On Doctor Faustus — When Human Ambition & Vulnerability Faces Moral Binary
This seminar paper largely argues how Faustus causes his own downfall by seeking unlimited power through magic and the supernatural, instead of God. In Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, this downfall is caused by Faustus’s own realization of magic’s limitation in procuring pleasures in the earthly realm, which are essentially useless in the afterlife: “I’ll burn my books!” (5.2.116). My response expands this argument by questioning the underlying moral binary of good versus evil, God versus Satan, and heaven versus hell dynamics that support the Christian doctrine, which triggers the guilt and fear within Faustus. Instead of blaming Faustus as an individual who is responsible for his own demise or placing the blame on Mephistopheles and his evil seduction that targets vulnerable humans like Faustus, I am more persuaded by the notion that the Christian God or the bureaucratic system that supports this religious entity is also culpable for Faustus’s tragedy. Faustus evokes pity more than contempt since he embodies humans who are forced into situations where they must choose a side. Marlowe is also critiquing such a culture where ambiguity in religious identity is immediately condemned to be evil and assumed to be siding with the devil.
Why must humans feel guilty for their ambition? The Christian belief that equates ambition to evil and obedience to good comes into question when such belief only applies to certain individuals like Faustus, who is “born… base of stock” (Prologue 10). For example, those entitled to superior positions with political power, such as the Emperor and the Pope, are not subjected to the same Christian rules as commoners (like Faustus), as they are the ones who enforce and maintain these rules upon their subjects. Those who advance and benefit from Christian bureaucracy (Pope, King, aristocratic members of the court) do not follow the Christian doctrine of humility and piety dictated to the lower class members in the Christian social hierarchy. This lack of consistency hinders the validity and legitimacy of this Christian order. The Pope and the Emperor are certainly not models of Christian virtue, which those of the lower class can look up to with reverence. The Pope and the friars “[w]hose summum bonum is in belly cheer” are ridiculed by Faustus and Mephistopheles, as they covet their meat and wine to the point that they become a parody of themselves (3.1.52). Faustus’s similarity to Envy, Gluttony, and Lechery is more prevalent in the Pope and the friars’ ridiculous antics as they gorge on their feast. Moreover, what allows Faustus to gain eminence through magic may be Mephistopheles’ power, yet the source which amplifies his fame is the Emperor’s interest in his magical performance. The Emperor acknowledges that Faustus’s magic is “black art,” yet by the end of Faustus’ conjuring act, the Emperor becomes a fan of Faustus, expressing that Faustus will receive a “bounteous reward” (4.1.2, 95). Humans are attracted to mysticism and magic rather than raw facts and knowledge. As shown in the Emperor’s reaction to Faustus and Faustus’s reaction to Mephistopheles, mysticism clouds judgment and incites carnal, instinctual excitement.
When Faustus was a mere scholar who gained acknowledgement in academia using just means of hard work and honest scholarly endeavours, without using demonic or supernatural powers, Faustus remains anonymous to the larger society. What allows him to gain interest and fame among political powers and upper-class members of the royal court is the magical grandeur produced by Mephistopheles; Faustus acts merely as a puppet of the demon. As mentioned in the seminar paper, Faustus seems to reject his original scholastic field in law and theology, but those in the ruling class, such as the Emperor, reinforce such a society where cheating (misusing/feigning demonic magical power as one’s own) beats fair labour. When Faustus doubts the existence of hell, Mephistopheles answers how he is “an instance to prove the contrary, / For [he is] damned and am now in hell” (2.1.132–133). Perhaps the uncertainty and vulnerability humans feel from the deferral of eternal joy in heaven and fear of hell can be deemed as farcical if hell already pertains in the earthly realm. If humankind is already damned in hell with no escape from the present moment, Faustus’ choice to reach the apex of this life through Mephistopheles’ magic is fairly justifiable. Faustus’ obsession with magic to further his knowledge is perhaps a reflection of Marlowe’s desire to transcend the strict moral binary enforced by the Christian doctrine that forces its subjects to know and keep their place.
The desire for everlasting life in heaven may deny us from being eternally remembered in the earthly life. Humility and piety may drive us to be forgotten in insignificance of history. I end this response with a series of questions that arose when interacting with the seminar paper and Marlowe’s original text. Must human die in obscurity? Will God also judge the Emperor and the Pope, with the same moral standard as he judged Faustus? Or is God merely an avatar for the Popes and Kings who needed a supernatural entity to control the helpless masses?