Aristotle, Back to the Classics Challenge 2012, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan era, Morality plays, Plays, Shakespeare, tragedy
This is a review of Doctor Faustus, a Classic play written by Christopher Marlowe. It is also in response to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2012 hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much.
Doctor Faustus, the protagonist in the play was born in the town of Rhodes in Germany. He grew up in Wittenberg and attended the best schools including the university where he excelled in scholarly achievements and obtained his doctor of letters degree in divinity and matters of theology. He studied the bible and other religious books and could quote the Bible with an ease that surpassed that of a Priest. He was also well versed in the Humanities, Sciences and Philosophy and was familiar with the works of Aristotle, the Greek Philosopher and his contemporaries. Doctor Faustus was so brilliant and famous over Germany and much respected for his exceptional acumen.
However, Doctor Faustus grew pompous as his fame spread. This in itself was not unusual. Great scholars the world over who have attained the heights of their scholarship, are noted for what is termed academic ego and so being egoistic and ambitious was expected of him. In Faustus case what made his ego so mind-numbing was that he was guilty of the sin of hubris, pride against the gods.
Doctor Faustus, in his arrogance, equated himself with God, if not above Him, and for one who was conversant with the tenets of the Bible started to dabble in necromancy. Through a blood pact with Lucifer himself, he sold his soul to him in order to again more wealth, power and control of the universe. Christopher Marlowe depicts Faustus as a foolish man whose thirst for knowledge bordered on the insane; for with the power granted him by Lucifer, he was not able to do much except to indulge in debauchery and foolishness.
“But leaving this, let me have a wife, the fairest maid in Germany, for I am wanton and lascivious and cannot live without a wife” Act one Scene Five Lines 144-145
Faustus also used the power to conjure up spirits who were at his beck and call to supply him with women and good food and wine. He overreached himself in his pomposity, arrogance and hubris, so much that the heavens themselves or fate or destiny brought down his fall.
“swollen with self conceit of a self-conceit, His waxen wings did mount above his reach, And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow. For falling to a devilish exercise, And glutted now with learning golden gifts, He surfeits upon cursed necromancy (Chorus: Lines 20-26)
By curtain call, Faustus had gone stark raving mad and the devils tore him up from limb to limb, scattering his remains for all to see.
Doctor Faustus, as already said is a Five-Act morality play that teaches Christian virtues as against vices; thus in the play we have characters with names like Good Angel and Evil Angel who acts as Faustus’ conscience. We also have the vices, Pride, Envy, Covetousness, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth and Lechery who parade their trades before Faustus to feed his soul. Mephistopheles, the right hand man of Lucifer is always on hand to ensure that Faustus does not stray from his chosen path of destruction.
I think the message of Christopher Marlowe who was considered a great playwright in the class of Shakespeare, is the essence of man in the light of his gaining all but losing his soul to the devil. At the end of the day, all is vanity. The fallibility or infallibility of man depends on the one flaw in his character that is likely to be a causative factor.
The language of the play is old English, but easy to understand and one cannot fail to wonder at the arrogance of Faustus whose speeches refer to himself in the first person singular narrative and in his own name.. The themes explored in the play are done in a humorous manner that belies the absurdities of Faustus.
Doctor Faustus is classified as a tragedy. Set in the 18th Century Elizabethan era, the play is an example of the definition of tragedy as outlined by Aristotle. According to the definition, tragedy or tragic situations can only occur to a man born of high repute, rise so high up, attain so high up, and achieve so high up to become master over all he surveys. Such a man must have a basic flaw in his nature or character that will make him fall from that pinnacle. And in most cases, that flaw must be of hubristic proportions, pride against the gods.
The Greek playwright, Sophocles explored this basic theme in his Oedipus where the fallibility of the protagonist was attributed to his harsh and rash temper.
Shakespeare also explores this basic theme in his tragedies, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth Coriolanus, etc.
Arthur Miller, the 20th Century American playwright contrasted Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in his classic play Death of a Salesman when he opines the tragedy of the Common Man as opposed to tragedy relating to a man of high of birth..
I will recommend Doctor Faustus to anybody who loves Elizabethan drama/literature.