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.