Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) as poet and playwright was at the forefront of the 16th Century Dramatic Renaissance, a man to whom Shakespeare and others owe a huge debt of gratitude. “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus” is an outstanding tragedy by Marlowe, and is his most well-known work. It was published in 1604, but was written in 1593. The Prologue acquaints us with Faustus’ intellectual achievements and his choice of necromancy which is ultimately responsible for his damnation. His comparison with Icarus signifies Faustus’ ambitious nature and his ultimate fall.
“Good Angel: Never too late if Faustus will repent.
Bad Angel: If thou repent, devils will tear thee in pieces.”
Doctor Faustus (Act II, Scene II, 82-83)
W. H. Hudson calls ‘Doctor Faustus’ a religious play because it gives us the lesson that damnation falls on man if he eschews religion and follows the path of sensual pleasures. The play has been written in the tradition of Morality Plays which were popular in the Middle Ages in England. Marlowe has borrowed the character of Doctor Faust from the English Faust Book which had propagated the story of Faustus as a famous German sorcerer of the Medieval times. But Marlowe added certain other facets to his character in order to make him a tragic hero. The play is a beautiful sermon against temptation.
Doctor Faustus sells his soul to the Devil and goes far away from God. Although his conscience sometimes turns towards God yet he falls in the grip of Bad Angel and thus brings his doom in the end. A time comes in his life when contrition, prayer, and heaven have no meaning for him. He thinks of honor and wealth all the time and wants to govern the world with his newly acquired powers. He becomes a hardened sinner and says:
“My heart’s so harden’d I can’t repent,
Scarce can I name salvation, faith or heaven.”Doctor Faustus (Act II, Scene II, 19-20)
Eva Fitzwater rightly argues that Doctor Faustus is reduced to nothing because he wants to satisfy his unending physical appetites through unnatural means. The doctrine of damnation pervades the whole play. The Devil and Hell are omnipresent in the play. Through Faustus is s learned scholar yet he sells his soul for temporary enjoyment. He is overpowered by the worldly desires. He wants to learn necromancy because it will satisfy all his greed for power. He says that after becoming the lord of spirits, he will enjoy all the power and wealth of the world.
Lewes agrees that the character of Mephistopheles has certain grandeur, yet his world would scare Faust rather than tempt him, so the presentation is flawed. Mephistopheles is an evil which is strong only for those that bow before him and are preoccupied with the deeds of evil; he admits before Faustus that he cannot overpower the old or grand man because his faith is strong. Lucifer, with all his potential and determination, has been working for the destruction of mankind. Lucifer is the prince of devils and the ruler of hell. He is an ultimate devil, a wicked demon.
James Smith observes that the play will lose its charm if the comic scenes are removed from it whereas Professor Harry Levin opines that the underplot brings the play to a low level. Some critics believe that Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ has violated the classical principles by adding comedy to a tragic play. Whatever the opinion of scholars, these scenes amuse the readers to a great extent. The comic scenes of ‘Doctor Faustus’ make the situation light and prepare the audience to see the grim tragedy of Faustus.
“When Marlowe gives his Faustus a mistress, he flies him at Helen,
Flower of Greece, to be sure, and not Miss Bessy or Miss Sally Thoughtless.”Charles Lamb
Marlowe shows the parade of Seven Deadly Sins in order to convince us about their negative power. In this scene, Lucifer himself appears to show his seven agents such as: Pride, Covetousness, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lechery. The appearance of the Good Angel and the Bad Angel depicts the two sides of Faustus’ soul. The dramatist shows that the conflict between the Good and the Bad Angel goes on constantly in Faustus’ mind. The Good Angel wants him to think of Heaven but the Bad Angel takes him towards power and wealth.
After becoming a sorcerer Doctor Faustus demands a wife, a woman from Mephistopheles. He plays petty pranks and ultimately conjures up Helen, the paragon of beauty, and cries out, “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.” Doctor Faustus’ sensuality can be judged from this utterance: “And all is dross that is not Helena!” But the last scene of the play shows the state of mind of Doctor Faustus who is now about to die. Just look at his painful expressions:
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!”Doctor Faustus (Act V, Scene II, 35-37)
William Hazlitt is of the opinion that Marlowe’s writing burns with passion and imagination nonstop and maintains a critical energy that is naturally transferred onto the stage, resulting in his greatest work (Doctor Faustus). The chorus rightly tells us in the Epilogue to consider the “hellish fall” of this learned man who wanted “to practice more than the heavenly power permits.” The play is a religious document which attempts to restore the religious values in the strife-torn world. It is a sermon that attempts to take us away from the path of sin. They play marks the culmination of the Morality tradition which promoted faith and religion in society. Doctor Faustus is an extraordinary drama written by Christopher Marlowe, also known as Kit Marlowe.