Guilt and Responsibility in “Doctor Faustus” and “Paradise Lost”
Throughout both ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Doctor Faustus,’ the authors draw upon the ideas of responsibility, free will, and blame. Marlowe, in ‘Doctor Faustus’, melds the conventional religious ideology of the Middle Ages with the comparatively new Renaissance and Reformation thought, thus creating an effective contrast and an element of ambiguity in who exactly causes the fall of the protagonist: is it Faustus’s pride, Mephistopheles or God? Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ by comparison, draws upon the radicalism of the English Republic and Old Testament fables to present the enigmatic question of who is at fault for the fall of man; some critics go so far as to suggest Milton believes God is to blame because he gave Adam and Eve free will. In the words of Milton’s, almost human, Satan: “Whom hast thou then or what to accuse, / But heaven’s free love dealt equally to all? / Be then his love accursed, since love or hate, / To me alike, it deals eternal woe.” This self-questioning embodies the enigmatic inference, morality and theology employed by Milton in his masterpiece.
From the beginning, through his utilisation of the classical chorus, Marlowe takes inspiration from the earlier Medieval ‘Mummings’ and morality plays in his use of almost overly poetic, bardesque, imagery: “His waxen wings did mount above his reach,/And melting heavens conspired his overthrow.” An assertion such as this only adds to the ambiguity of blame in ‘Doctor Faustus’: the first line of the excerpt clearly indicates an active attempt by Faustus to “mount above his reach”; however, a contradiction then takes place, with an Old Testament image of a “conspiring” and vengeful God being drawn. Also, even in quotations as short as that above, the audience is confronted with a wholly contemporary idea: in the plays of the early and late Tudor period, theatre was used as a powerful propaganda tool against the ‘Machiavellian’ Papacy’s waning influence over English and religious affairs.
In excerpts such as the above, Marlowe, contemporary references aside, engenders confusion: why does God “conspire” against Faustus? The playwright offers an explanation of sorts in sentiments such as: “Be a physician, Faustus; heap up gold.” Greed such as this is highly reminiscent of Chaucer’s ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, with the character of the Olde Man, an entity borrowed by Marlowe later in the play, resembling Faustus in this instance: “Thus seyde this olde man; And everich of thise riotoures ran/Til he cam to that tree, and ther they founde/Of floryns fyne of gold ycoyned rounde.” However, although this similarity lessens the moral status of Marlowe’s protagonist, it is only a temporary lessening: “Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man.” Such St. Antonian humility, through seemingly heartfelt assertion, again has the effect of incurring a sense of confusion within the audience: surely a man as learned as Faustus cannot be capable of such immoral behaviour, of devil affiliation and of self-destruction? In fact, it is exactly the ‘new-learning’ of Faustus which leads him into the pact with Mephistopheles: “What God can hurt thee, Faustus? Thou art safe” proves to be almost the exact sentiments and ‘delusions’ which Satan utters in his tempting of Eve in ‘Paradise Lost’, the latter of whom musing: “What fear I then, rather what know to fear/Under this ignorance of good and evil/ Of God or death, of law or penalty?” Therefore both authors, in these instances, present the fall of both Eve and Faustus as being born of ignorance, exacerbated by the figures of Satan and Mephistopheles accordingly: so-called ‘Aristotelian Epideictic’.
Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, on the other hand, contains more entities to which the blame of death entering the world can be attributed: Adam, Eve, God and Satan. The most obvious scapegoat, however, comes in the form of the first woman, Eve: “Forth reaching to the fruit she plucked, she eat:/Earth felt the wound.” This one momentous act, both in the context of religion and literature, is, in the short term, undeniably the fault of the vanity and malleability of Eve. In terms of the long term, Milton offers clues to a ‘chain of events’, with God and Satan at the heart, which led to the fall, an idea which is given credence by the structure of the work: “Back to the thicket slunk/The guilty serpent.” This seemingly insignificant passing incrimination holds vast philosophical meaning: what does Milton mean by “guilty”? It is exactly this that adds to the potency of the poet’s work: the mere fact that he wished to convey such a difficult argument in such simplistic terms adds to its emphasis and importance.
Excerpts like the one above, in the words of one critic, “show that Milton does not care about who exactly is to blame nor about whether the reader understands…only about how to present the riddle of conveying this complexity without answering it.” This being said, Milton does graft an element of fault upon Satan through his apostrophe: “O much deceived, much failing, hapless Eve,/Of thy presumed return! Event perverse!” This dramatic technique, originally designed to reveal hidden emotion to the audience, was common at the time, for example, in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’: “Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible/To feelings as to sight? Or art thou but/A dagger of the mind, a false creation/Proceeding from the heat oppress’d brain?” Thus, if the original intention of apostrophe is to be taken into account, most blame can readily be placed on Satan: an idea possessed by many critics of ‘Paradise Lost’, with good reason when extracts like the following are analysed: “[Satan] towards the new-created World/ . . . with purpose to assay/ . . . or worse,/ By some false guile pervert — and shall pervert;/ For Man will hearken to his glozing lies,/ And easily transgress . . . Sole pledge of his obedience.” The presentation of Lucifer as having such malicious intent, “purpose to assay”, is difficult to ignore.
Certainly a case can be made that the aforementioned Is ‘to blame’ for what happens in the work. In the words of Martin Luther, whose theology is prevalent in the puritan elements of ‘Paradise Lost’: “For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel.” This philosophical statement runs in a rich vein through Milton’s presentation of “the arch-Fiend”: “O Earth! How like to Heav’n if not preferred/More justly, set worthier of gods as built/With second thoughts reforming what was old!” This attribution of human jealousy to Satan renders him, if anything, more to blame, for he, like his victims, seemingly possesses the gift of freewill: an idea which inevitably draws the role of God into the fore. It was perceived by both John Milton and Christopher Marlowe that the word of God was law and, therefore, He conceivably can do no wrong: God is thus not presented as being wholly responsible in either works, because, ultimately, to do so would have been declared as heresy, or, in Milton’s case, non-Puritanism or ‘anti-Republicanism’. In the words of Nikolai Gogol: “It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry.”
In conclusion, it is clear that the way the two authors allowed themselves to express and explore the idea of blame was very much restricted by the boundaries of contemporary ideals and theology. Despite the real attempt by both to toy with this most complex of ideas, neither reaches a conclusion about who to place the blame on. This ambiguity is intentional; sometimes the use of thoughtful techniques, references and inferences to explore a question is more important – and makes for a more successful work – than coming to a forced conclusion.
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