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Dr. Faustus in Cultural Context, Essay Example

Pages: 10

Words: 2652

Essay

The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus is a classic story of a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge, power, and success. In many ways, it appears a timeless work, a work whose themes and essential lessons are so universal that they resonate with contemporary audiences across a span of more than four centuries. And yet, a closer examination reveals the importance of situating this work, however timeless it may be, in its appropriate historical and cultural context. While the motif of a man selling his soul to the devil in exchange for success remains an enduring one, Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is thoroughly grounded in a variety of ideas and assumptions about magic, science, and religion that were characteristic of the period, to a greater or lesser degree. Understanding Dr. Faustus requires one to understand Marlowe’s own background in Christian humanism, as well as Renaissance ideas about magic, science, and religion.

Magic is of considerable importance in Dr. Faustus, being the means by which he summons Mephistopheles. In fact, magic was of considerable importance in Elizabethan England, and attitudes and beliefs about it help to place Marlowe’s play in its appropriate historic and cultural context, illuminating the cultural milieu which shaped Marlowe’s own writing (Rutter 42). As Rutter explains, in England at the time, belief in what modern ideas would call ‘magic’ was widespread, even among the learned. In fact, when Elizabeth I was crowned in 1558, she consulted an astrologer, John Dee, for an auspicious coronation date (42-43). John Dee is, in many ways, a paragon of the Renaissance magician: this royal advisor claimed not only astrological powers, but also skill in alchemy, and the ability to speak with angels through mediums (43). And yet, Dee was also an accomplished Renaissance scientist, with noted acumen in the arts of mathematics, geography, and astronomy (43).

This is no paradox: in Europe at this time, magic and science were much more interdependent, and the line between them much hazier and more blurred, than has been the case for quite some time now (Rutter 43). Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), Italian astronomer and philosopher, is known for his adherence to Copernican heliocentrist theory, an adherence for which he was burned at the stake by the Church in 1600 (43). However, Bruno had his own reasons for agreeing with Copernicus, chief among them a mystical, magical vision of the cosmos in which the sun was of central importance (43). Bruno’s putative source of information on this score was not science, but rather magical writings that were allegedly of ancient Egyptian provenance, writings he claimed could enable one to achieve godlike power (43).

In addition to these two Renaissance magicians, Rutter suggests that a third, Thomas Harriot (c. 1560-1621) warrants a mention in a discussion about magic in Doctor Faustus (43). Marlowe and Harriot seem to have known each other, and Harriot was a proficient scientist. A veritable polymath, the man was accomplished in “navigation, mathematics, optics, mechanics, and astronomy” (43). While unlike Dee—and Doctor Faustus himself—Harriot lacked occult interests, he did suggest that Moses, in the Bible, was no more than a conjurer, and that he, Harriot, could best Moses (43-44). Harriot was actually investigated for suspicion of atheism in 1594 (44).

That a scientist could be singled out on suspicion of being an atheist—something that is scarcely a crime in the modern West—points to an important dimension of the engagement between science and religion in the context of the period. The fact that Harriot was a scientist was certainly of relevance to why he was singled out and investigated, because the ethos of the best science of the time was sometimes perceived as deeply threatening to the religious and social order (Mebane 73). Fundamentally, the reason for this had everything to do with a conflict between authority and experience. Received authority was, in many ways, the foundation of the social order which 16th-century England and other parts of Europe had inherited from the Medieval world (73).

However, with the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery came the growing conviction, in certain circles, that authority should be tested by experience (Mebane 73). The exploits of Sir Francis Drake, coupled with the English victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, encouraged this mentality in England in particular: now that it was beginning to look like England had a shot at rivaling Spain on the high seas, knowledge of scientific disciplines seemed all the more imperative if Englishmen were to seize the possibilities that beckoned (73). The pursuit of political and military success in England in the 1580s and 1590s stimulated a great interest in the applied sciences: navigation, gunnery, geography, cartography (77). Doctor Faustus himself shares these aspirations for political and military fortunes, marking him as very much a man of his day (77-78).

But while magic and science were seen as having the potential to challenge existing paradigms of knowledge based on authority, advocates for magic and/or science were by no means all of a piece (Mebane 73-74). On the one hand, there were sects of dissenters who espoused occult philosophy, precisely because “they readily perceived its subversive potential” (73). On the other hand, there was John Dee: a staunch monarchist and fervent defender of the socio-political status quo, Dee nevertheless pushed for the overthrow of the status quo in natural philosophy, precisely because he saw no reason to connect what happened in natural philosophy with what might happen in the social or political order (73-74).

