Christopher Marlowe – Doctor Faustus

marloweChristopher Marlowe  was the first of the English dramatists. He was one of the so-called “University Wits”, a group of writers and young graduated from Oxford and Cambridge who helped the development of English drama. He was an atheist and a rebel , impatient with conventions and authority. He was a secret agent of   Elizabeth’s secret service and worked on diplomatic missions. Marlowe had a controversial life and died at the age of 29, murdered during a quarrel in an inn. There are some voices about his death: someone said that he was in risk of life and he himself arranged his false death.  Many scholars give for sure that he had homosexual inclinations, but no evidence explicitly demonstrates it. This belief was based on the fact that   in Edward II, he  had defended the   gay king: “”The mightiest kings have had their minions; Great Alexander loved Hephaestion, The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept; And for Patrocles, stern Achilles drooped.”

His best works are his tragedies. Among them we have to remember Tamburlaine the Great, The Jew of Malta, and above all The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. These tragedies deal with the same theme: the will to power. For Tamburlaine it is the lust for power and the power of an earthy crown; for Barabbas, the hero of The Jew of Malta, it is the power of wealth and money; for Doctor Faustus it is the power of unbounded knowledge. The typical marlowian heroes aspire to rise themselves beyond all human limits, reaching the condition of the Superman. They are dominated by a  strong aspiration that will eventually destroy them.    Unlike Shakespeare’s characters, Marlowe’s ones are generally placed within a recognisable moral framework. These tragedies are all “one man play”, that is they focus upon one main character.

Doctor Faustus is considered his masterpiece. Marlowe took the idea from  a German book published anonymously and translated into English with the title of The Historie of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus . It talked of a magician  who had made a pact with the devil. Doctor Faustus deals with a scholar and a necromancer, Doctor Faustus, who sells his soul to the Devil in return for 24 years of supernatural powers and unbounded knowledge. He also wants to have access to the magic and thanks to it, he can lead  a life of pleasure and do whatever he likes. He regains  his youth and conquers  the beautiful Helen of Troy (actually a demon disguised as a woman). As time passes, he understands that it is all an illusion and realizes   the emptiness of his bargain. In the end he is still a man bound to die and his own reality is  damnation.

folder_558In the passage given below, Faustus’s last hour , we are at the moment when Faustus has to pay the price of his contract to the devil. It is the final scene:  the 24 years  of  limitless knowledge he had received   are going to end. It is eleven o’clock in the evening and the devil is coming within an hour to take what they had agreed: Faustus’s soul.

It is one of the most touching monologues in all the Elizabethan theatre.   Faustus is alone; he is a prey to terror, in despair  and fears the wrath of Gods. He tries a way out to escape his fate and implores God for mercy. The Faustus who is speaking here is the reverse of the proud scholar of the first part. The man who was a superman realizes he has been cheated by the Devil and is now desperately trying to become less than a man.   

[The clock strikes eleven.]

FAUSTUS: Ah, Faustus.                                                                                                                  

Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,

And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!

Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,

That time may cease, and midnight never come;

Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make

Perpetual day; or let this hour be but

A year, a month, a week, a natural day,

That Faustus may repent and save his soul!

O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,

The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.

O, I’ll leap up to my God!–Who pulls me down?–

See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!

One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!–

Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!

Yet will I call on him: O, spare me, Lucifer!–

Where is it now? tis gone: and see, where God

Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his ireful brows!

Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,

And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!

No, no!

Then will I headlong run into the earth:

Earth, gape! O, no, it will not harbour me!

You stars that reign’d at my nativity,

Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,

Now draw up Faustus, like a foggy mist,

Into the entrails of yon labouring clouds,

That, when you vomit forth into the air,

My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,

So that my soul may but ascend to heaven!

[The clock strikes the half-hour.]

Ah, half the hour is past! ’twill all be past anon.

O God,

If thou wilt not have mercy on my soul,

Yet for Christ’s sake, whose blood hath ransom’d me,

Impose some end to my incessant pain;

Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,

A hundred thousand, and at last be sav’d!

O, no end is limited to damned souls!

Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?

Or why is this immortal that thou hast?

Ah, Pythagoras’ metempsychosis, were that true,

This soul should fly from me, and I be chang’d

Unto some brutish beast! all beasts are happy,

For, when they die,

Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements;

But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell.

Curs’d be the parents that engender’d me!

No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer

That hath depriv’d thee of the joys of heaven.

[The clock strikes twelve.]

O, it strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air,

Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell!

