Characteristics of the Morality play
The Morality play, an early form of drama, owes its origin to the miracle play of the middle ages. It flourished in the middle ages, was at its height in the first half of the fifteenth century, disappeared after the second half, but reappeared in part in Elizabethan drama. It conveys a moral truth or lesson by means of personified abstractions and dealing with some problems of good and evil. The general theme of the morality play was theological and the central theme was the struggle between good and evil powers for capturing man’s soul with choice for eternal damnation.The Seven Deadly Sins were found engaged in physical and verbal battle with cardinal virtues. The antics of vices and devils etc., offered a considerable opportunity for low comedy or buffoonery and thus farcical elements developed in great way. The morality plays were essentially religious or ethical and didactic.
Doctor Faustus: A morality
Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, in spite of its tragic ending, is a belated “Morality vindicating the humility, faith and obedience to the law of God.” In a way it marks the culmination of the English morality tradition, presenting the conflict between good and evil. The basic beliefs of Christianity are inherited in it and the doctrine of damnation pervades it. The characteristics of the Morality play in Doctor Faustus are discussed in the following paragraphs.
1. Doctor Faustus is a play of medieval theology
Faustus, the hero, abjures the scriptures, the Trinity and Christ. The Devil and Hell are omnipresent in this play and are terrifying realities. Faustus makes a bargain with the Devil, and for the sake of earthly learning, earthly power and satisfaction goes down to horrible perdition. 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.
Thus the drama is a Morality play in which Heaven struggles with Hell for the soul of the ‘Renaissance man who loses the battle on account of his psychological and moral weakness. Faustus is not the noble victim of a tyrannical Deity. God is exceedingly good in His gifts to the hero, until the hero becomes the victim of his own insatiable desires and even then God is willing to forgive if he repents. But Faustus wilfully refuses all aid and goes to damnation. The moral values of this play are established through the chorus, Faustus’s own recognition, the Good Angel, the Old Man, the action itself, and even Mephistophilis, the agent of Lucifer the Devil. The deterioration and the coarsening of Faustus’s character and his indulgence in cheap, sadistic fun emphasise the Christian viewpoint.
2. Struggle between Good and Evil for the soul of Faustus
At the very beginning of Faustus’s temptation, the Good Angel urges Faustus to lay aside the damned book of magic and to read the scriptures. The Good Angel is the voice of God, and also the externalization of Faustus’s conscience. The Evil Angel, who is the emissary of Lucifer, encourages Faustus to continue his study of magic. And Faustus listens to the Evil Angel and is elated by the promising rewards of magic—Power, profit, delight, omnipotence and honour. Faustus has intellectual pride to a great degree, but he is also desirpus of vainglory. Faustus is a complete egocentric and relishes the inflated sense of his own abilities. Faustus indulges in a delusion of self-importance: he thinks Mephistophilis has come solely at his command, but Mephistophilis disillusions him about this. In answering Faustus’s questions about Lucifer, Mephistophilis says that Lucifer fell because of his “aspiring pride and insolence”, and anticipates Faustus’s fall in Lucifer’s. Faustus is guilty of insolence, and pride, reprimands (though warned by the Devil himself) Mephistophilis for cowardliness.
3. Faustus is not a Superman but an Everyman prone to sin.
Faustus sells his soul to the Devil, and in return wants to live for twenty-four years “in all voluptuousness”, to have Mephistophilis attend on him always, to bring him whatever he demands, and to tell him whatever he wanted to know. He represents the Everyman of Renaissance—in his inordinate curiosity and desire for satisfying the senses. But too much of these are sinful in the Christian scheme.
4. Free Will and Free Choice: another aspect of Christian Theology
Faustus is free to affirm or deny God. He has every right to pledge his soul to the Devil, as he says that his soul is his own. After signing the Document, Faustus says: “Consummatum est” (this is finished), which were the last words of Christ on earth (according to the Gospel of St. John). With superb insight Marlowe puts these blasphemous words in Faustus’s mouth. Good life and the possibility of reaching heaven are indeed being finished for Faustus. Thereafter, God’s warning Homo fuge (man, fly) appears on Faustus’s arm, and Faustus affirms the very God he denied by the conflicting impulses he exhibits.
As Faustus deliberately sets his will against God’s Will, Mephistophilis summons a few devils who offer crowns and rich garments to Faustus, thereby offering Faustus sensual satisfaction in order to distract his mind from spiritual concern. When Faustus tries to numb his uncomfortable conscience by asking for a wife, Mephistophilis promises to satisfy his appetite with beautiful courtesans.
5. Repentance and non-repentance: struggle in Faustus’s mind
In Act II, Faustus blames Mephistophilis for his misery and says that he will “renounce this magic and repent.” Faustus recognises that repentence is still possible. The Good Angel asserts Faustus’s feelings by saying: “Faustus repent; yet God will pity thee.” But continuous practice of sin is steadily eroding Faustus’s will-power, and he says: “My heart is hardened, I cannot repent.” This conclusion is undoubtedly egocentric.
Again, Mephistophilis tells Faustus to think of hell only, as Faustus is damned. And Faustus once more characteristically blames Mephistophilis for his wretched condition. “ ‘Tis thou hast damned distressed Faustus soul.” Faustus is in distress and the Good Angel tells him to repent. But the Evil Angel threatens that he would be torn into pieces. Faustus calls upon Christ to save his soul, whereupon Lucifer, Belzebub, and Mephistophilis appear to remind Faustus of his promise. Once more Faustus promises “never to name God, or to pray to him.” Faustus is then regaled with the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins who are staple ingredients of the Morality play.
In Act V, Scene II, Faustus feels distressed but he is still capable of rapid self-delusion. The Old Man tells Faustus to repent as Faustus is still capable of repentance. But Faustus sees no hope. He wants to kill himself with the dagger offered by Mephistophilis, but the Old Man stops him. Faustus thanks the Old Man and asks to be left alone “to ponder on my sins.” But when left alone, Faustus undergoes an acute mental conflict.
Hell struggles against Heaven, and despair against repentance. As Mephistophilis threatens Faustus. Faustus begs pardon and offers to confirm with blood his former vow. Blaming the Old Man, he becomes a brute while begging Mephistophilis to torture the Old Man “With greatest tortures that our hell affords.” Faustus then asks Mephistophilis to bring Helen so that by making love to her, he will forget the pangs of his conscience. For the sake of bodily pleasure, Faustus gives up the last possibility of redemption. He aggravates his sin by making love to a devil in female form.
6. The “moral.”
“For vain pleasure of twenty-four years hath Faustus lost Eternal joy and felicity.” Faustus gave up higher values for the lower ones. And so Faustus must endure all the horrible tortures of hell. Thought of hell, that is everlasting punishment from God, causes much spiritual unrest to Faustus. Thus we find that Marlowe in keeping with the traditions of Moralities, depicts the destiny of a man who denies God and is finally doomed to eternal damnation. The Morality play is didactic—it is a dramatized guide to Christian living and Christian dying. Whoever discards the path of virtues and abjures faith in God and Christ is destined to despair and eternal damnation.
Spirit of Elizabethan drama in Morality framework
Doctor Faustus is, to a great extent, a “Christian Document”, but in the final fall of Faustus, one feels “O the pity of it” that marks all great tragedy. Indeed, one may say that, Morality elements notwithstanding, Doctor Faustus is the first of the truly Elizabethan or Renaissance dramas.