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Socio-Cultural History of Arts Through Literature
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Pride, ambitious and damnation along Dr. Faustus and Elizabethan England
Cristina Iturralde Pérez
15th of May, 2018
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Doctor Faustus is one of the main plays of the Renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe, famous due to its revolutionary way of writing, treating themes controversial for the epoque. As this author was contemporary to the period of the Elizabethan England, he is well-known for creating a portrait of the society of the time. Due to this, the aim of this paper is to formulate a relation between the real Elizabethan world and the character of Faustus, to prove that the protagonist is an accurate representation of the human being of the epoque. In order to reach this objective, the books Christopher Marlowe: A Study of his Thought, Learning, and Character (Kocher, 1962) and Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe (Watt, 1996) could be useful in order to understand the thought of Marlowe, the analysis of the character, and Elizabethan society. The results show that by the character of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe has created an accurate representation of the Renaissance man and has represented attempt of transition from the Medieval universe to the Renaissance one of the man. There are some clear changes, but he also has remarked the main limits that the man has always had and could never leave behind.
Keywords: Elizabethan England, Renaissance, ambition, damnation, pride.
Table of Contents
Dr. Faustus is considered one of the most polemical and revolutionary plays written during the period of the Elizabethan England. His author, Christopher Marlowe, was an Elizabethan playwright who by writing this play, broke the chains that were still tying society to the Medieval identity. Kocher (1962) states that Marlowe is one of the most subjective dramatist of his age. By this, it is visible that Christopher Marlowe was writing about the age he was coetaneous to: Renaissance. What Marlowe wanted to achieve by writing this play was to create a reflection of the Elizabethan society. Some of the issues that Marlowe treats in this play were never treated before, and are exclusive from the civilization of the time. One of the main characteristics of the play is the ambition of the Elizabethan society; this is the epoque in which people started to open their minds, when society began to explore and create, and to think that they could do everything.There are many references to the ambitious character of the Elizabethan society throughout the play. Also, the play gives an especial treatment to the issue of damnation, as it is one of the main limits of man, which Faustus tries to surpass along the play by invoking the Devil. Watt (1946) mentions that the eternal damnation was one of the main issues treated during the Counter-Reformation, coetaneous to Christopher Marlowe. By this play, Marlowe representantes the evolution of a man who tried to live a Renaissance live but culminated his life like a Medieval one. What Marlowe suggested by this, is that man has limits, and no matter how man tried to surpass these limits, destiny is written, and all men are destined to eternal damnation.
Therefore, the main aim of this paper is to present the issues of ambition and damnation presented along the play in comparison with the Elizabethan society. The analysis will focus on taking some examples of the play to justify the different positions of the English society along the Elizabethan period. All the phrases that are going to be cited in the paper are taken from the book Doctor Faustus (2015…..). To do so, this paper will answer questions like the following ones: How is treated the issue of eternal damnation along the play? How was treated during the Elizabethan period? Why is so ambitious the character of Doctor Faustus? How can this be related to the Elizabethan character? In order to complete these analysis, these two books could be befitting: first, the book Christopher Marlowe: A Study of his Thought, Learning, and Character (Kocher, 1962) is helpful in order to delve into the subjectivity of Marlowe. Then, the book Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe (Watt, 1996) is very appropriate to analyse and understand the issues of ambitious, emerging knowledge and eternal damnation along the play and to make a comparison of them with the epoque.
First of all, the main intention of this play was to make society reflect about the changes that were going through and to criticise it. It is important to note that this society was stuck between the Medieval and the Renaissance worlds, and that is reflected by the evolution of the character of Doctor Faustus during the whole play. According to Watt (1996), the protagonist of Doctor Faustus representantes the class of the intellectuals of the epoque, as many of the ideological and emotional tendencies can be found on the character. One of the main characteristic of the protagonist personality is his ambitious, created by the desire of knowledge and power, that can be justified by many examples throughout the play.
This can be seen in the first act, at the first scene 1.1: at the beginning of his soliloquy, Dr. Faustus mentions great characters of the Ancient world, so by doing this and with this references to the powers of the men of classical cultures, he mentions Aristotle, Galen, Justinian, and Jerome… He is setting the character in the context of the Renaissance, the time of the rebirth of these classical authors and important figures that brought some of the most important changes to the world. He has studied the disciplines of these men, has been inspired by them, but Faustus seems to believe that those areas of knowledge do not fit his intelligence. The main point that reflects the aspiring character of Faustus is that he does not want be like that men, his main aim is to surpass them. His perception of mastery is further than just having wisdom, being an intellectual and following the tendencies of the epoque. He desires to have illimited power, to do changes that a simply mortal could never do, for example, alterations in nature. For instance, during the first act, Faustus starts to fantasise about what he would do if he sells his soul to the devil and owns an infinite power: “And make a bridge through the moving air” (I, iii, l. 104) or “I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore” (I, iii, l. 105) are some of the visible examples. The only person who had the power to do changes of that magnitude was God. Kocher (1962) states that in his vanity his main aim is to impersonate God by ruling the elements of the Earth.
But that’s not all, and Faustus wants also to have military control. Good examples of this military aspiration could the statements “I’ll have them fly to India for gold” (I, i, l.80), “I’ll have them wall all Germany with brass, and make swift Rhine circle fair Wittenberg” (I, i, l.86-87) or “The Emperor shall not live but be my leave” (I, iii, 108). This is related to the English context of the time, as England was starting to spread its nation through the world, and wanted to have presence in every continent. Also, it is important to know that the Renaissance marked the start of the big explorations, and there are some instances of that in the play and some references to the scientific evolution of the epoque, such as “Please it your Grace, the year is divided into two circles over the whole world” (IV, vi, l. 27). This makes reference to the two hemispheres. What he wants is to make audience see is that England was an ambitious nation, that it wanted to control every part of the world and have presence everywhere. The desires of Faustus fit the Elizabethan society, as his desires of military and nature control and exploits involve aims of wealth and honor of this nation (Cole, 2015, Doctor Faustus and the Morality Tradition, as cited in Doctor Faustus, 2015).