For Dee and others, such as Cornelius Agrippa and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, there was an important distinction to be made between good, natural magic and so-called “black magic” (Deats 15). For them, the goal was to use the power of ‘natural magic,’ including practices and approaches that might well be considered to be more properly scientific, to gain “godlike wisdom and stature” (15). They believed that they could do this, while rejecting black magic: for them, black magic was unnatural, and therefore deleterious (15). On the other hand, other intellectuals believed that all magic was black magic, the work of witches and familiar spirits in service to the Devil himself (15).

Thus, the world in which Marlowe wrote was a world in which magic and science were not separated so firmly as they are today. It was a world in which the equivalent of, say, an Uri Geller might also be the equivalent of a Stephen Hawking. But not even this adequately embodies it, because the engagement between both magic and science and religion was also different. Again, Bruno was burnt to death for heresy because of his idiosyncratic and unorthodox supernatural beliefs, while Harriot was investigated on suspicion of atheism because he seemed to minimize the supernatural. A world in which both of these things could happen in Western countries within just six years of each other is, it must be said, a world very different from our own.

In short, one cannot understand the true measure of Doctor Faustus without understanding this essential background. In the play, Faustus is an accomplished scholar, one who has mastered divinity, logic, medicine, and law (44). But he is not content with all this: despite having gained great knowledge, he is not satiated, and this leads him to take up necromancy (44). To be sure, his hubris is on display, and his pride is in many ways perfectly accessible to the modern reader—a true testament to Marlowe’s genius. Nonetheless, without understanding Renaissance attitudes to magic and science the modern reader is confronted with the spectacle of a polymath, a rare enough thing in this age of academic specialization, who is somehow able to summon demons. And yet, such an idea would have been a much more straightforward proposition in Marlowe’s day.

What, then, of Marlowe himself? Where might he be said to fit in this period of such intense religious, philosophical and scientific ferment? The answer is clear: Marlowe was a thorough-going heretic, an actual atheist (Kelly 6). Not only was he referred to as such, a charge which might be dismissed, but there is also evidence that he wrote a so-called “atheist lecture,” and read it to none other than Sir Walter Raleigh, a close friend of his (6). Marlowe’s work generally skewered the existing social and religious order, and his irreverent and dissident attitudes got him into trouble with the Privy Council and Common Councils (6).

Marlowe was influenced by his own education in the Erasmian humanist tradition (Kelly 1). The Christian humanist luminary preached pacifism, theological utopianism, and social reform, as well as the importance of education (2-3). Although a devout Christian believer, Erasmus was very critical of the Catholic Church, the priests and theologians of which he often found to be poorly schooled (3). Erasmus believed that only through the cultivation of good education could Christendom progress in governance, and oppose ideas such as Lutheranism, which Erasmus criticized for its predeterminism (3). Thanks in no small part to Erasmus, the classical heritage was rediscovered and embraced in England (3).

Marlowe, then, was a thoroughgoing Erasmian, although he took Erasmus’ critical approach to society and religion significantly farther, by rejecting conventional religion altogether (Kelly 7). A keen critic of society, Marlowe’s goal was to “find ‘God’ without recourse to ‘bugbears and hobgoblins’” (7). “I count religion but a childish toy” he is said to have remarked (9). Having no use for what he deemed to be superstition and myth, Marlowe sought the sublime by his own means, and sought to push both art and religion to a more complex engagement with human society (7).

Understanding all of this raises many interesting questions about how, exactly, the play Doctor Faustus is to be properly interpreted. There are three main schools of thought here (Mebane 115). The first is the idea that both Doctor Faustus and Mephistopheles are Marlowe’s mouthpieces. Their ideas, after all, do seem to accord with a great deal of what is known about Marlowe’s own beliefs. In this interpretation, Marlowe is effectively presenting his own viewpoint while seeming to condemn it: after all, Faustus does get his just deserts. The idea here is that by presenting these subversive views and seeming to condemn them, Marlowe effectively got around popular sentiments and official censure, thereby enabling him to present them (115). However, the comic scenes present some difficulty for this interpretation: if the interpretation is correct, it is hard to contextualize the comic scenes (116).

