Prof. J. Schaaf
18 September 2013
Dr. Faustus – A Renaissance Play
Defined as a “rebirth”, Renaissance literature remains true to its name throughout the texts developed during this tumultuous period of history often by focusing on the re-invention of the self, as well as abolishing the old and welcoming the new. Specifically in the Tragical History of Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, the playwright incorporates greater themes of religion, politics, and philosophy in an expertly crafted piece. In addition to its greater historical and cultural contexts, the depiction of the protagonist’s individual struggle examined many elements of the human psyche throughout the play, all while tracing a common moral throughout the work.
Concerning the philosophical perspective of the work, the text explores the notion of free agency and its costs. Free agency is defined in the dictionary as a person who is self-determining and not responsible for his or her actions to any authority. In the play, the main character, Dr. Faustus, decides to sell his soul to the devil – represented by the character named Mephastophilis. The Devil is the “authority” in the play, because giving up his freedom to him, Faustus would have to pay the “costs” and, in turn, reap the “benefits”. Not for no reason, there was a very attractive promise to put Dr. Faustus in a state of power if he stays loyal to Hell and the Devil. This power includes granting him wishes, giving him the ability to have the luxuries he pleases, and having access to any information he wants to know. It is described in the play as Faustus saying, “Say he surrenders up to him his soul…/Letting him live in all voluptuousness/To give me whatsoever I shall ask/To tell me whatsoever I demand…/And always be obedient to my will,” (Marlowe 1.4 1136). This contemplation was Faustus weighting the benefits of permanently handing over his mind, body, and soul to the Devil. Also, the doctor had specific ambitions, as mentioned, to be in a position of great control. Determining that he would “By him be [the] great emperor of the world,” Faustus deemed it justifiable to make this deal with the Devil, signing his name in blood (1137). The philosophy of the play directly correlates with the moral throughout: people are free agents; thus, all humans are accountable for the good or bad choices they make at the time of their final judgment – death. The moral relates to the idea that those who act humbly, selflessly, and overall good on Earth will be rewarded for their benevolence after they pass, and the opposite pertains to those who do or choose evil.
Besides philosophy, there are some important historical mentions throughout the play, most of which focusing on biblical references. These can also be considered cultural references, because at the time Marlowe’s play was written, Catholicism was seen as straying away from the common Protestant beliefs of England – namely a forbidden practice. Like many writers of his time, Marlowe’s work captures some of the spirit of the Renaissance era by commenting on the troubles with authority, as mentioned within the text. In a supporting reading entitled “The Trial of King Charles I, The First Day” from The Moderate, No. 28, the king states, “I betray my trust and the liberties of the people…it is as great a sin to withstand lawful authority, as it is to submit to a tyrannical or otherways unlawful authority,” (Reporting the News 1838). In this particular excerpt, the text was referring to, historically, King Charles’ treason trial in 1649. This is relevant to Dr. Faustus because the reference describes his deal that he made to Mephastophilis, and refusal to turn to God for repentance. As a biblical reference, it is a Christian (namely Catholic) belief that no matter the sin, if one devotes themselves to God in all honesty, they will be granted entrance into Heaven and saved from a life of eternal damnation. In the play,...
Cited: Marlowe, Christopher. “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature 9th Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2012. Print.
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