There cannot be any denying of the fact that the most glaring weakness of Doctor Faustus lies in the lack of well knit or an organic plot. A careful study of the play reveals that it has no regular plot in the conventional sense of the term. In fact it was the stringing together of just fourteen important scenes in its original form. We find this regular division into acts and scenes only in the early eighteenth century edition. In this respect it is very much linked with the old Miracle and Morality plays.And that is why Schelling has sternly remarked: “As we have it ‘Tragical History of Doctor Faustus’ by Marlowe, is little more than a succession of scenes void of continuity or cohesion, except for the unity of the main figure and the unrelenting progress of the whole towards the overwhelming catastrophe. Moreover, the fragment—for the play is little more—disfigured and disgraced by the interpolation of scenes or clownage and ribaldry.”
Natural Division or Movements
Even if the play with its loose structures may not be divided into Acts, in keeping with the rules of conventional or classical drama, some critics have pointed out that there is some well-marked natural divisions or movement in the play. So R.V. Hunt mentions about five natural divisions and he writes: “For convenience of reference there being no standard division observed, I divided the play naturally, and found that there happened to be five convenient sections. These are not acts of the sort imposed upon Shakespeare’s play, for the first section is almost as long as the four others combined, but each section gives a sight of Faustus at a different stage in the twenty-four years. There is no attempt at the chronological development of character, but five separate movements in the period of the pact are chosen. They are related to each other only by being presentation of events in the history of Doctor Faustus and have no such relation as the Acts of classical drama.”
Hunt and Ellis-Fermor’s Division
This is how Hunt has divided the drama into five movements in his remarkable edition of Doctor Faustus:
Movement I—The striking of the bargain: it is from the beginning of the play to the end of the scene in which Robin, confounds Ralph, with his pretended knowledge of magic.
Movement II—Faustus at
: it begins with the Chorus narrating how Faustus went about to know the secrets of astronomy and ends with Robin-Ralph-Vintner interlude. Rome
Movement III—Faustus at the Emperor’s court: it begins with the speech of the Chorus and ends in the episode in which Benvolio, Frederick and Martino have their heads and faces besmeared with blood, mud and dirt.
Movement IV—Demonstrations magical: it consists of the Horse—Courser scenes and the Duke and Duchess of Vanholt scene.
Movement V—Climax and Death: it begins with the scene in which Wagner guesses his master’s intention to die, and ends with Faustus’s death and the scholar’s comment upon it.
Una Ellis Fermor—has also analysed the whole action on an interesting way and she writes: “We can trace six main episodes in the play, roughly equivalent to six acts, followed by a catastrophe.”
Even after accepting the justification of the above learned critics to some extent, the fact that the play is structurally very weak cannot be overlooked. It is mainly a one-man show as it is the hero who completely dominates the stage. Let us take up Aristotle’s five distinct divisions of an ideal plot of a tragedy and apply them to the plot-construction of Doctor Faustus. We have first the initial incident or ‘Paritass’ giving birth to the conflict and there is the rising action or ‘Epitass’ to intensify the conflict; thirdly we get the climax, the turning point or ‘Peripetora’ and fourthly there is denouement, the falling action or ‘Calabasm’; and finally we have the Catastrophe or conclusion in which the conflict is brought to its inevitable end. Now a critical study of the play in the light of the above division will clearly reveal the drawbacks of the plot-construction of Doctor Faustus. In the first few scenes we get the initial incident of the plot. This is well-planned. When we find Faustus discarding all other branches of knowledge to accept only the art of necromancy as sole subject of his study the birth of conflict takes place. Then in the scenes in which Faustus raises the spirit of Mephistophilis and ultimately sells his soul to the Devil by writing a deed of gift in blood, we have the rising action and climax of the drama developed to a great extent on the right lines. But then comes the scenes—specially the comic scenes—which serve very little purpose in the development of the plot to reveal the denouement, or the falling action leading to the catastrophe. From the stand point of plot-construction this middle portion of the play is the weakest. These scenes may be treated as separate episodes without any organic unity with the structure of the drama. But just like the beginning, the end is also nobly executed. The final action of the play has been executed in the most sublime and poignant manner. The last scene in which the conflict is brought to its natural tragic end is probably unsurpassed in English dramatic literature with its most poignant monologue of a horror-struck soul facing eternal damnation. Levin’s comment on the structural weakness of the play is just and quite relevant: “Examined more technically the play has a strong beginning and even a stronger end but its middle section, whether we abridge it or bombast it out, is unquestionably weak.”
There are some modern critics who ascribe three plots to Doctor Faustus: the main plot, the under plot and the over-plot. The first one deals with Faustus’s inordinate ambition to acquire super-human power by mastering the art of unholy necromancy bringing about his ultimate doom and damnation. The under-plot with its fun and frolics is more or less, a foil to the main plot. The main plot and the under plot represent the two main facts of life—pleasant and painful or comic and tragic. The over plot according to them is the philosophical plot that reveals the conflict or struggle between the forces of good and evil in the external world as well as in the soul of man. And it is this philosophical plot that adds real greatness and grandeur to this tragic play. The arguments regarding the significance of the main plot and the over-plot undoubtedly carries weight, but the points put forward in favour of the comic scenes do not seem to impress. Almost all the critics are unanimous that the comic scenes with its frivolity and buffoonery dilutes the tragic effects and are discordant with its general tone.
After all these critical discussions about the weakness of structure and design of the play, Goethe’s remark—“How greatly it is all planned?”—may seem to be very confusing. But this also must be noted to a great extent the structural unity has been given to this play by the towering figure of the hero. The hero is the unifying force and Marlowe was solely concerned with the acute conflict between the Good Angel and Evil Angel, between conscience and passion in the soul of the hero leading to his doom and damnation. And every critic admits that the play is nobly planned and it ‘has a strong beginning and even a stronger end.’
Whatever may be the drawbacks and deficiencies, Marlowe’s “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” is a great and magnificent tragedy—the greatest of tragedies outside Shakespeare. Marlowe was a genius—and geniuses like alchemists can transform base metal into gold. So Marlowe produced a great work of art from the crude Faustus legend. And the greatness of the drama lies in its absorbing inner conflict. And Ellis Fermor rightly observes: “But as in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, the protagonist is man and his spiritual powers that surrounds him, the scene is set upon on the physical earth, but in the limitless region of the mind, and the battle is fought, not for kingdoms and crowns, but upon the questions of man’s ultimate fate. Before him lies the possibility of escape to spiritual freedom or a doom of slavery to demoniac powers. Thus, in such terms, is staged the greatest conflict that drama has ever undertaken to present.”