A Complex Character Of Dr Faustus
‘Dr Faustus is a complex character, at times his arrogance is overwhelming and at others we admire his courage but then we are moved to pity him’ – Examine how and why a critic might justify this view of Marlowe’s protagonist with reference to both modern and contemporary views.
Christopher Marlowe lived in Elizabethan England, a period firmly controlled by religion – as Queen Elizabeth I was Protestant, after her father, her country was also, and Catholicism was not permitted. To a sixteenth century audience, the prospect of dark magic or renouncing God would have been the most terrifying thing possible, as unlike today it was faith which shaped their everyday lives. Today, with a massive number of atheists and five very different main religions, it has lost much of the frightening effect it would have had on a contemporary viewer.
The first aspect of Faustus which Marlowe portrays is his overwhelming arrogance. This is seen immediately in his opening soliloquy, where he dismisses four areas of study in order to justify the dark arts to himself. Often he refers to himself in the third person, which adds to this opinion of the character, and he begins by claiming he has mastered philosophy simply by studying ‘Aristotle’s works’. Faustus continues to reject each area in turn, believing as he had studied the greatest minds of each that he has learnt all there is, or that law is ‘too servile and illiberal’ and he can only better in medicine by ‘[making] man live eternally’. Here his hubristic nature shines through, though a contemporary audience would first hear of his arrogance in the chorus. He was born ’base of stock’ yet rose and was ‘graced with doctor’s name’. In the sixteenth century, the Great Chain of Being was believed: a strict religious hierarchy set by God encompassing everything in the living world, stating each position in order. It was thought the nobility were chosen by God, as were the lowest men, and that one should not try and better their position in this chain (a view entirely contradicted by modern attitudes). The fact that Faustus has risen far above his rightful rank would instantly hint of his hubris.
Although this arrogance is prominent throughout the entire play, there are also scenes which could be interpreted as bravery on Faustus’ part. In Scene Three, upon summoning Mephastophilis, Faustus cried ‘I charge thee to return and change thy shape’. The prospect of a devil should have terrified anyone in that period (the audience would certainly have been scared) yet he commands Mephastophilis and seems unperturbed by this apparition. On one hand it suggests foolishness, on the other it commends bravery. Be the audience modern or not, the appearance of a devil would cause fear, but Faustus goes as far as to insult him: ‘thou art too ugly to attend on me’. This commanding attitude links to both his hubris and his bravery, through use of his imperative verbs, such as ‘charge’ which he repeats throughout the play. Originally, the thought of turning against God shows the same senseless bravery. People of the time were God-fearing, the thought of eternal damnation to hell was the worst possible fate, nonetheless Faustus dismisses ‘this be hell, I’ll willingly be damned here’ and ponders little on endless torment. He constantly defies God, asking ‘what god can hurt thee, Faustus?’ He turns against the most powerful force with hardly any contemplation, proving that despite being blindly arrogant, he is also a man of bravery.
Finally, there are moments where the audience could pity Faustus. These are intentionally rare, as the idea of a morality play is that those watching learn from the protagonist’s mistakes and do not follow a similar path. If they sympathised with Faustus then the effect would be lost. Instead, right from the beginning, they are taught that he is hubristic and he brings about his own destruction, despite many opportunities to repent. However, there are areas where the human side of Faustus is glimpsed and it is at these rare intervals that it is possible to pity him. One key example is when Faustus truly comprehends the trade he has made, in Scene Seven (A text) where he tells himself ‘think, Faustus, upon God’ and sends his devil away – ‘tis thou hast damned distressed Faustus’ soul: is’t not too late?’ He shows regret and realisation of his wrongs, which allow the audience to pity him, for he has finally seen the errors he had made. Marlowe allows a brief moment for Faustus to be confused and desperate to repent, calling out to Christ ‘to save distressed Faustus’ soul’. As he looks to godly powers and not to Satan’s, a contemporary audience would permit him a little sympathy for he once again searches for the righteous path. A modern audience would no doubt pity the fear and desperation also, especially when Lucifer appears to him in his ‘terrible’ form. However, like all moments to pity the protagonist, it is brief and soon swallowed by his sinful lust for power, reminding the audience not to sympathise by use of his speech on ‘[burning] his scriptures’ and ‘[slaying] his ministers’.
In conclusion, although there are moments in the play where we are moved to pity him, these are few and extremely brief, as they would contradict the teaching Marlowe intended. However, they would be more prominent to a modern audience who would not necessarily find the thought of turning away from God so impossibly terrifying (living in a world permitting atheism, which Elizabethan England would not). These aforementioned scenes of bravery could also be interpreted as arrogance, yet apparitions of devils should frighten most. The fact that Faustus shows no sign of fear, commands and makes demands of Mephastophilis is bravery in itself, even if driven by foolishness or arrogance. Finally, in Faustus’ complex character, his hubristic nature is his boldest trait. From his use of third person, to his claimed mastery of all the arts, to naming himself ‘conjuror laureate’ on his first attempt of summoning, Marlowe’s protagonist is overwhelmingly arrogant. Whether for more contemporary views such as the Great Chain of Being, or his self-conceit apparent to all, this character was created to serve a purpose for which hubris had to be his most defining feature. Faustus exists to warn the audience of the sin of pride. So to encompass each of these points in both the eyes of a modern and contemporary viewer, Faustus is unquestionably a complex character.
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