Dr. Faustus, Day 3

Dr. Faustus, Day 3

Rereading Act 1 Scene 3, in which Dr. Faustus signs a contract with his own blood agreeing to give his soul over to Lucifer in exchange for 24 years of “liv[ing] in all voluptuousness,” made me recall a fairly common childhood ritual, often though not always involving ketchup as a substitute for actual blood, when kids, in a dramatic gesture of ‘best friendship,’ prick their fingers and touch fingertips in order to become blood sisters or brothers.  I am sure I did this myself, though I can’t remember all these years later the name of my comrades. This anecdote is the closest I personally have come to making a blood pact as Faustus does, though the stakes are much higher for Faustus than they were for me.  So it goes when you befriend the devil.  I can, however, think of plenty of times when I have felt as if polar forces were competing in my head like the good and evil angels in Faustus or a Tom and Jerry episode for that matter.  As have I felt at times as if I had sacrificed my soul (or insert integrity or freedom or happiness, etc.) in exchange for something that proved unworthy in the end.  It is the depiction of these fundamental human impulses and quandaries that make the play still resonate today, more than 400 years after its composition.

So just what is it that Dr. Faustus so deeply desires that he will sign over not just his former studies but also his salvation with a blood-stained pen?  The opening scene provides a good portion of the answer. Just as we meet the seemingly learned and respected university scholar sitting in his study, he is rejecting the four primary Renaissance disciplines because they have failed to provide answers to questions that still plague him, if not all of humanity. Their novelty has worn off; having mastered them, he seeks a new conquest that will yield greater results.  Faustus speaks initially of being “ravished” by logic but soon proclaims he has been “ravished” by magic, which suggests the similarly powerful hold both have had on him and highlights the fine line between the pursuit of expert human knowledge and the excessive pursuit of what lies beyond the worldly comprehension of sentient beings.  But the pursuit of greater knowledge is not the only motivation that underpins Faustus’ dismissal of orthodox learning, but also his desire for pleasure and power.

4 Responses to “Dr. Faustus, Day 3”
  1. Erika says:

    I just finished the play, and here are my initial impressions.

    I found it hard to accept Faustus’ motivation for entering into the pact with the devil. I also found his characterization inconsistent as he fluctuated between satisfaction with his decision, and regret.

    Throughout the play, I found myself thinking of Genesis. While Faustus’ pact was fully premeditated and more sinister than that of Adam and Eve, it produced much of the same effect–the search for knowledge led to the fall.

    Though Marlowe was making an example of the nefarious doctor, I also sensed his own disdain for the church. His insults of the church through F. and his devilish company had the force of an author’s voice behind them.

    The good angel and bad angel seemed simplistic and comical upon my first read of the text, but on rereads and further pondering, their straightforward representation of the inner struggles we all face, the choices we make, and the many opportunities we have to right our wrongs resounded with me.

    Overall, it was a fascinating and troubling read. Dealings with the Devil always leave me unsettled. Evil as a force can be ignored, but Evil personified is downright frightening.

    • Stephen Tillman says:

      Faustus’ motivation for selling his soul is extreme, but I think his curiosity impairs his judgement. Like Nicole said, I think we’ve all been in a situation or two where we make an inequitable exchange, and then muse over our decisions. I also agree that that’s the reason this play is timeless; everyone can relate.

      The parallel between Genesis and this play is quite obvious, but it didnt’ come to my mind. Instead, Mr. Faustus remined me of Rasputin from the animated film “Anastasia” (you know, the one with Meg Ryan).

      I didn’t feel that Marlowe was insulting the church, but I could sense that he was “beating readers in the head” with his message; his voice is very powerful.

      This play is very fascinating to me also. I tend to think of all stories in terms of films and I try to picture famous actors and actresses as certain characters. Aside from that, I am impressed by how much the issues communicated in these old works of literature still apply today. I guess there really isn’t anything new under the sun.


    • nstodard says:

      Faustus’ motivation for making a pact with the devil is a threefold desire for knowledge, pleasure, and power, with the final of the three being the greatest if you go line by line through his explanations. His motivations are disturbing for they are entirely selfish, not altruistic.

      His characterization is an interesting topic, and how you feel about it will depend partly on which text you read, the A-text (1604), the B-text (1616), or the conflated text. The A-text emphasizes Dr. F’s free will, appealing to Anglican and Catholic theology. The B-text is more Calvinistic, emphasizing predestination, so Evil is more plainly in control in this version. So what’s frustrating or disturbing about the A-text, which relates to your comment about Dr. F’s fluctuation, is that repentance IS possible, but he proves incapable of it. So the million pound question, to which Marlowe provides possibilities but no definitive answer, is why doesn’t Faustus repent?

      Also, your comment about the angels is interesting. Apparently, many people at this time believed you were born with a good and a bad angel. (Calvin, of course, disputed this b/c he believed in predestination.) Can you imagine if people believed this, literally today? And if we engaged them in conversation as Faustus does?

  2. Erika says:

    Your information on the different texts was very helpful. Perhaps the disconnect for me is Faustus’ commitment to evil. In tragedy, the “hero” has redeeming qualities, and in F., there aren’t any. When we see Adam and Eve come into knowledge in Paradise Lost they have been portrayed as the ultimate in innocence, and beauty, and faithfulness. Their fall is felt with sympathy. F. is never built as a man of good qualities gone bad. I suppose that is the true tragedy–that even those without redeeming qualities have a chance at salvation, and still may choose not to take it.

    On the subject of angels, I recently finished a book about Padre Pio (a Capuchin friar with the stigmata) referenced heavily with the saint’s relationship with his own guardian angel, and his conflicts with demons. I did some further reading about angels and their historical significance and found much about their direct involvement with the world through elements of weather and personal contact with humans. It seems as we’ve grown in our scientific knowledge as a culture, we move away from “childish” fantasy, angels and devils, and interaction with the supernatural. But every now and then unexplained things happen that make me pause, and I think on the Bible text having to do with us needing to be like children to enter the kingdom.

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