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Dr Faustus Tragic Hero Essay

'Dr. Faustus is a morality play without a moral.' Discuss.

In forming an answer to this question there are two aspects which must be considered. Firstly we must decide whether Dr Faustus is a morality play; I will do this by discussing the play's form, content and subject matter in an attempt to categorise the play. I will also offer an alternative argument by saying that the play is in fact a tragedy. Secondly we must decide whether or not it has a moral; to do this I will consider the tone of certain parts of the play, in particular the Chorus' speeches as well as the speech of other characters.

Let us first deal with the categorisation of the play. To determine if Dr Faustus is a morality play or not we must first know what a morality play is. Morality plays are essentially dramatised sermons usually based on the subject of repentance; typically an Everyman figure will begin in innocence, be led into temptation by others, to be finally redeemed. In Dr Faustus Marlowe uses the structure of the morality play intensively, most noticeably in the characters he uses as many of them are representations of type rather than being individuals. For example, the characters of Valdes and Cornelius are known as 'the tempters', thus fitting the morality definition as the characters who tempt the main character into sin (although they are not alone in this ). The Good and Bad Angels can also be seen as morality play characters, although this depends on whether or not we see them as real characters from another world or as externalisations of Faustus' own thoughts and conscience. There is nothing in the text which precisely determines which view is correct. However Faustus' speech in Act II scene i, implies they are externalisations of his conscience;

Why waver'st thou? O something soundeth in mine ear,
'Abjure this magic, turn to God again.'
Ay, and Faustus will turn to God again.
To God? He loves thee not. (II.ii.7-10)

The struggle that Faustus is voicing here is identical to the arguments typical of the Good and Bad Angels. It is significant that immediately after this struggle of conscience the Good and Bad angels enter, as they do when Faustus seems in most trouble or is doubting his decision. This indicates that they are in fact externalisations of Faustus' conscience and therefore not really part of the morality play structure. There is also ambiguity concerning Mephistopheles and the other Devils. Although the lesser devils who appear, such as Banio and Belcher and to a certain extent Lucifer, can be seen as representational, Mephistopheles certainly seems to be more of an individual. We see more of him in comparison with the other Devils because he is Faustus' companion; by consequence we learn something of his character. His speech about the joys of heaven is highly passionate and makes Mephistopheles appear somehow more real,

Think'st thou that I who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss? (I.iii.74-77)

However, as this is the only time Mephistopheles speaks so rapturously about heaven, it would seem these were his true thoughts, yet he manages to control them throughout the rest of the play in order to obtain Faustus' soul. Despite this though even Mephistopheles can be seen as an aspect of the morality play as he tempts the protagonist into sin and subsequent damnation. As he himself admits,

Twas I, that when thou wert I' the way heaven
Damned up thy passage. (V.ii.92-93)

This speech from Mephistopheles can be used as further evidence of the morality aspects in Dr Faustus as it shows that Faustus was a man led into damnation, in fitting with the tradition of the morality plot. Again, though, there is ambiguity as Faustus is not merely an innocent victim, for example his view that 'necromantic books are heavenly' (I.i.46) and his obvious refusal to accept human limitations, both serve to contribute to his damnation.

The comic scenes in the play are another example of Marlowe's use of the morality structure. Bawdy comic scenes were a common aspect of morality plays, and the scenes in Dr Faustus which feature characters such as the Horse-Courser and the Hostess are typical of this low humour. For example, there is farcical humour when Faustus cons the Horse-Courser into riding the horse into the water, 'O what a cozening doctor was this! I riding my horse into the water, thinking some hidden mystery had been in the horse, I had nothing under me but a little straw and had much ado to escape drowning.' (IV.v.28-31)

The characters in these comic scenes are also an aspect of the morality play as, like the 'tempters', they are representations of a type. For example, we see the Hostess, a Servant and the Horse-Courser; these are obviously not individuals. The Seven Deadly Sins also provide some light entertainment for the audience, Faustus himself finds great pleasure in the display, 'O how this sight doth delight my soul!' (II.ii.164). The Seven Deadly Sins are typical of the Vice characters in morality plays.

