“A Thousand Desperate Maladies” – Solipsism and Psychopathy in Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus”

©October 2014 Mary Crockford

In Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus, Faustus’s original, stated desire is to work as a physician and devise “a wondrous cure” for “a thousand desperate maladies” that plague his fellow man. Though Faustus is “grac’d with doctor’s name” and learned “in all matters of heavenly theology,” the tale’s omniscient narrator likens him to Lucifer at the Fall, as “glutted with learning’s golden gifts” and “swollen with cunning and a self-conceit” (Marlowe and Dyce 3).  At first, Faust “requests things not for himself but for others,” such as resurrection of the dead and grapes to make fine wine (Decu par. 18). However, in short order he reveals “the seeds of decay…in his character” (Kostic 215) when he refuses the Good Angel’s advice to set Mephistophilis’ “damned book” of magic aside and instead entreats the spirits to help him pursue his own gain (Marlowe and Dyce 5). He begs them to “resolve” him of “all ambiguities,” that is to remove any moral or intellectual obstacles to the use of his learned knowledge to “ransack…all corners of the new-found world” for wealth and power. He goes on at length, eventually confessing his desire to “reign sole king of all the provinces,” a goal closer to that suggested earlier by the Bad Angel, that of being “on earth as Jove” (Marlowe and Dyce 5). From this point on, Dr. Faustus appears less concerned with any “ambiguities” he may have previously had about pursuing his aspirations — on earth or in the spirit world. He entertains Valdes’ promise that he “shall make all nations to canonize” him and that “the spirits of every element” will “be always serviceable” to his whims. A short while later he is conversing with Lucifer’s minister, Mephistophilis, who speaks to him from hell, where he admits God cast Lucifer “from the face of heaven” for his “aspiring pride and insolence” (Marlowe and Dyce 9). Mephistophilis becomes what Decu calls “Faustus’ assistant in a quest for self-knowledge” (par. 1), though he is truthful with Faust about what it is to endure eternal punishment in the underworld. But the demon’s story is not enough to dissuade Faustus from the hubris of his own rebellion against God, and the doctor deeds his soul to Lucifer, asserting that the very hell from which Mephistophilis addresses him is “a fable” (Marlowe and Dyce 14). His demeanor grows increasingly cavalier and outrageous, and he demands the sating of his sexual appetites with a “hot whore” (Marlowe and Dyce 15). He then commences a seemingly endless string of refusals to repent, accelerating his efforts to master nature and time despite an extravagant number of warnings and opportunities, and occasional lip service to his guilt. Faustus refuses to cry out to God except to question His adequacy to save him, ascribing more reverence to Lucifer instead, even as characters like the Knight, the Old Man and the Scholars exhort him to eschew his corrupt ambitions and seek mercy:

FIRST SCHOLAR: Why did not Faustus tell us of this before, that divines

might have prayed for thee?

FAUSTUS: Oft I have thought to have done so, but the devil threatened to tear

me to pieces, if I named God,…” ( Marlowe and Dyce 33)

 

As Faustus’ story continues to unfold, he is exposed as a man of self-centered ambitions, delusions of grandeur, and intellectual arrogance that comprise what Bevington and Rasmussen call the “psychopathic solipsism…of the Nietzschean aristocratic superman” (86). In the light of his swift degradation, early desires to restore the dead to life and craft wine allude to a Christ complex that crumbles beneath fleshly temptation. His emotional, moral and psychological instability lend themselves to swings from euphoria to despair, and it is the latter he resorts to most often, through choices and refusals to choose – between humility and hubris, rebellion and redemption, sin and salvation. Faust’s professional life ends as soon as it begins, painting a picture of God-given potential squandered on a myopic quest to subjugate nature and master knowledge. By grasping Mephistophilis’ coattails, Faust temporarily transcends the limits of time and space, only to be consigned to hell as what Kostic calls “a vagabond, a babbler and a rogue” (par. 3). This is not a character shift, however, but is in fact an expose’ of his character. As Decu explains, “Faustus’ condition is very much the same as before the pact, except his soul is now damned” (par. 21). In his failure to serve God and man with his rare talents, Faustus allows Lucifer to steal them, costing himself a worthy legacy, and damning his immortal soul.

Works Cited:

Bevington, David, and Eric Rasmussen. “Dr. Faustus.” Manchester University Press, n.d. 1998. Print.

Decu, Andrei. “What Does Faustus Want?” Academia.edu. Academia, 2012. Web.

Kostic, Milena. “The Faustian Motif in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.” Facta Universitatis

– Linguistics and Literature 7.2 (2009): 209-22. University of Nis, Serbia, 2009. Web.

Marlowe, Christopher. “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.” Project Gutenberg.

Gutenberg.org, n.d. Web.

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