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A Corruption or A Revealing

November 9, 2011

One of the most important parts of any piece of literature is the characters and the way the audience views these characters.  There are many interpretations on the character of Doctor Faustus, but the most important discussion is really the question of good or evil.  Is he a tragic character, a possible hero who made a couple of bad decisions that he could not escape from and, if so, should the audience pity him and his situation?  Or, conversely, was he bad from the start, doomed to hell from the beginning not because of a couple of wrong choices and desperate situations, but because it is where he truly deserves to go?

This is a debate that has been around since the first reading of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and, due to not only the death of the author but also the confusion and controversy of the validity of the work itself, is not something that will be answered concretely any time soon.  So it is up to the readers to look through this piece and discover the truth.

The start of this investigation into Faustus’ character should take place where all good investigations happen, in the beginning.  Doctor Faustus opens with a soliloquy, a vehicle of both exposition and tragic resolution (Frey).  For this time period, soliloquy was understood to contain a certain amount of truth and is seen as a direct revelation of the character, therefore we can come to understand that the thoughts presented in the soliloquy are true, at least for the speakers frame of mind (Frey). The audience can come to realize, then, that Faustus’ contemplation and rejection of the various arts is entirely truthful on his behalf.  He really does quests for knowledge and vocation and belief in himself and his greatness.

We, the audience, know that this belief in his own greatness, the overextending pride, will eventually be his downfall, but that has been the case for many men, including the Icarus as referenced in the story.  After all, pride cometh before the fall.  So what is it that creates such a controversy to make his pride so much worse?  No one sees Icarus as a possibly evil figure, only a tragedy.  Well, the reason for Faustus’s dastardly reputation comes from where his pride led him; a deal with the devil.

It is a commonality to see those that associate with the devil and worship the devil to be seen as similarly evil, and such is the case with Faustus.  Of course, there have been many people seduced by the devil over the years and seen in a sympathetic light, so what makes Faustus so different.  The truth is that he was not seduced by the devil, as he was the one who sought the devil out.  Faustus entered this pact with the devil all sorts of warnings, even supernatural ones, along with the devil himself telling him that he would be going to hell and selling his soul, all remarkably straight forward (Puhvel).  There are no lies or gambles or blackmail, not even any slick talking.

People are often quick to feel that Faustus made a foolish bargain, not fully understanding what it was he was doing as it is something we can all relate to, but this is not the case.  As a scholar, he knows what he is doing, but uses faulty logic to justify his decision (Okerlund).  A main point, though, is that he isn’t just foolish or prideful, acts that have their punishments in life but are character flaws we all have and can relate to, he actively makes a conscious choice to sin (Sullivan).  That he commits sins against God by allying himself with the devil, a false idol, and all the sins with Mephistophilis under his power, but the worst sin is the one against the Holy Trinity, the one that is deemed Judas’s worst sin (Sullivan).  He sins against faith with the presumption against God’s mercy and does not put his faith in the Lord (Sullivan).  Judas committed suicide after his betrayal and that is seen as more horrible than his betrayal, and Faustus’s refusal to repent and disbelief that it is even possible ranks right up there.  By the end of the work, Faustus is damned and the reason is quite clear.  Damnation occurs in the face of a mortal sin involving a grave matter and a deliberate turning away from God (Sullivan).  Faustus understands the gravity of his actions and its consequences from the very beginning, and he makes a conscious deliberate decision to act despite this knowledge (Sullivan).

So all this happens in the very beginning, in the opening of the play, so we can tell that there is no true descent into evil or a corruption, but we are shown that God is still willing to allow Faustus to repent.  Besides those last chances mixed with desperation, we can already see a vision of what is to come in the very beginning with the words Home Fuge.  These words appear on his arm as he signs the contract, and some take this as a symbol of satanic ownership, but we can see it is clearly an effort to lead Faustus on the path to repentance and to escape to God (Jobe).  This mark serves as an escape clause, a show that the Lord has a contract with all his creations that supersedes Faustus’s contract and allows for repentance (Jobe). Some readers will say that Faustus’s fate is sealed as soon as he signs his contract, because this is unbreakable, but Faustus has the chance to return to the fold, a chance he ignores, in this escape clause on his arm (Jobe).  After all, we know that divine covenant is rated higher than Faustus contract when Faustus cannot enter holy matrimony and is why Mephistophilis is unable to tell him who created the world (Jobe).  Despite not seducing him or lying to him, once the contract is signed Mephistophilis is quick to provide anything to keep Faustus from reneging on the deal.  If Faustus was as smart as he thought he was, he would have long since realized that there was still a chance for redemption.