According to Watt (1996), it is in the Renaissance epoque when the education has roused in the mind of the individual. Due to this, individuals started to explore, started to go farer; they broke the chains that were tying them to the ignorance. By Faustus, Marlowe representantes a man who has crossed the bridge between the Medieval and the Renaissance worlds. He has traversed from ignorance to illumination of the mind, as an epitome of the Renaissance man. Masinton mentions (2015, Faustus and the Failure of the Renaissance Man, as cited in Doctor Faustus, 2015), what Marlowe has done by Dr. Faustus is to create an authentic moral story about the Renaissance man, about his dreams, but also about his failures. But has it has been mentioned before, the human being has limits, but what Faustus tries to do is to surpass this limits. The only solution that he found was to invoke the Devil. Watt (1996) states that the aspirations of the Renaissance and the Reformation can just be solved by magic.
But another of the main limits that Faustus has is damnation. Every men in the world was limited by damnation. The main solution to that limits that Faustus finds is to invoke the Devil. At the beginning of the play, he mentions that damnation is something that does not afraid him. “This word “damnation” terrifies not me” (I, iii, l. 58). As it has been mentioned before, at the beginning of the play, Marlowes gives a fearless image of Doctor Faustus, an image of a person that believes that could achieve everything that proposes, just like the typical image of the Renaissance man. Looking at the end of the play, when Faustus has used up his time and has to give his soul to the Devil, is when he realises that he has limits. His time has finished, and he knows his destiny, and he tries to escape it. “O soul, be changed into small water drops, and fall into the ocean, ne’er be found!” (V, iii, l. 180-181). It is not till Faustus sees the limits when he starts to be afraid of them. At this point of the play, when Faustus sees his limits, is when he decides to require the help of the only person that has not limits: God. So, Faustus is catched in an internal fight between his desires to become a God and escape from damnation. As Kocher (1962) states, this drama is seen as religious fight between man’s soul that is influenced by the laws of the Christian world order.
Faustus sees damnation as a destiny impossible to escape, scholars try to make see Faustus that might God save him: “Yet, Faustus, look up to heaven and remember that mercy is infinite”(V, ii, l. 39). What happens is that Faustus rejects the idea, not because seeing God as an enemy, but he thinks that after having committed such a sin, he is eternally damned: “But Faustus’ offence can ne’er be pardoned” (V, ii, l. 41). Here it is presented the image of a man who is lost, who has believed that he did not have limits, and has proved that the limit of every man is damnation. “Faustus, in short, is appalled by the injustice of a dogma which consigns all men inevitably to damnation” (Kocher, 1962, p. 105). Apart from this, Faustus sees salvation in his last desire: seeing Helen of Troy, as he thinks that a kiss from her could make him immortal and save him from damnation. “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss” (V, i, l. 95). He tries to find salvation not in God, but in love of the beautiest woman in history, but he failed in his attempt, as the only thing that could save you was faith in God. Kocher (1962) states that the religious thought during Renaissance stated that the world of senses, in which grace is introduced, pertained to Devil. Therefore, he was not saved and had to face his finally feared destiny.
RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS:
After having analysed some of the themes that are treated in the Renaissance play of Dr. Faustus, it is visible that what Marlowe tried to do by this play was to open the eyes of the Elizabethan England and make that society see that humans are humans, not Gods. Humans could invent, explore, surpass geographical limits… but they will never have as much power as God. The final destiny of Dr. Faustus could be seen as an advice to the growing and expanding Elizabethan society of the time, as he is trying to say that you are not capable of challenging God or attempting to become one, as every human being is destined to damnation. This is the most visible and feared limitation of man, as it is visible in the play that even if Faustus tries to escape from it, it is impossible. There is no escape to damnation. Having analyzed this, it could be said that Faustus is a man who is disappointed with his own ambition. He believed that he could do everything and be like a God, but at the end of the play we see a figure of a man who has to face his horrible destiny. This is what he tries to show to the new figure of man that emerged during the Renaissance. Also, what he wanted to representate is that even if the society has entered the Renaissance, the Medieval believes remain on it. When he sold his soul to the Devil, he did it to be powerful, to acquire even more knowledge, and as an escape from damnation. What he wanted to do was to live like a man of the Renaissance. Finally, he could not escape it, an he finished his life like a Medieval one. In conclusion, Marlowe tried to make people think that times change, ways of thinking change, but there are something that are impossible to challenge and to avoid. In the case of man, it was damnation and death. Every man is destined to it, wanted or not.
Cole, D. (2015). Doctor Faustus and the Morality Tradition. In Marlowe, C. (2015). Doctor Faustus (pp. 304-312). New York, London: W.W. Norton Company.
Kocher, P.H. (1962). Christopher Marlowe: A study of his Thought, Learning, and Character. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc. (mirar en Océano también).
Masinton, C.G (2015). Faustus and the Failure of the Renaissance Man. In Marlowe, C. (2015). Doctor Faustus (pp. 344- 353). New York, London: W.W. Norton Company.
Watt, I. (1996). Myths of modern individualism : Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe. Cambridge etc.: University Press.