Sunday, October 3, 2010


Marlowe has rightly been called the ‘Morning Star’ of the great Elizabethan drama. Among the first pioneers of Elizabethan drama, he was definitely the greatest. Undoubtedly, it was Marlowe who raised the matter and the manner of the English drama to a high level and set it firmly on the straight road to greatness by drawing it from the old rut of Morality and rambling Interlude.
So Marlowe’s contribution to the evolving of Romantic drama was really great. But the fact is that the Romantic drama was a curious blend of indigenous and classical traditions. Hence some of the characteristics of medieval Miracle and Morality plays are quite evident in the plays of Marlowe. And in this respect
Doctor Faustus may be treated as a connecting link between the Miracle and Morality plays and the illustrious drama of Elizabethan period.
Miracle and Mystery Plays and “Doctor Faustus”
The English dramas of the Middle Ages which presented the miracle of the saints and, very often, scenes from the Bible were generally and correctly, called Miracle plays. Scholars, from time to time, have attempted to distinguish between the Miracle play and the Mystery—the former as the saints-play and the latter as the Bible play. But both terms are still used for both types with very little discrimination. The production of these plays was at its height in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Saints-plays were earlier than Biblical plays. Those who wrote and produced them called them Miracles, shows or pageants. There is no doubt that the chief purpose of these plays was religious and ethical teaching, but between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, these plays, which developed from liturgical dramas became secularised. In such plays, generally a large number of scenes depicting the life of a saint was stringed together and the structure was always loose. But in the process of secularisation, comic scenes with coarse buffoonery found their place. The story of the plays was confined to the two books of the Bible. The Devil had also its part to play, though the plot, if there was any, centered round the main character allowing very little scope to minor figures.
In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus we can easily trace some of the characteristics of the Miracle plays. In Scene IV of Act I we find two devils, Baliol and Belcher, entering just to frighten the clown. Devils also appear in Act II, Sc. I and II and also in Act IV, Sc. Ill and Act V, Sc. II. The tradition of Chorus is also maintained. We find the Chorus introducing the story just before the beginning of the first scene and subsequently filling in the gaps in the narrative and announcing the end of the play with a very solemn moral. The looseness of the structure is quite evident, and as in the Miracle plays the story centres around a single towering figure, Doctor Faustus. From the very name of this type of plays it is obvious that the main figures must have performed some outstanding miracles. And here in this drama we find Faustus performing amazing feats of Miracle.
Morality Plays and “Doctor Faustus”
The Morality play is really a fusion of the medieval allegory and the religious drama, of the Miracle plays. It developed at the end of the fourteenth century and gained much popularity in the fifteenth century. In these plays the characters were personified abstractions of vice or virtues such as Good Deeds, Faith, Mercy, Anger. The outstanding Morality play, Everyman, has characters like Wealth, Good Deeds, Death and others. The general theme of the Moralities was theological and the main one was the struggle between good and evil powers for capturing man’s soul and the journey of life with its choice of eternal destinations. Very often the Seven Deadly Sins were found engaged in physical and verbal battle with cardinal virtues. Even though the Morality plays were essentially religious or ethical and didactic, they were also not dull like the Miracle plays. The antics of vices and devils etc., offered a considerable opportunity for low comedy or buffoonery and thus farcical elements developed in a great way.
The Morality play, more or less, disappeared after mid-fifteenth century but the trace of its influences appears in Elizabethan drama. In this respect we may call Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus a belated Morality in spite of its tragic ending. And even Shakespeare’s Macbeth is not free from its influence as this play also presents a conflict between the good and the evil.
“Doctor Faustus”
Let us take up Doctor Faustus exclusively. If the general theme of Morality plays was theological dealing with the struggle of the forces of good and evil for the soul of man, and the aim was to teach doctrines and ethics of Christianity, then Doctor Faustus may be called a religious or Morality play to a very great extent. The play definitely worked out in a tone of medieval theology. We find Marlowe’s hero, Faustus, abjuring the scriptures, the Trinity and Christ. He surrenders his soul to the Devil out of his inordinate ambition to gain super­human power through knowledge by mastering the unholy art of magic. And thus he says to himself to make up his mind regarding the subject he wishes to study in future:
“Divinity adieu!
