate purpose of the play’s comedic scenes remains uncertain even after Faustus’s final moments.
The content of Faustus’s story superficially focuses on Faustus’s struggle to maintain control over the destiny of his own soul. Faustus’s desire to become “a mighty god” leads him to make a deal with Lucifer, in which he exchanges his soul for twenty four years of demonic power (1.62). Throughout the play Faustus struggles with repentance and disbelief, and he is eventually condemned to Hell for his actions. Symbolically, Faustus’s story is more appropriately a representation of the struggle, evident during Marlowe’s time period, between the traditional ideas of the medieval period and the modern ideas of the Renaissance.
This conflict is evident within the first few lines of the play. Marlowe begins the play by having Faustus announce that he has given up on the traditional schools of thought, such as the study of religion, law, and medicine. Instead, he plans to study “that damned art” of necromancy or black magic (2.29). While traditional medieval thought encouraged the unquestioning acceptance of ancient philosophy, Renaissance thought encouraged experimentation and a rethinking of previously accepted beliefs. While Faustus’s actions may show his support of these Renaissance beliefs, his ultimate demise suggests that Renaissance thought may also be imperfect because it does not include a belief in God.
This dualism between modern and traditional thought is also evident in the structure of the play. Marlowe employs elements that would be common in most traditional plays, such as the use of a chorus. He also uses mythical comparisons, depicting Faustus as another Icarus, a man who will eventually “mount above his reach” (Prologue.21). Faustus is also depicted as a tragically flawed character. Faustus is portrayed by the Chorus as being “swollen with cunning” (Prologue.20).
Like Achilles, Hercules, or other traditional Greek heroes, Faustus has a character flaw that will mostly likely lead to his demise, but the eternal damnation of Faustus, to the Elizabethan audience, would be the equivalent of damning great Greek heroes, and thus creates artificial traditional expectations of the play. Simultaneously, Marlowe also ignores many of the important characteristics of traditional tragedies. While most tragedies depict historically important characters, Faustus’s story is a tale of an ordinary man, not of the “courts of kings” or the “pomp of proud audacious deeds” (Prologue.4-5). By focusing on the common man and also by writing in blank verse, a style that was uncommon during this period, Marlowe breaks away from the traditional expectations of a tragic play.
Faustus’s view of religion also constantly vacillates between a traditional acceptance of Christianity and a modern rejection of it. When Faustus initially reads that “[t]he reward of sin is death,” and that “[i]f we say we that we have no sin, / We deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us” he suggests that Christianity is a futile endeavor and decides that “What will be, shall be! Divinity, adieu!” (1.40-43, 48). He mistakenly characterizes Christianity as being based on punishment rather than on forgiveness, a mistake that he repeats throughout the play.
Later, he believes his heart has become “so hardened” that he “cannot repent!” (5.196). While he initially suggests that Hell is nothing but a fable, Faustus’s religious convictions continue to grow. Upon seeing Lucifer and Mephistopheles, he cries out, “O Faustus, they are come to fetch thy soul!” and even murmurs “Consummatum est,” meaning “it is finished,” which were Christ’s dying words on the cross, after signing his deal with Lucifer (5.264, 74).
In this manner, Marlowe remains ambiguous throughout most of the play as to his position on the various conflicts he has depicted. For the audience, Faustus position as a modern man and Marlowe’s portrayal of religion remain in doubt. For this reason, the comedic scenes also remain ambiguous throughout the play. The audience remains uncomfortably unsure as to whether the comedy is intended to garner support for Faustus as the ultimate hero of the story or to mock Faustus by foreshadowing his own demise. The conclusion of the play demonstrates that the comedy depicted in the play, in addition to its theatrical purpose of providing a comedic interlude, provides a critical depiction of Faustus’s fall from grace.
One of the first comedic scenes in the play occurs when Faustus asks the demon Mephistopheles to reappear in the habit of a friar since “[t]hat holy shape becomes a devil best” (3.26). While the depiction of a devil in the garb of a Catholic friar would have undoubtedly been hysterical to Marlowe’s staunchly Protestant audience, the scene also carries significant meaning. By having Mephistopheles disguise his true figure, Faustus, despite his fearless speech, seems unable to stomach the true nature of Hell. Even when Mephistopheles seems to warn Faustus that his own “pride and insolence” have forever barred him “from the face of heaven” and that he is now “tormented with ten thousand hells,” Faust clings to his own diluted version of Hell (3.67-68, 79). He delusionally envisions Hell as a continuation of an earthly existence, and criticizes Mephistopheles for his lack of “manly fortitude” (3.85).
