MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE VALUES IN DR. FAUSTUS
Christopher Marlowe (baptized February 26, 1564 – May30, 1593) was an English dramatist and poet who was well known for his magnificent blank verse and overreaching protagonists. Marlowe based his play Doctor Faustus on stories about a scholar and magician, Johann Faust, who allegedly sold his soul to the devil to gain magical powers.. The age in which Marlowe wrote was an age of exploration, quest for knowledge, zest for life and advancement of science and technology, the age of emerging renaissance, an era of political change.
Above all, the age where the literature had shifted from being heavily religiously influenced like the mystery and morality plays of medievalism to writings that focused more on the controversial topics of that particular time, for instance the struggle of power, the celebration of the free individual and the scientific exploration of nature, the emerging renaissance ideals . In the medieval academy, theology was known as what the critics call “the queen of the sciences” whereas in Marlowe’s world of Renaissance, secular matters had started to take the center stage.
The protagonist in most of Marlowe’s play is a renaissance man in pursuit of power or knowledge. For instance, Barabbas in the Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine in Tamburlaine the great and Faustus in Dr. Faustus. Marlovian scholars over the years have projected contrasting views of Dr. Faustus.
Some assert that it is the story of a medieval man whose “aspirations and dabbling in satanic art are judged and condemned” according and import” to Christian doctrine. Douglas Cole comments that Doctor Faustus is “thoroughly Christian in conception where Faustus is himself responsible for his fall as he knowingly transgresses the religious boundaries by committing sin, does not repent and faces eternal damnation which were the orthodox values of the middle ages. Unlike the medieval times, in renaissanceindividual achievement, quest for knowledge, and personal aspiration were the emerging values . Keeping that in mind, Other critics emphasize the humanism of the play, interpreting the character of Faustus as a “Promethean image representing the aspirations of the Renaissance” and dr. Faustus as a “ supreme archetype of renaissance man”. However, According to R.M Dawkins, Dr. Faustus is a “renaissance man who had to pay the medieval price to be one”.
Dr. Faustus is neither strictly medieval nor wholly renaissance but a play that possesses both medieval and renaissance values at different points. In the opening scene of the play Dr. Faustus after having acquired the knowledge of medicine, religion and superb skill in astronomy grows dissatisfied with the limitations of this traditional knowledge. This German scholar now aspires to reach beyond the legitimate boundaries and desires to seek the condemned art of necromancy when he says: “These metaphysics of magicians,/And necromantic books are heavenly;/Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters;/Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires./O, what a world of profit and delight”(1.i). proving to be the “renaissance man” who defies the medieval belief of adhering to the limitations set by Christian religion. Faustus’ determination to explore the condemned is a trait of the renaissance humanists who believed in the emerging idea of individualism and scientific discoveries, an ambition that the Renaissance spirit celebrated but that medieval Christianity denounced as an expression of sinful human pride.
Also keeping in mind the medieval ideology, Man was placed in a certain position by God and was expected to remain content with this postition in life. Faustus’ ambition to go seek further knowledge and his desire “Of power, of honor, and omnipotence” is also considered as his pride as “omnipotence” is a trait solely attributed to God. This act of pride for a medieval person was a cardinal sin that always leads to a man’s fall and damnation. Also the church preached that Lucifer’s fall was the result of his pride when he revolted against God, an idea also endorsed in Paradise Lost by John Milton. So the lines spoken by the chorus “” heavens conspired his overthrow” could be a reference to Lucifer and his rebellious attempt to overpower God. Thus, it could also be said that the chorus was making reference to Faustus attempting to outwit God just like Lucifer, being blinded by his pride. This presents the stark contrast between the Medieval values and the renaissance ideals.