However, although it is clear that there are several aspects of the morality play in Dr Faustus there is also much evidence to support the argument that it should be seen as a tragedy rather than a morality play. It is worth noting that the full title of the play actually contains a reference to tragedy, implying that Marlowe himself saw the play as such. Faustus himself is not a character typical of a morality play and as he is the protagonist this should hold much weight. He is not a typical Everyman, but an aspiring renaissance man. He is very much an individual with extremely strong characteristics of his own, for example his arrogance, his pride and aspiring nature which all culrninate to play a part in the man's downfall. He is different to a typical Everyman because his character is seen to develop throughout the play. For example, we see a somewhat naive and immature Faustus in the comic scenes; the pranks played on the Pope and the minor characters. However, after these childish pranks we receive a sense of Faustus having matured and aged somewhat. For example when Faustus is telling the scholars of his fate, and they offer their help Faustus says, 'Talk not of me but save yourselves and depart.' (V.ii.75) This selfless comment is of great contrast to the Faustus of before who is greatly concerned with himself only. It also implies that he is more resigned to his fate than before and realises no-one can help him. This is reinforced a little later in the same scene when Faustus says, 'Ay, Faustus now thou hast no hope of heaven. Therefore despair!' (V.ii.86) Nevertheless it is this maturity in thought, the acceptance of his fate, which leads to his definite downfall as he despairs and cannot repent and look to God for salvation. Throughout the play the audience learns a great deal about Faustus as his character is discussed and developed, which would not be the case if Faustus were an Everyman character. It can be argued then that Faustus is a tragic hero, as he has a tragic flaw which leads to his downfall; his pride. The idea of Faustus as tragic hero is also developed in the fact that he falls from an elevated position. We know from Faustus' first speech that he is a man of great intelligence who has been highly successful. For example he has clearly been a successful doctor,

The end of physic is our body's health.
Why Faustus hast thou not attained that end?
Are not thy bills hung up as monuments
Whereby whole cities have escaped the plague. (I.i.16-19)

It is in this speech however that we also see the over-reaching nature of Faustus' character,

Could'st thou make men to live eternally
Or being dead raise them to life again,
Then this profession were to be esteemed. (I.i.22-24)

This shows the huge scope of Faustus' ambition, and the end of the speech shows the true super-human, almost God-like, nature of Faustus' aspirations,

All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command. (I.i.52-53)

Again this is also further evidence of the fact that Faustus is an individual character. If Faustus is a tragic hero then his tale must be a tragic one. Dr Faustus certainly fits into the definition of a tragedy as cited in The Oxford English Dictionary,

A play or other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character with a fatal or disastrous conclusion.

The moral of Dr Faustus would initially seem to be very simple; do not aspire to what humans cannot achieve and believe in the power of God over evil and the Devil. Mephistopheles himself gives a warning to Faustus about over-reaching when he tells of Lucifer's fall from heaven,

Faustus: How comes it then that he is prince of devils?
Mephistopheles: O, by aspiring pride and influence,
For which God threw him from the face of heaven. (I.iii.63-65)

Faustus' pride and arrogance, though, ensure that he ignores this warning.

The tone of both the opening and closing Choruses is moralising, as they both offer a warning about overreaching. The prologue initially appears not to be offering any judgement:

Only this gentles - we must now perform
The form of Faustus' fortunes, good or bad
And now to patient judgements we appeal (Prologue, 7-9)

However, the language used later in the prologue is clearly condemning of Faustus,

Till swoll'n with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach....
...For falling to a devilish exercise
And glutted now with learning's golden gifts (Prologue, 19-23)

Words like 'swoll'n' ,'glutted' ,and later, 'surfeits' and 'cursed' are clearly criticising Faustus' actions. The epilogue offers the audience a moral more clearly,

Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things. (Epilogue, 23-25)

In regards to a moral concerning God and repentance, it is the Old Man who is used to give the message. He appears late in the play, indicating at once that it is never too late to ask for God's forgiveness, obviously a moral in itself. Even as late in the play as Act V Scene i, when Faustus' damnation seems inevitable, the Old Man believes there is hope for Faustus,

I see an angel hover o'er thy head,
And with a vial full of precious grace
Offers to pour the same into thy soul:
Then call for mercy and avoid despair. (V.i.55-58)

This is directed towards Faustus but the audience may see the message as well; nevertheless, Faustus cannot adhere to the Old Man's advice, as the moral is lost on him once more.

