Resolving Elizabethan Ambiguities in Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus”

© January 2015 Mary Crockford

Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is hardly alone among would-be literary “heroes who passionately seek power” (Greenblatt) at the expense of wisdom and morality. Faustus is indeed “a morally barren scholar who rejects divinity in favor of the seductive power of Lucifer,” but to stop there would be to miss how brilliantly Marlowe’s problematic hero personifies the “tension between a Medieval scholastic mindset, based upon religious faith, and the new Renaissance humanist ethos, based upon the pursuit of secular knowledge” (Duxfield 2). Faustus’ famous plea to Mephistopheles, “Resolve me of all ambiguities,/Perform what desperate enterprise I will?” (Marlowe 1.80) is interpreted by Duxfield as the doctor’s quest for his own unification through acquiring “unequivocal knowledge and a unified understanding of the world” (par. 2). King sees Faust as “a Marlovian and a Renaissance hero” in that “he is strong, proud, and is prepared to take on great forces in order to push the boundaries of his existence” (par. 1). Others like Kostic reference Faustus first as an actual historical figure, a “wicked, cheating, unlearned doctor” as “renowned for his great skill…in chiromancy, necromancy, physiognomy, visions in crystal” and similar dark arts as for his medical skill (Marlowe 209-210). Whatever balance of real or imagined the good doctor is, the centrality of Marlowe’s rendering of the Faustian motif lies in the spiritual price his protagonist is willing to pay for the knowledge he believes will enable him to reach his full potential. The play’s very premise is the problem of rejecting divinity and mastering the world at “the inevitable price of eternal damnation,” so that Faustus’ “contradictory world” is “entirely resistant to unification” (Duxfield par. 2) and he is doomed to failure. But when viewed as a mirror onto Elizabethan society, Faustus is not simply an unsavory, irredeemable tragic hero, but a playwright’s brilliant attempt to make his audience conscious of “the profound ideological and political fracture current in England during the latter part of the sixteenth century” (Duxfield 2).

Faustus’ ambivalence manifests as equal measures of intellectual boredom and arrogance when he “bids farewell to each of his studies” in the play’s opening soliloquy (Greenblatt). That these areas of study are academic ones – logic, medicine and law – is purposeful on Marlowe’s part, as these areas were at the forefront of inquiry for Elizabethan humanists. The practice of medicine seems pointless to Faust, because while he might “heap up gold” (Marlowe 1.15) and cure “a thousand desperate maladies,” a physician can not be “on earth as Jove” (1.76) and “make men to live eternally” (1.23-25). He finds the study of law pedantic so best left to a class of “mercenary drudge/Who aims at nothing but external trash” (1.35-36). By virtue of his superior rhetorical gifts, he argues well and has mastered the works of Aristotle, so in his mind he has achieved “logic’s chiefest end” (1.9-10). For a society which was itself debating how to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of “the admirable Renaissance urge for human endeavor” and the orthodox Christian belief in “the fearful and just punishment of a faithless heretic,” Faustus’ conversations with the devil were not simply entertainment, but vicarious dialoguing through art on issues central to the “religio-historical context” of the period (Duxfield 3).

The theme of the Seven Deadly Sins, still prominent even though Elizabethans “had seen the nation change its official religion three times,” runs through the play (Duxfield 2), suggesting that Marlowe considered spiritual and earthly concerns relevant for the individual and British society. Faustus’s desire to “ransack the ocean for orient pearl,/And search all corners of the new-found world/For pleasant fruits and princely delicates” (Marlowe 1.83-85) points the finger of judgment not at a fictional character with symbolic appetites and damnation at stake, but at a very real British Empire culpable in matters of economic and political expansionism having far-reaching effects on the community of man. Faustus’ misogynistic casting of “a plague” on wives, preference for “a hot whore” and “fairest courtesans” in his bed, and view of marriage as “but a ceremonial toy,” (5.142-147), reflect the fragile feminist discourse in which Elizabethan women rejected the angel/whore dichotomy and sought to become equal partakers in the intellectual, aesthetic and sexual explorations taken for granted by Renaissance men. Faust’s delving into “demonstrations magical” (1.151), rejection of “wise Bacon’s and Albanus’ works” and disdain for the divine law of “The Hebrew Psalter and New Testament” (1.155-6) are just the first steps into his long and excruciating descent from a man “grac’d with learning’s golden gifts” to one who has “fix’d the love of Belzebub” (5.13) and refused “Contrition, prayer, repentance” (5.18) so many times that he is irrevocably lost. One could suppose that Marlowe, in portraying Faustus’ inevitable destruction, either intended or stumbled upon the lesson his failed hero refused to learn – that humility and wisdom, found only in man’s right relationship to God, are in truth the only rational foundation from which Renaissance society could exercise its newborn “golden gifts” of learning and unify and preserve itself.

Works Cited:

Duxfield, Andrew. “”Resolve Me of All Ambiguities:” Doctor Faustus and the Failure to Unify.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 16 (Oct. 2007): 1-21. JSTOR. Web. 28 Dec. 2015.

Greenblatt, Stephen, and M. H. Abrams. “Dr. Faustus.”The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Sixteenth Century and The Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York: Norton, 2012. 1127. Print.

King, Neil. “A Heroic Engagement with the Supernatural — Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.” eMagazine 45 (2009): 26-28. Isle of Wight College. Web. 02 Jan. 2016.

Kostic, Milena. “The Faustian Motif in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.”Linguistics and Literature 7.2 (2009): 209-22. Web. 28 Dec. 2015.

Marlowe, Christopher. “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.” Harvard Classics. 2nd ed. Vol. 19. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909. N. pag., 2001. Web. 01 Jan. 2016.


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