The medieval world placed God at the center of existence and shunned all that was not Christian. Transgression and disobedience was a sin whereas the Renaissance was a re-birth of learning in which people openly questioned divinity as with much more. Dr. Faustus in wanting to attain limitless power aspires the position of God which represents the renaissance aspect of a humanist exercising the freedom of expression and opposing the Supreme authority as shown in these lines spoken by Faustus in his speech. All things that move between the quiet poles/Shall be at my command: emperors and kings Are but obeyed in their several provinces;/But his dominion that exceeds in this Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;A sound magician is a demigod: Here tire, my brains, to gain a deity. The act or thought is unholy in itself and open transgression against God’s word which is why it can be said that it’s the transgression of a medieval belief by a renaissance man. Disobedience to God was another cardinal sin in medieval world. In the beginning of the prologue, the chorus presents a comparison between Icarus and Faustus. “
Till swoll’n with cunning, of self conceit,/ His waxen wings did mount above his reach/ And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow!”(Prologue. 19-21.). The playwright here eludes to a greek myth in which Icarus’ father, made wings for both of them to fly from the isle of Crete. But Icarus flew so close to the sun that the wax holding the feathers of his wings melted, and he fell into the sea and drowned.The myth presents the well established medieval moral – aspiration to cross boundaries leads to damnation. Thus,through this allusion, The chorus makes it seem that Faustus is a “sinner” because he wants to seek the condemned knowledge. This presents the play to be based on medieval Christian religious values. . Marlowe, later in his play introduces two angels being Faustus’conscience and desires ; the good angel and the bad angel. The Good Angel in the play represents the virtues, where as the Bad Angel signifies the vices. The Good Angel pulls Faustus towards acting righteously and not transgressing the defined limits. The angel says: “O Faustus, lay that damned book aside/ And gaze not on it lest it tempt thy soul/ And heap God’s heavy wrath upon thy head!/ Read, read the Scriptures – that is blasphemy!” ( 1.1.67-69 ). This Angel is eluding to Medieval ideals by saying that these books of magic are ‘damned’ and will bring ‘God’s heavy wrath’ upon Faustus . ‘That is blasphemy’ is yet another reference to books not being of God. The Good Angel acts as Faustus’ key to salvation. Whereas the Bad Angel tempts Faustus by telling him that ‘all nature’s treasure is contained’ in his books..”Go forward Faustus, in that famous art/ Wherein all nature’s treasure is contained / Lord and commander of these elements!”( 1.1.71-74 ). Furthermore, the Angel misleads Faustus that through this he could attain the position of a god, urging his to make his own choice and strive for power which reflects the renaissance ideals. Faustus is encountered by his conscience on one side and his strong desire to attain the forbidden knowledge on another.
This conflict between his conscience and his desires is also a conflict between the religious medieval values with the individualism and questioning of belief system of the emerging renaissance. It could also be said that Faustus represented the Renaissance man who lived between two worlds. The world of medieval Christian where a set of rules were blindly followed which no longer existed for him. On the other hand, a world of scientific exploration and quest for greater knowledge as well as power where he had not yet found the stability and security for his life. This signifies the “duality” in the society of Marlowe’s era. In other words, Renaissance man in Marlowe’s time may indeed have found himself suspended between faith and reason, where half are pulled towards the righteous medieval morals and the others toward liberated Renaissance ideals. Faustus ignores the warnings of the good angel and pays more heed to the bad angel. He sticks to his never ending quest for knowledge and makes the choice of his life. He decides to sell his soul to Lucifer in return for twenty four years of absolute power. Thus, Faustus embraces his Renaissance persona by not only making but acknowledging his life choices.
Morality plays were a tradition of the medieval era and were scarcely being written in the elizebathan era. A characteristic feature of these plays was that the characters were personified abstractions of virtue and vices which is also there in Dr. Faustus. The Good and Evil angels, one leading to salvation and the other to damnation . Then the old man appearing, telling Faustus that he is there “To guide’ thy steps unto the way of life”and The seven deadly sins present in a grand spectacle to cheer up the despairing soul of Faustus. All these could be viewed as allegorical abstractions of virtue and vice respectively, a characteristic feature not of renaissance but of the medieval literature. Another important aspect of these plays was they were didactic in nature and often ended with a specific moral:“Whosoever discards the path of virtue and faith in God and Christ is destined to despair and eternal damnation”.