The comedy within the play is continued by the antics of the characters Wagner, Robin, Rafe, and the Clown. Most of these comedic actions seem to foreshadow Faustus’s own downfall. The first depiction of Wagner and the Clown mirrors Faustus signing his soul over to Lucifer. During this scene, Wagner convinces the Clown to become his servant for seven years, and the Clown jokes about how he would sell his soul for a shoulder of well-seasoned mutton.
While represented in a comedic fashion, this scene foreshadowing the triviality of the power Faustus has obtained in exchange for his soul. As suggested by Mephistopheles’s unwillingness to discuss things that are “against our kingdom,” Faustus soon discovers that there are severe limitations placed upon the power wielded by Lucifer and his minions (5.247).
In another comedic scene involving these characters, Robin, the stable hand, and Rafe steal a cup from a tavern and are pursued by the tavern wine-maker. Robin summons Mephistopheles to frighten the vintner, and is chastised by the demon for being summoned for a practical joke. Mephistopheles threatens to turn the two men into a dog and an ape. While Mephistopheles is obviously angered by the triviality of Robin’s request, his anger also reflects his own suggestion that Faustus abandon his “frivolous demands” (3.81). This scene foreshadows how Faustus will eventually abandon his own lofty goals and will also use his power primarily to play practical jokes.
Much of the comedy in the play is related to the digression of Faustus’s goals and the ways in which he employs his power. Faustus begins the play with many lofty goals. With his powers, Faustus plans to have spirits bring him jewels from around the world, teach him vast secrets of the universe, and make him king of Germany.
He planed to change the course of the Rhine River and remake the entire map of Europe. Initially, Faustus appears to be on the path toward reaching these goals. Wagner tells how Faustus has ridden through the cosmos on the back of a dragon learning the secrets of astronomy from Mephistopheles. But Faustus quickly losses momentum, and, upon reaching Rome, decides to use his power to play practical jokes on the Pope. While this idea would, once again, be extremely funny to Marlowe’s Protestant audience, it represents the beginning of Faustus’s digression.
As time progresses, Faustus’s audiences also decrease in their level of importance. Following his time with the Pope, one of the most influential figures during this time period, Faustus meets the German Emperor Charles V, who is also an important figure but not as important as the Pope. During this meeting, Faustus, unable to fulfill the requests made by Charles due to more limitations on his powers, embarrasses a disrespectful knight in the King’s court by placing antlers on his head. This digression continues as Faustus final audience is with a simple nobleman and his wife. Faustus’s display of power consists of fetching out of season grapes for the nobleman’s wife. The comedy during these scenes primarily includes a practical joke Faustus plays on a horse-courser. Like Robin and Rafe’s practical joke, Faustus now uses his power to play jokes on people his has already angered.
Like many other aspects of the play, the comedy depicted by Faustus’s gradual demise also remains ambiguous. For many, this demise can be seen as a failure in Renaissance thought. Faustus’s search for power and knowledge has left him disconnected from God, the ultimate source of both. By not including God or morality in his search for truth, Faustus has become corrupted by the influences of power and no longer retains his somewhat nobler purposes.
But Faustus also simultaneously fails in his attempts to incorporate a more traditional view of religion into his life. He recalls that “Christ did call the thief upon the cross,” believing that he too will be brought into paradise. Faustus, particularly during his last hours on Earth, seems to exhaust every possibility of incorporating religion into his life. He offers to make deals with God, begs for mercy if not redemption, and even turns to Helen of Troy, a representation of feminine virtue or Mother Mary, for reprieve. Faustus’s condemnation demonstrates how Faustus has been simultaneously failed both by traditional religion and by the beliefs held by modern Renaissance thinkers.
In conclusion, the comedy within this play serves a variety of purposes. Like many of the other elements in the play, the comic and tragic elements seem to struggle with one another throughout the play. This struggle is also seen in Faustus’s struggle between Renaissance thought and form and a more traditional view of life and religion. When coupled with these various forms of conflict, the comedic scenes within “Doctor Faustus” cause the play to constantly waver between tragedy and comedy, leaving the audience without any knowledge of how the play will ultimately end or of the true meaning of the play. Most of the comedy seems to mock Faustus’s decision to embrace a modern philosophy toward life, but, when religion ultimately fails him as well, Faustus seems to be a completely hopeless representation of man. The play’s comedic scenes are another method, employed by Marlowe, to create confusion and veil the true significance of the play.