[Thunder and lightning.]

O soul, be chang’d into little water-drops,

And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found!

[Enter Devils.]

My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!

Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!

Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!

I’ll burn my books!

The monologue starts with Faustus   synthesizing the situation. “ Ah , Faustus. Now hast thou but one bare hour to live, And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!”. As we can see, he does not  fear death but he fears to die without having the possibility to repent.   As when we are confused and in despair and we do not know what to do and think of  a safe way out and try irrational attempts, Faustus thinks of  solving the situation  asking the stars   to stop their run, thus avoiding the coming of midnight:” Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven, That time may cease, and midnight never come ”(according to the Ptolemaic system before Copernicus, the earth was at the centre of the universe and  stars and planets went round it). Then he has a second thought and asks the Sun to rise again and “make perpetual day” or  if it cannot stop its running, it may run slowly and prolong the night” O lente, lente currite noctis equi!”  ( quotation taken from Ovid’s Amores; Ovid thinks that when we are with our beloved, time runs quickly while we wish to prolong the night).

He soon realizes that it is a vain attempt: “The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike, the devil will come …  “.  What to do then? He has contrasting opposed thoughts: may he ask God or Lucifer? He may “ leap up to ….God” or ask Jesus Christ’s intervention, “See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament! One drop would save my soul, half a drop” ; he may   ask Lucifer to spare him, “O, spare me, Lucifer!”. But he soon realizes that it is impossible. He knows that God is angry with him and wishes  to “run into the earth” so that   mountains and hills may fall on him to hide him “from the heavy wrath of God” or   to turn into “a foggy mist …..so that my soul may but   ascend  to  Heaven” .

The clock strikes half past eleven in the night and he has not found a way out yet. He addresses   God again and implores him to “Impose some end to my incessant pain; Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years, a hundred thousand years and at last be saved”. But he soon loses heart again: “No end is limited to damned souls!”, and complaints about his human condition. He regrets not being a soulless creature:” Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?”. He also regrets that Pythagoras’ Metempsychosis is only a theory, because if it was not, he could be saved: “were that true, These soul should fly from me and I be chang’d unto some brutish beast” (Pythagoras was  a Greek philosopher and mathematician. He believed that he had inhabited bodies of earlier men and worked out a the theory of “Metempsychosis” according to which the human soul transmigrates, after death, into a soulless human living body ( reincarnation) or into the body of lower animals or even into a plant). When the clock strikes midnight ,he does a last desperate attempt to obtain mercy: “ I’ll burn my books”, he promises, that is he would renounce his magic practices….. but Lucifer comes to bear him to hell.

From the beginning we are conscious of the inexorable passing of time. Dramatic tension is increased by the clock striking the hours: eleven, eleven-thirty and twelve.  The final punishment reminds us of a typical medieval morality play: sin will be punished.

There is an analogy between Faustus and Lucifer: they both tried to rebel against God and they both were defeated and fell into the hell.

God is seen as   the God of justice and vengeance of the Old Testament, while Jesus Christ is seen as the Saviour of the New Testament.

Faustus may belong  to all times. He has been seen as a modern hero, a man in a spiritual crises and in contrast with himself.  His modernity is testified by the fascination he had on various dramatists who took up his myth: Goethe, Wilde and Thomas Mann.He has also got some characteristics of the medieval man: he believes in astrology  and gives the fault of his fall to the “stars that reigned” at his birth, “whose influence hath allotted death and hell”.  He may represent the new spirit of freedom that began with the Renaissance: a man who can decide his own destiny.

There is a theological element to discuss: Christian doctrine teaches that even a great sinner can save his soul from hell through an act of sincere repentance.  Then why doesn’t God save him? I agree with those people who maintain that Faustus’s repentance is not true and that he is forced to ask for mercy by the situation he was in.  Offering to burn his books to save his soul is a last desperate attempt because he still believes in magic. He only tries to make another pact with God as he had done with the devil: if you save me, I will drop   magic. Then there is no sincere repentance.

I feel pity on the poor   Faustus. He is only a man who has been deceived by the devil. How many men, greater than he, have fallen under Satan’s temptations? So many! Even Christ was about to fall  when he was tempted by the devil in the desert: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”. Jesus saved himself from temptation because, being God’s son,   he was endowed   with a strong spirit. Faustus, instead, is only a poor man with a weak flesh. I would certainly have saved him.

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About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Christopher Marlowe – Doctor Faustus

  1. teawordsgoats says:

    Thank you for those interesting articles !

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