The second interpretation is that, Marlowe’s own reputation for unorthodox views notwithstanding, the play is relatively orthodox: it presents an actual cautionary tale about hubris and making a deal with the devil (Mebane 115-116). This, of course, would make the play essentially a morality play, albeit one of extremely high quality. However, there is some difficulty for this interpretation in Marlowe’s selection of an actual semihistorical individual, one who was in many ways apparently quite admirable, as his protagonist: as Mebane explains, Faustus was a man “whose aspirations and whose daring may well have appealed to the Christopher Marlowe with whom the biographers have acquainted us” (117).

Perhaps the best case of all is the idea that it is actually ambivalent, and the point of the play is Faustus’ own intra-psychic conflict (Mebane 119). Brilliant and accomplished but arrogant, Faustus’ story is a tragedy, but it is not necessarily a morality play: rather, it is a story marked by complexity and ambiguity. Faustus is conflicted, torn between demoniac and angelic forces, but his intra-psychic conflict is a profoundly complex one (119). It may even be modeled on Marlowe’s own inner struggles. Regardless, there is a remarkably good case that Marlowe was trying to create ambiguity in the text in order to unsettle his audiences and raise dramatic tension (119).

And, too, there is actually a great deal to be said for the hypothesis that Marlowe was using techniques of misdirection, in order to advance his own quite subversive views by masking them with the semblance of moral condemnation (Mebane 119). The conflicts of the play become explicable as the creation of Marlowe’s own controlled artistry, as opposed to—as has sometimes been suggested—actual moral and spiritual confusion on Marlowe’s part (119). The play may even have been, at least in part, an attempt on Marlowe’s part to exonerate himself in the eyes of the authorities, allaying their suspicions by presenting a play with thoroughly orthodox ideas—though of course, this is not mutually exclusive with the idea that he may also have been trying to express subversive ideas! (120).

Interestingly, Marlowe’s devils also appear infected with the spirit of the age: they are ambitious, grasping, and competitive, and they represent a watershed in dramatic representations of devils (Cox 111). In many ways, they reflect the profound changes that had emerged in English society by Marlowe’s time, thanks to the Reformation. Just as the Reformation had played such an important role in breaking up the old religious order, opening the door to social and religious changes that promoted competition, so too it is with Marlowe’s devils (111-113). While Mephistopheles depicts Lucifer’s fall in terms of his pride, which in turn presents a thematic parallel with Faustus’ own Icarus-like hubris, something he says marks a subtle but crucial shift in thinking about God, the Devil, and good and evil. Mephistopheles explains Lucifer’s damnation in terms of his essentially military defeat in the face of the overwhelming power of God (113).

This is not so orthodox as it might appear on first blush: traditionally, in Christendom as it existed before the Reformation, damnation was portrayed as a necessary corollary of God’s love (Cox 113). The theological rationale is rather more complex, but in essence it boils down to the belief that God is a God of pure love, but also of justice; rejecting his love incurs the consequences of separation from him, ergo damnation. However, this is not how Mephistopheles depicts things at all: Lucifer was defeated as a consequence of God’s overwhelming power, for all the world as if the two of them were nothing more than a pair of warring kings, one of whom gained the victory over the other by dint of superior power (113). Now this is truly a subversive thought! To explain the outcome of the contest between God and Lucifer primarily in terms of the former’s power as opposed to love hints at a much more subversive and dissident approach to religion and society—in short, it speaks to Marlowe’s essential worldview, and casts a great deal of light on his actual intentions in writing the play.

Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is a truly great and timeless work. The central motif of a man selling his soul to the devil remains a classic symbol of giving up that which is most precious for the rewards of success, power, and fame. And yet, the play is far more complex and ambiguous when it is examined in light of its cultural and historic background. Renaissance ideas about magic, science, and religion pervade it, touching on controversies and aspirations that were very characteristic of Marlowe’s time. Marlowe’s own views significantly complicate and deepen the interpretation. The true genius of the play, however, is that it is a tragic story that dramatizes a man’s intra-psychic conflicts, and it is this that has made it last.

Works Cited

Cox, John D. The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama, 1350-1642. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Deats, Sara M. “’Mark this show’: Magic and theater in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.” Placing the Plays of Christopher Marlowe: Fresh Cultural Contexts. Ed. Sara M. Deats and Robert A. Logan. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008. 13-24. Print.

Kelly, Micheal J. “Christopher Marlowe and the Golden Age of England.” The Marlowe Society 5 (2008): 1-30. Print.

Mebane, John S. Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition & Marlowe, Jonson, & Shakespeare. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. Print.  

Rutter, Tom. The Cambridge Introduction to Christopher Marlowe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.

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