What If Anything Is Moral in Doctor Faustus

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What, if anything is “moral” about Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus, is a play by Christopher Marlowe first published in 1604. Faustus is a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in order to learn black magic and acquire power. Whilst assessing whether there is anything “moral” about the play, we must establish the texts form as a morality play rather than its common assertion as a tragedy. WHY? It seems that Faustus rejects some parts of the Medieval Morality play, but shows its influence through Marlowe’s use of a didactic message to encourage Christian values. In doing this not only is a Christian moral suggested, but also an underlying warning against Renaissance thought. Renaissance thought being that which strayed away from the spiritual and Godly, towards a more scientific approach.

In the prologue, the chorus tell us that the play is about Faustus, who was born of lower class. Immediately this is a departure away from the medieval tradition as Faustus is not a king or saint, yet his story is still worth telling. During the opening the chorus- a traditional motif in morality plays, give our first clue to the source of Faustus's downfall- knowledge and pride. His wisdom and abilities are introduced, most notably in the academic domain, in which he excels. Faustus's tale is then likened to that of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death. Referring to a story that the audience would have known well, brings our attention to the idea of hubris-excessive pride. The fact that hubris causes Icarus’ death suggests to the audience that this play will not end well and to take note of Faustus’ pride so that they do not end life the same way. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins, arguably the one that leads to all the others. Marlowe suggests through characterisation that hubris ultimately leads to damnation, constructing a firm Christian moral.

Doctor Faustus is based on the German legend of “Faust” who uses his power mainly for swinish purposes such as seducing a female. Marlowe’s text is more intellectualised with Faustus seeking to answer all questions. He sells his soul to the devil to gain ultimate knowledge. In doing this, Faustus wants to become godlike, and so he leaves behind the Christian conceptions of human limitations of learning. This excessive acquisition of knowledge suggests the conflict between Renaissance and Christian views that were present throughout the medieval period. Marlowe consequently creates a secondary moral against the Renaissance, criticising its movement away from spiritual or godly thought towards the scientific. It is interesting to note that in morality plays, all characters were abstractions, not concrete. Faustus however, is not an abstraction, but a real person with high ambitions. It can be suggested that Marlowe does this to further emphasise his secondary moral. Faustus as a human being could show that his own Renaissance way of thinking is a real concern, and that he represents part of humanity.

Faustus portrays a rejection of the Medieval, God centred universe and represents the Renaissance embrace of human possibility. He takes an interest in magic rather than science, but in the sixteenth century the distinction between these was not clear. It is also important to note that Renaissance figures such as Isaac Newton partook in astrology and alchemy well into the eighteenth century. Faustus imagines piling up with wealth from the four corners of the globe, reshaping the map of Europe and gaining access to every type of education. This particular interest reflects some of the areas developed during the Renaissance. Ptolemy’s geography was one of the ancient texts that were studied and revised during the latter half of the fifteenth century.

Marlowe symbolises Faustus’ secular spirit with Faustus explicitly rejecting all medieval authorities: Aristotle in logic, Galen in medicine, Justinian in law and the bible in religion. In this speech Faustus...
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