A charge of a lack of structure against Doctor Faustus has been made by several critics. Aristotle had observed that a play should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Doctor Faustus, it has been said, has an impressive beginning and an undeniably magnificent ending, but no “middle” to speak of. Faustus makes his bargain, and if the end of that bargain is inevitable, it does not seem to matter much what happens in the intervening time. But there is more to the middle portion of the play than the inconsequential horseplay and farce involving magic.
Slow development towards self-realization in Faustus
The “middle” of the play is to be sought in those scenes which depict the acute inner conflict and self examination undergone by Faustus. His suffering is not meaningless, for it is all part of true self- realization. The man who once scoffed at Mephistophilis about hell and damnation, learns that hell is not a fable through bitter experience vindicating Mephistophilis’ quiet ironic words, “Think so still, till experience change thy mind.” Thus the play has a middle of some kind, consisting of Faustus’s experiences which change his mind completely about hell and damnation.
Knowledge is central to the play
Faustus, as the play proceeds, slowly but surely realizes that his deal with the devil is unsatisfactory. He sets out to conquer all knowledge, dissatisfied with what he has mastered so far. Magic seems to open a way to the infinite reaches. But as the goal becomes increasingly illusory, Faustus gains a knowledge of a more ultimate kind—he learns from Mephistophilis that hell is not localised but a state of mind. He does not believe this—thus refusing to accept the very first fruits of his new knowledge. He is quite willing to be damned. But he slowly learns that he has gained nothing much from the contract. Ordinary questions about the mechanical workings of the natural world are inevitably linked with the question of who makes it work and why. To these ultimate questions there are no new answers; his new knowledge has nothing further to offer than what he knew before the signing of the contract. His supernatural powers leave him where he was—he is unable to do anything truly worthwhile with it. The magniloquent acts he dreams of remain unperformed. All he does is play some stupid tricks on the Pope and bring grapes out of season for the Duchess of Vanholt. He can but summon the “spirits” of Alexander and Helen, not recreate their living figures. Magic fruits are insubstantial. And Faustus slowly but steadily gains this self-knowledge—that he has gained nothing. And we see the change that takes place in him—the steady moral deterioration towards complete despair. These changes rather than the idiosyncratic practical jokes constitute the “middle” of the play. Thus, we cannot quite accept the view that the play lacks a “middle.”
No plot in the Aristotelian sense
Doctor Faustus is more a study of a character’s mind than an attempt at a well constructed drama. Thus it consists of a series of scenes, almost detached from one another except for their loose inter-connection in a time sequence, leading to an expected catastrophe. In the sources of the play, the various exploits of Faustus were emphasised. But Marlowe chose to chiefly concentrate on the mind of Doctor Faustus—his initial grandiose dreams, increasing vacillations, the agonising torture of mind towards the end and the terrible end itself. It is the development of inner conflict that gives the play its sense of unity.
Play to be seen in light of moral cause and effect
Actually speaking, whether the play has a dramatic development or not depends on how we look at the “contract” with the devil. If we consider Faustus as doomed the minute he signs the contract, then there is no more dramatic interest left in the play. This is where one has to consider the legalistic aspect as against the moral aspect. Legal cause and effect is over at the signing of the bond—Faustus is damned at that moment. But there are several indications that Faustus is not a prisoner of the act of signing the deed. The Good Angel continues to urge Faustus to repent, indicating that there is mercy as well as justice in God. Furthermore, if the contract were so very final, it is strange that the devils themselves do not seem too sure of Faustus’s soul. They appear off and on to threaten, cajole and bully Faustus into submission. The Old Man appears at a very late stage in the play to try and bring Faustus to repent. Even at that stage “Hell strives with grace for conquest” over Faustus. It is the mind of Faustus which slowly deteriorates. He thinks of Hell now as “our hell” as he tells “sweet Mephistophilis” to torment, the Old Man. Increasingly he requires more powerful narcotics to subdue his spiritual anguish. His final degeneration comes with the abandonment to the sensual delight of the vision of Helen—a symbol of not only beauty but of destruction as well.
Faustus, one may say, is a prisoner of his own conception and legalistic attitude. He is more convinced than the devils themselves that the bond is to be honoured. He feels that “Hell calls for right” and he has to go to “do thee right.” He simply cannot believe that repentance can release him from the bond. This is the moral failing in him—his lack of faith even while he cannot quite break away from that faith. The play records the gradual change in this man. Its dramatic and imaginative power depends upon the moral cause and effect of Faustus’s action of signing the bond.
Analysis of the plot
The first scene is compact and a masterly presentation of Faustus’s resolve to turn to magic, and his remaining determined in this resolve despite the intervention of the Good Angel, or his own good impulse. The comic interludes in Scene II and a little later are weak, but have some relevance in being a parody of the more serious bargain with the Devil. Further, we must not forget the practice of the Elizabethan dramatists to interpose a comic scene against a serious scene to relieve the tension as well as heighten the poignancy of the main plot. The conjuration of Mephistophilis and the signing of the bond follow quite logically. Act II, Scene I, the contract scene, is emotionally intense and Mephistophilis is impressive in his quite dignity. One is immediately struck by the enormity of Faustus’s action. Between this scene and the next an interval of time is supposed to have passed in which Faustus has been indulging in various pleasures bought by his newly acquired powers.
But the later exploits of Faustus—in the Pope’s chamber, at the Emperor’s court etc.—compare unfavourably both with his dreams and his earlier conjuration of Homer’s song and Amphion’s music on his harp. The later exploits singularly lack the Marlowe touch. The comic scenes of Acts III and IV are clear flaws, strucrually as well as thematically speaking.
The last Act is, however, an organic part of the play’s design. Faustus conjures the spirit of Helen for the benefit of the scholars. The Old Man’s appearance pricks Faustus’s conscience and invokes despair in his heart—“Damned art thou, Faustus.” He is just prevented from committing suicide, and once more laments his fate. But “Hell” emerges victorious in the tussle. Scene II of this Act presents Faustus, quiet but on the verge of collapse, telling the scholars that he has sold his soul for twenty-four years of “vain pleasure.” Faustus’s final monologue is justly famous for its gripping but poetic revelation of a mind tortured in its conflict-between wanting to repent and the conviction that it is too late to repent. The devils take away Faustus and the play ends with the monody of the Chorus—on a quiet tone after all the tension as tragedy demands.
Doctor Faustus does not conform to the Unities as propounded by Aristotle. It ranges over a period of twenty-four years and, as for place, all over the earths. Unity of action is also, more or less, absent. The episodes do not grow logically from the preceeding one, as they ought to. There is much that is irrelevant and, therefore, heterogenous and discordant to the organic unity of the play. However, it is undeniable that the play produces a single impression in the mental torment of a man who, while seeking to break traditional ties, finds those ties too strong in him to discard.