Many tragic characters have that one fatal flaw that ends up being their downfall, such as how Icarus would have been just fine if not for his pride and Oedipus would have turned out all right if not for his ignorance, but Faustus is different.  He is an outright flawed individual who seeks out the devil with full intent on selling his soul in a quest to rise above and be a god among men.  What further exacerbates this situation is the lack of redeeming qualities in our protagonist.

Sometimes these are ordinary people who are thrust into extraordinary situations, but Faustus seeks out the extraordinary so it is hard to see him as an ordinary person.  So what is his draw, the reason he is able to be center stage at all times.  We are told that it is his intelligence and knowledge that mark him as above average from the beginning, and that is one of the reasons people are so quick to see him as a fallen character.  We often view those with great talents as great themselves and they are given a leniency when it comes to this fall to darkness.  These characters often become fallen, but they are just as often redeemed and filled with remorse.

This does not happen with Faustus, partly because he is not quite who we, or he himself, thinks he is.  We are told of his knowledge and skill as a scholar, but we are shown through his choices and reasoning that he seeks knowledge, not for knowledge’s sake or understanding, but for a greedy gain and the ability to lord it over other (Okerlund).  Worst still, we are shown evidence that this man is willfully forfeiting the ability of reasoning and giving up logic for these powers (Okerlund).  He signs contracts under faulty reasoning and uses half-truths and false premises to justify his deals with the devil and then uses these powers not to achieve more knowledge or spread knowledge, but to exploit others and live the good life (Okerlund).  An audience has little sympathy for a character that misuses and throws away his one redeeming factor.

So the question remains, what does this make Faustus?  Is he an otherwise good man who reaches above his station and is harshly punished, or is he an evil man who gets what he deserves?  In truth, the answer rises above all this.  Faustus is a symbol of man.  When the world was young and innocent, the devil snuck in and brought forth a wave of evil, but now man is sinful enough that we do not need the seduction.  Mankind goes out every day and makes the deals with the devil and creates are own opportunities for evil.  It is arrogance, pride, and a mixture of all the others that create this corrupt vision, but the point is that we are not irredeemable.  God gives all the signs, creates equal opportunity for good, and always allows for redemption.  Each person is a Faustus, making their share of mistakes and invoking the possibility of damnation, and the share with Faustus that same ability to repent.  Humans can reinvent and redeem themselves at any moment; the question is if they have the strength to make that choice before it is too late.  If Faustus is a symbol for man, then the answer is a clear no, but nonetheless, the opportunity remains.

Works Cited

Frey, Leonard H. “Antithetical Balance In The Opening And Close Of Doctor Faustus.” Modern Language Quarterly 24.4 (1963): 350. Humanities International Index. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

Homan Jr., Sidney R. “Doctor Faustus, Dekker’s Old Fortunatus, and the Morality Plays.” Modern Language Quarterly 26.4 (1965): 497. Humanities International Index. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

Jobe, Don. “Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.” Explicator 44.3 (1986): 12-14. MLA International Biography. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

McAlindon, T. “Doctor Faustus: The predestination theory.” English Studies 76.3 (1995): 216. Humanities International Index. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

Okerlund, A.N. “The Intellectual Folly of Dr. Faustus.” Studies in Philosophy 74.3 (1977): 258. Humanities International Index. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

Puhvel, Martin. “Mephostophilis’s Manipulation of Faustus.” English Studies 71.1 (1990): 1+. Humanities International Index. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.

Reynolds, James A. “Faustus’ Flawed Learning.” English Studies 57.4 (1976): 329. Humanities International Index. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

Spinrad, Phoebe S. Summons of death on the medieval and Renaissance English stage. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1987. Print.

Sullivan, Ceri. “Faustus and the apple.” The Review of English Studies 47.185 (1996): 47. Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

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