Monthly Archives: October 2012

A Critique on the Character of Dr. Faustus

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“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). If the character of Dr. Faustus from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was to be analyzed according to Isaiah 5:20, he would be damned to hell not only by his own blood on a contract, but also by a host of other witnesses, including the prophet Isaiah, God, and the majority of Christian readers. This assumption stands because of Faustus’s actions in the very first scene where he expresses his desire to practice black magic and proceeds to sell his soul to the devil. As Christian readers watch Faustus embrace evil practices as good, it is extremely clear to them that Faustus is wicked. But of non-Christian readers this cannot be said. Without the Bible as their standard, non-Christians might understand Faustus to be a more complex character than Marlowe created him to be. They may even see some good qualities in him. Keeping these secular opinions in mind, Christian readers should discover through reading with an open mind that Dr. Faustus is not simply a wicked man, but in several ways he is a heroic figure as well.

The idea of a hero can have several different meanings, but even still, Faustus fulfills most of them. First, there is the definition of a hero as an archetype. After selling his soul to the devil, Faustus goes on a tour of Europe with his demon servant Mephostophilis, and they later end up in Rome where Faustus uses his powers to deceive the pope. But aside from these adventures, Faustus also embodies another characteristic of a hero. This would be the idea that a hero is an example to follow, a role model to admire for accomplishing something incredible.

Faustus expresses his desires in the opening pages when he fantasizes and dreams, “How I am glutted with conceit of this! Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please?….and reign sole king of all the provinces!” (Marlowe 27). Here, Faustus is laying out his plans and establishing goals for himself because of his drive to master black magic. Soon after this, he says, “Valdes, as resolute am I in this as thou to live; therefore object it not” (Marlowe 28). Through this statement, Faustus shows his devotion to his goal. This intense devotion and dedication is characteristic of a good role model.

Another window into understanding Faustus as a hero is to consider the Renaissance humanist perspective behind the play. “In [Faustus] we occasionally hear the voice of the Renaissance humanist, the man refreshed by the greatness of the pagan past and anxious to live an ampler life than his father did” (Barnet xii). This is significant because the one who yearns for more than what is simply handed to him is often the creative, innovative mind that moves the world forward. Because of Faustus’s way of thinking, he sets himself apart as an individual capable of mastering virtually anything in the intellectual and philosophical world. Therefore, if the reader approaches the story with a humanist mindset, it is even clearer that Faustus is a hero.

Though Faustus demonstrates heroic qualities throughout the play, his wicked ways can hardly be forgotten. He declares his allegiance to Satan and evil itself blatantly and boldly numerous times. One could go as far as to say he blasphemes against God. Early on, he says to Mephostophilis, “There is no chief but only Belzebub: to whom Faustus doth dedicate himself. This word ‘damnation’ terrifies not me” (Marlowe 33). This statement shows that Faustus has lost all respect for God. He has declared that he does not fear damnation by God, and if he does

not fear that, he certainly must not fear God. To reject God and embrace hell is the ultimate act of wickedness.

By the end of the play, Faustus’s wickedness has not only been declared from his mouth, but it has seeped into his soul and become a part of him. This is outwardly visible through his deceitful actions concerning black magic. Faustus’s love for evil magic consumes him so much that he uses it on victims as insignificant as innocent strangers (80) and victims as dignified as the pope (64). The final act of wickedness occurs after Faustus has realized his end is near. In a moment of desperation and weakness, he turns again to the wickedness in which he has so immersed himself for so long. “And then return to Helen for a kiss…In wanton Arethusa’s azure arms, and none but thou shalt be my paramour” (Marlowe 93). He commits yet another sin against God by sleeping with a demon ghost in disguise as Helen of Troy. This act takes Faustus’s wickedness to a new level because it is so blatantly wrong and disgusting to God.

Doctor Faustus can be appreciated as the true tragedy that it is after one delves into the many layers of Faustus’s character. Faustus is a hero because of the positive example he sets through his curiosity, passion, and adventurous spirit. But he is also fallen. This is why the play is so tragic. Because of his initial wicked decision to give over his soul, the reader is able to experience with him the weaknesses and failures that all men face. Only after watching Faustus struggle with good and evil to the end can one sympathize with him and understand more deeply just how tragic his end really is.

Sylvia Welch

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