Dr. Faustus, Day 2

A few facts about Marlowe:

  • Born 1564 (2 months before Shakespeare). Died 1593.
  • Cause of death was long believed to have been a fatal wound received during a duel outside a London tavern, though some suggested it was a plotted murder assassination. In 1925, a man named Leslie Hotson discovered the inquest that followed Marlowe’s death, which clarified that Marlowe died following an after-dinner altercation over a bill in a private room in the home of a widow named Eleanor Bull.  Charles Nicholl suggests cause of death was in fact a brain hemorrhage.  
  • 2nd of 9 children.
  • Father was a shoemaker. 
  • Attended Cambridge on scholarship from 1580-87.
  • Allegedly and quite likely was homosexual. A contemporary, Richard Baines, quoted Marlowe saying, ‘all they that love not tobacco and boies were fooles.’ Marlowe’s Edward II overtly addresses same-sex desire and love.
  • Involved in politics, supposedly as a spy, from 1585-87.
  • His faith has remained a point of contention, with some claiming him a Catholic, others an atheist.

*For more biographical info, consult the concise, reliable entry on Marlowe by Nicholl in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Dates and Versions:

Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, along with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, were the first of many great Elizabethan tragedies.  Assigning a date to Marlowe’s play has proven contentious, with some suggesting 1588 and others 1592, given the fact that the main source for the play didn’t appear in England until 1592. Some critics believe that Marlowe may have either read the manuscript before publication or that he may have read it in German.  

There is an A-text and a B-text of Dr. Faustus.  The former is the one most commonly anthologized.  The latter is longer and depicts less ambiguously Faustus’ damnation.  

Questions for Consideration:

A full list of questions can be found in a word document on the “Summer Reading” page. Please consider the 4 questions below and any others you wish, and share your views by adding a comment to this post.  I will respond in turn and our discussion can begin in earnest… Please try to reference the play by act, scene, line, when possible, so that we can follow each other’s comments, questions, etc.

The play famously raises far more questions than it answers.  David Bevington, Sara Deats, and many others have examined the play’s openness, ambiguity, and overall interrogative spirit.

  • The Opening Scene. Here Faustus considers and rejects the four great disciplines of the early modern period: Philosophy, Medicine, Law, and Divinity.  Why does he do this, and what does this tell us about him from the start? 
  • Tragic Hero.  According to Aristotle’s rubric, which states that a tragic character should (1) Be of high estate; (2) Have nobility of soul or tragic greatness; (3) Have free will; (4) Have a harmartia (tragic flaw); (5) Achieve anagnorisis (enlightenment); (6) Make important choices; (7) Die bravely; is Faustus a tragic hero? And, if so, what is his tragic flaw? 
  • Orthodox or Heterodox? One highly contentious question we might explore today is the moral ethos of the play and whether it ultimately endorses an orthodox or heterodox viewpoint.
  • Repentance.  Is repentance possible in the play?  Who stands for and against repentance in the play? Does Faustus ultimately repent?
4 Responses to “Dr. Faustus, Day 2”
  1. Stephen Tillman says:

    For once I wish I could (without the aid of sparknotes) read one of these toungue-twisting, latin-riddled plays and comrehend it. Thanks for being realistic about sparknotes, though. It does enhance my understanding, but it’s also interesting to see the eloquent arrangement of words that these early writers used.

    The version I have is not numbered by line, and apparantly, the story is told in one act containing about 13-15 scenes? I’m not sure, but I will try my best to cite what parts of the play I’m referring to.

    In considering and rejecting the four great disciplines, Faustus is weighing their capacity to bring him fame. He contemplates what each may yield in order to canvass their efficacy for accomplishing extraordinary deeds. The four great disciplines do not impress him because they cannot afford great miracles, they are “petty,” or “too servile and illiberal for [him].” (consult Faustus’s first block of dialogue). This opening scene suggests that Doctor Faustus is very egotistical and praise-seeking. He remarks that his brain tires “to gain a deity.” In other words he wants to be godlike; a worshiped being, so to speak.

    Doctor Faustus certainly isn’t a tragic hero. Number one, he isn’t born of high estate. In act one, the Chorus says that he was “born of parents base of stock.” His soul isn’t noble, in fact it belongs to Lucifer, and although Faustus is well-educated, he doesn’t posess tragic greatness, because he lacks wisdom. I wouldn’t say that he has free will, because it is only short-lived. His weak spot for knowledge would be his flaw. I have yet to finish reading the play, so I’m not sure if he achieves enlightenment, but I can guess that he never does, considering that he continually refuses to repent. He has many opportunities to make important choices, but his hunger for knowledge overpowers his willingness to make important choices. He can’t die bravely knowing that he’s given his soul to Lucifer. I don’t think Faustus is a tragic hero.

    As I came to the part in the play when Faustus conjured up Mephisophilis, I thought that the remainder of the play would be of demonic nature, but as I read on, I began to think that Marlowe was using this story to demonstrate the consequences of wandering away from the doctrines of the early Christian church. I think the play is very consistent with the ideals of the Christian faith. In particular, what led me to believe this was the way Mephisophilis answered Faustus’s questions. The demon seems to be more aware of and familiar with the Christian faith than Faustus, and he also seems to regret his fall from Heaven with Lucifer. He says that he is “tormented with ten thousand hells, in being depriv’d of everlasting bliss.” He also tells Faustus to “leave these frivolous demands.” The part where the seven deadly sins speak to Faustus also led me to believe that Marlowe was preaching to his readers through this play.

    I haven’t read the plays ending, but it’s unlikely that Faustus will repent. Repentance is possible in the play, but Faustus says “My heart is harden’d, I cannot repent.” Also, the demons inspire fear in Faustus. The demons stand against repentance because they will lose possession of Faustus’s soul if he repents. The good angel always encourages Faustus to repent, and Faustus himself is in the middle. At one point in the play he calls on Christ “to save distressed Faustus’ soul,” and at other times he allows his curiosity to lead him astray.

    I find these 15-16th century plays to be higly creative and entertaining aside from the almost foreign language and historical allusions; trying to decipher every page is terribly exhausting.


    • Stephen Tillman says:

      I guess my last response didn’t count…

    • nstodard says:

      Which version of the play do you have? Both the A-text and B-text have 5 acts…

      You are off a to a good start with you consideration of whether Faustus fulfills Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero. This is another of many points upon which critics do not agree. If we use the A-text (the one most scholars agree to be the authoritative text) for our analysis, here is where we end:
      1) As you mention, Dr. F. is low born, not of high estate.
      2) Some will allow that his scholarly expertise and university reputation constitute “tragic greatness.” Marlowe also compares him to classical tragic heros, such as Icarus.
      3) The A-text makes clear that Dr. F. has free will. And while there are moments when he he acknowledges his own choice to study necromancy (as in the scene with Cornelius and Valdes), he ultimately falls back to blaming his parents, Mephistopholes, and Lucifer for his fall rather than taking accountability.
      4) His harmartia or tragic flaw is generally perceived as overarching ambition, much like Macbeth.
      5) While he expresses the desire to repent in 5.2 and even calls on God and Christ, he does not, in fact, repent or take responsibility for his fall, so he doesn’t achieve tragic enlightenment or anagnorisis.
      6) He makes important choices, but they are the wrong choices.
      7) In the A-text ending, we do not know IF Dr. F. dies, but he certainly does not leave peacefully or stoically with the devils who carry him off.

  2. Stephen Tillman says:

    I don’t want you to feel like I’m being a bigot. I said my comment didn’t count because there was an error/glitch in submitting my text. The page read “O Responses” until I submitted the next comment.

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