These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly.”
By selling his soul to the Devil he lives a blasphemous life full of vain and sensual pleasures just for twenty-four years. He does not shirk from insulting and even assaulting the Pope with the Holy Fathers at Rome. Of course, there is a fierce struggle in his soul between his over-weening ambition and conscience, between the Good Angel and Evil Angel that externalise the inner conflict. But Faustus ultimately surrenders to the allurements of the Evil Angel, thereby paving his way for eternal damnation. And what does happen to this great egotist as well as agonistic with his craze for limitless power and pelf, with his inordinate ambition to unravel all the mysteries of the universe? When the final hour approaches, Faustus, to his utmost pain and horror, realises that his sins are unpardonable and nothing can save him from eternal damnation. And before the devils snatch away his soul to burning hell, the excruciating pangs of a deeply agonised soul find the most poignant expression in Faustus’s final soliloquy:
“My God, my God, look not so fierce to me!
Adders and serpents, let me breath a while!
Ugly hell, gape not: come not Lucifer:
I’ll burn my books: Ah, Mephistophilis!”
Thus we find Marlowe in keeping with the traditions of Miracles and Moralities, depicts the destiny of a man who denies God to be finally doomed to eternal damnation.
Moral Sermon or Didactic Aim
The chief aim of Morality plays was didactic—it was a dramatized guide to Christian living and Christian dying. Whoever discards the path of virtue and abjures faith in God and Christ is destined to despair and eternal damnation—this is also the message of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. And it has found the most touching expression in the mournful monody of the Chorus in the closing lines of the play:
“Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burned is Apollo’s laurel-bough,
That sometimes grew within this learned man.
Faustus is gone; regard his hellish fall.
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise.
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practise more than heavenly power permits”
Hudson has rightly said: “No finer sermon than Marlowe’s Faustus ever came from the pulpit. What more fearsome exposure was ever offered of the punishment man brings upon himself by giving way to temptation of his grosser appetites.”
Allegory or Personified Abstractions
It has already been mentioned that in Morality plays the characters were allegorical—they were personified abstractions of vice or virtues. So in Doctor Faustus also we find the Good and Evil Angels, the former standing for the path of virtue and the latter for sin and damnation. Then we have the Old Man appearing in Scene I (Act V) “to guide thy steps unto the way of life.”—symbolising the forces of righteousness and morality. The Seven Deadly Sins of good old Mystery and Morality plays are also very much there in a grand spectacle to cheer up the despairing soul of Faustus. And the old favourite and familiar figure of the devil is also not missing. Mephistophilis, an assistant if Lucifer, appears as servile slave of Faustus in many scenes in the guise of a Fransiscan Friar symbolising power without conscience. But Marlowe’s Devil is a devil with difference, as he has been endowed with some original traits.
Comic Element
The comic scenes of Doctor Faustus also belong to the tradition of old Miracle and Morality plays. The comic scenes with its buffoonery were not integral parts of those plays but were introduced to entertain and to raise hoars-laughter, as in the case of a realistic comic scene where Noah was shown beating his wife for refusing to enter the ark. The same is the case with almost all the five comic scenes in Doctor Faustus—especially in Scene I of the third Act where Faustus is found playing vile tricks on the Pope and the IInd scene of Act IV where the horse-courser is totally outwitted and befooled by Faustus.
Other Elements
In the earlier plays there is no inter-play of character. In Doctor Faustus, also there is only one towering central figure and all the action and incidents centre round him. Then, just like the earlier Miracle or Morality plays, it also suffers from looseness of construction—specially in the middle part of the play.
In spite of all its links with medieval Miracles or Moralities, Doctor Faustus can never be treated wholly as a Morality play. It is the greatest heroic tragedy before Shakespeare with its enormous stress on characterisation and inner conflict in the soul of a towering personality. We may conclude in the words of a critic: Doctor Faustus is both the consummation of the English Morality tradition and the last and the finest of Marlowe’s heroic plays. As a Morality, it vindicates humility, faith and obedience to the law of God; as an heroic play it celebrates power, beauty, riches and knowledge, and seems a sequel to the plays of “Tamburlaine the great.”

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