Sunday, October 3, 2010

“DOCTOR FAUSTUS”: A MODERN TRAGEDY

Introduction: Marlowe’s Tragic Hero
One of the greatest achievements of Marlowe was that he broke away from the medieval conception of tragedy. In medieval dramas, tragedy was a thing of the princes only dealing with the rise and fall of kings or royal personalities. But it was left to Marlowe to evolve and create the real tragic hero.
Almost all the heroes of Marlowe’s great tragedies Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus or the Jew of Malta—are of humble parentage, but they are endowed with great heroic qualities. His tragedy is in fact the tragedy of one man—the rise, fall and death of the tragic hero. His heroes are titanic characters afire with some indomitable passion or inordinate ambition. Marlowe himself was saturated with the spirit of the Renaissance and so he enlivened his heroes with all its robust and fascinating characteristics, so much so that his towering heroes became the true embodiments of the Renaissance dreams, desires and ideals. And this is powerfully revealed in Tamburlaine’s pursuit of military and political power, in Jew of Malta’s aspiration toward wealth as an ultimate end and in the most captivating way is Faustus’s supreme quest for the ultimate power through knowledge infinite.
Working of a Passion: Discarding Ethical Values
We have just discussed that Marlowe’s heroes were dominated by some uncontrollable passion or inordinate ambition. And they also seem to be inspired by Machiavelli’s ideals of human conduct and human desires. Machiavelli’s well-known book—‘The Prince’ preached the doctrine of complete freedom of the individual to gain one’s end by any means-fair or foul. Thus we find his tragic heroes afire with an indomitable passion discarding all moral codes and ethical principles and plunging headlong to achieve their end. Such intense passion and pitiless struggle with super-human energy to achieve earthly gain and glory make Marlowe’s heroes great indeed and adds shining glory and grandeur to their personality.
The Cause of Faustus’s Tragedy: Tragic Flaw
According to Aristotle, one of the most important characteristics of a tragic hero is that “he should have some inherent weakness, some ‘tragic flaw’ in his character. And then he should neither be totally good and virtuous nor an absolutely vicious or corrupted character. And Doctor Faustus invariably satisfies these conditions. Faustus has also a serious flaw in his character. He is puffed up with pride in his great learning and scholarship and is dominated by inordinate ambition to acquire knowledge ‘infinite’ and through it to gain superhuman powers. And this we know from the Chorus before the action of the drama starts—
“Till swoln with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspired his over throw;
For falling to a devilish exercise.
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy;”
Then in the very first scene of the play we find, how due to his pride and ambition Faustus is disappointed with all the branches of learning that he has mastered so far. Physic, Divinity, Law, Philosophy—all are absolutely inadequate for his purpose, as even after mastering all these great branches of knowledge:
“Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man.”
And hence—“A greater subject fitteth Faustus’s wit.” Faustus’s soul is afire with intemperate ambition and with a craze for super human powers and supreme sensual pleasure of life. He utters these memorable lines in his very first monologue:
……….Divinity adieu:
These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly:
……………………………………
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promis’d to the studious artizan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command….
…………………………………………..
A sound magician is a mighty god:
Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity.”
So Faustus wants ‘to gain a deity’, to soar above his mortal bounds. And herein lies the great tragic flaw in his character.
Surrendering Soul to the Devil
In spite of all his great learning and scholarship and other human qualities we sadly witness how this flaw or great drawback in his character brings about his ultimate doom and damnation. When he bids adieu to divinity, Faustus perfectly knows that to achieve his uncommon purpose he will have to shun the path of virtue and abjure God and the Trinity. But he was at the same time not absolutely void of conscience and that is why we find the Good Angel and the Bad Angel, the symbols of virtue and vice in his soul, making their first appearance just after Faustus’s decision in favour of cursed necromancy. The God Angel urges him to shun ‘that damned book’ and to read the scriptures. But the Evil Angel, the voice of his passion, scores a victory by luring Faustus away from the path of virtue by assuring him that after mastering the black art of magic Faustus will be:
“Lord and commander of the elements.”
Then at the end of third scene of Act I we find Faustus telling Mephistophilis that he has already abjured the Trinity of his own accord and has firmly made up his mind to sell his soul to the Devil to gain limitless powers with the help of Mephistophilis as his pliant slave and ‘to live in all voluptuousness’ for a period of twenty-four years. And in the first scene of Act II, Faustus finally surrenders his soul to the Devil and writes the bond with blood from his own veins.
Inner Conflict: A Modern Tragedy
This learned scholar from Wittenberg never realised that though he abjured God and the Trinity and denounced Christian dogmas and doctrines yet his emotional attachment to them was too deep to be rooted out. So we find that even before surrendering his soul to the Devil Faustus is experiencing the prick of conscience. And henceforth, we find the entire action of the drama fluctuating between the weak and wavering loyalties of Faustus to these two opposing forces. Thus the heart of Faustus turns out to be the battle-field where the forces of good and the evil are trying to overwhelm each other. A guilty conscience dogs him from the beginning to the end and we can follow his troubled career and the inner conflict in his soul from the beginning to the end of this tragic drama. Generally this inner conflict takes place when a man is faced with two alternatives one of which he must have to choose but finds himself pulled in opposite directions. And in a modern tragedy we find the expression of the free will of man. He makes his choice good or bad and thus becomes the architect of his own fate. And Faustus makes his own choice to take to the black art of magic deliberately and then sells his soul to the Devil of his free will. Thus Faustus is like a modern man whose conscious self is opposed by the subconscious self as it is still deeply attached to the conventional doctrines and dogmas of Christian theology. These are some of the very significant characteristics for which we may regard Doctor Faustus as a modern tragedy.
Conclusion
Thus the main cause of the tragedy of Doctor Faustus is ‘aspiring pride and insolence’ for which the Lucifer of Milton also fell. Pride and presumption obscure the clear vision and lead a man to take things for granted. So his inordinate ambition and proud presumption leads him to commit the sin of practising more than heaven permits and to take it to be granted that by mastering the black art of magic he will become a ‘mighty god’ and:
“All things that move between the quite poles,
Shall be at my command”:
And that is why Faustus abjures God and the Trinity, denounces Christian theology and ultimately sells his soul to the Devil. The irony of this tragic drama is slowly revealed when we find how all his sky-high expectations are belied during his career as a renowned magician. And this grim irony reaches its climax in the last scene when we find this proud and presumptious scholar of Wittenberg who once dreamed of becoming Jove on this earth, who deliberately denounced God and the Trinity appealing like a pampered child to ‘fair nature’s eye to rise again and make perpetual day’:
“That Faustus may repent and save his soul!”
We may conclude with the very relevant observations of Helen Gardner: “The great reversal from the first scene of Doctor Faustus to the last scene can be defined in different ways: from presumption to despair; from doubt of the existence of hell to the belief in the reality of nothing else;…….from aspiration to deity and omnipotence to longing for extinction. At the beginning, Faustus wishes to rise above his humanity, at the close he would sink below it, be transformed into the beast or ‘into little water drops.’ At the beginning he attempts usurpation on God, at the close he is an usurper upon the Devil.”

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