In dr. Faustus towards the end of the play when the final hour approaches Faustus on the verge of his eternal damnation cries out in despair: “My God, my God, look not so fierce to me!” also the chorus in the play laments the tragic downfall of ‘the branch that might have grown full straight’, who is punished for reaching beyond that which ‘heavenly power permits’. Through this, Marlowe endorses the medieval idea of not crossing religious boundaries and reverence to the supreme deity and gives the lesson that he who desires to be God, is doomed to eternal damnation which brings out the medieval aspect of the play yet again. Many critics keeping these ideas in mind have called Dr. Faustus a morality play. According to Stephen Hudson “No finer sermon than Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus ever came from the pulpit.”
After acquiring the worldly knowledge Faustus compares himself with the most learned of the medieval authorities like Aristotle, Galen and Justinian. He feels that he has attained all their knowledge that was possible through human tools and wants to move outside the realm of nature, to strike out on his own. This Thirst for more knowledge was a secular spirit of the dawning modern era, the restless spirit of the renaissance. The underlying purpose of Faustus to acquire absolute knowledge is actually his association of it with the desire for bodily pleasures which is evident from his yearning for the beautiful Helen of Troy. He believes that this knowledge will not only get him power but is also a possibility to satiate his physical, sensual desires. For this purpose he asks Mephistopheles for an exquisitely beautiful German maid as a wife which gives us Faustus’ insight into the working of his mind. Faustus’ admiration for beauty when he marvels at Helen’s by saying Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/ And burnt the topless towers of Ilium and desire for bodily pleasures is evident from his yearning for Helen and kissing her. This is a manifestation of the renaissance spirit of love and the reverence to classical beauty.
Faustus is provided with many chances to repent. At some instances he tries to repent but is either talked out of it or just chooses otherwise. As s result He does not repent and decides to accept and hold onto what he has done with his life and follows his Renaissance persona. Towards the end of the play when the promised years of power and glory come to an end Faustus fears his eternal damnation and seems to feel remoarse and turn back but then it is too late to fret. This this axample it could be said that he was a renaissance man but did not completely refute the orthodox Christian values. Marilyn Michaud in her critical study of the play comments that Renaissance man would have empathized with Faustus but would have agreed that he went too far. The desire for new, practical knowledge, and the lust for riches and beauty did not include the complete denial of salvation and heaven. Orthodox Christianity still prevailed. Faustus threatened both social and religious structures; although he seemed to want to repent, he had passed the point of no return.
In another place during his conversation with an arch devil, Faustus refutes the existence of heaven and hell and despite the many warnings given to him about the heinousness of hell, he still follows the path of damnation .This clashes with the idea of the remains of medieval beliefs in Faustus and depicts Faustus as a secular Renaissance man, contemptuous of traditional medieval religion. Ironically, Faustus is being scornful of the orthodox tradition calling hell a “fable” while he is conversing with Lucifer the Devil who has come from Hell . In one of the final scenes of the play, while Faustus is lavishing Helen with praises, asks her to suck the soul out of him.“Sucking the soul out” is an attribute only associated with God. Thus, when Faustus asks Helen to do so, he is committing blasphemy yet again which is one of the dominating features of the age of renaissance. In the final lines of the play, Marlowe through chorus shows us Faustus’ tragic end. Marlowe here acts as a defender of the established religious (medieval) values, and is warning us of the horrific consequences that Faustus had to face as a consequence of Rejecting God and committing blasphemy throughout the play.
Through Faustus’ example it could be said that the playwright is showing his audience the terrible fate that awaits the Renaissance man who rejects God and struggles for power. On the contrary by investing Faustus with such tragic grandeur, According to some critics, Marlowe may be suggesting a different lesson. Perhaps the price of rejecting God is worth it, or perhaps Faustus pays the price for all of western culture, allowing it to enter a new, more secular era. Hence, Dr. Faustus was written by a renaissance man in an era that was breaking away from conventions of medievalism and contains the values of medieval as well as the emerging renaissance. Faustus is neither wholly a morality play nor strictly renaissance in nature but it could be aptly said that Marlowe’s hero, Dr. Faustus, is the quintessential Renaissance man; a lover of knowledge, beauty, and power, operating in a society that had not yet released its grip on the medieval contempt for the world.
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