By damning Faustus Marlowe makes it clear his moral failure is being unable to repent and having a lack of faith in God. In this way the play can be seen as a religious discussion commenting on what a lack of faith in God can do. This is reinforced by the strength of the Old Man and the devil's inability to harm him in the way Faustus has been harmed, 'His faith is great. I cannot touch his soul.' (V.i.81). Religious debate also comes into the play in the comic scenes concerning the Pope. There is a great deal of anti-clericalism in these scenes (an idea brought forward with the development of Protestantism), with the Pope portrayed as being gluttonous, foolish and generally un-Christian,

False prelates, for this hateful treachery
Cursed be your souls to hellish misery. (III.ii.53-54)

However, as stated by Wilson in Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare, in regards to Faustus' fate and religion there is no talk of predestination or whether Faustus was a member of the elect or reprobate, which again was an idea brought forward with the development of Protestantism, Calvinism in particular (Wilson, 1953). It is clear that Faustus' damnation is due to his own faults and the persuasions of other characters.

Although there are warnings and morals given throughout the play, it is questionable as to whether or not the audience would adhere to them as the play is very much concerned with Faustus' own fate and as he is so much an individual it would be difficult for an audience to really relate to him and his fate. It seems to me that the play is more the discussion of a tragic character and his tragic fate with lessons and morals being inevitably included. Faustus' final soliloquy makes it clear that the play is more concerned with one man's tragedy than offering a moral to the masses,

O Faustus
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live
And then thou must be damned perpetually.
Stand still, you ever moving spheres of heaven...
That Faustus may repent and save his soul. (V.ii.133-140)

The repetition of 'thou' and 'Faustus' in this extract make that clear. In this soliloquy we are taken through, what seems like minute by minute, the intimate thoughts in Faustus' mind as he faces his damnation. There are no morals to be found in this speech, other than to see the distress of Faustus' soul and learn from that. The subject matter of the play, a man signing a pact with the devil, is so obscure that it is difficult to find a suitable moral, although an Elizabethan audience would hold more belief and fear in the devil, as well as being much more concerned with the ideas of salvation and damnation, than an audience of today. It is an individual tragedy so there is no need for a moral and as Wilson again says, 'No moral can represent the experience which is given, but convention demanded a moral, and one was supplied.' (1953, p.48)

In conclusion then I think that Dr Faustus is a tragedy which uses aspects of the morality play, perhaps merely because of the style of the time or because it had the right form for what Marlowe wanted to say. Concerning the moral within the play, there is certainly one (at least) which is offered by several characters. However I do not believe the play was written with the sole intention of offering a moral and would be equally as strong without one. Despite the moral given and the aspects of the morality play structure the play remains, primarily, the tragedy of an individual.



Marlowe, Christopher Dr Faustus in ed. WB Worthen (1996) The Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama, 2nd edn., Texas: Harcourt Brace

Steane, J.B (1965) Marlowe Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wilson, F.P (1953) Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare Oxford: Clarendon Press

The Oxford English Dictionary (1989), Second edition, Volume xviii. Oxford: Clarendon Press

'Renaissance to Restoration' seminar and lecture notes

A-level class notes


Click here to see the tutor's comments on this essay

Doctor Faustus is the most famous play of Christopher Marlowe and this play alone has perhaps made that his name will be mortal in the history of English literature and English drama. This play shows that he was of high skilled as a playwright and he could write very good drama. It is a tragedy of Doctor Faustus that is the main point of this play.

Before moving on further, we should discuss about the definition of a tragic hero. A tragic hero is obviously a hero of a tragedy drama. However, this is not enough. Perhaps the first tragic hero in history of drama is Oedipus in ‘Oedipus Rex’ of Sophocles. There we could find that Oedipus in the end suffers tragic consequence but he was higher than ordinary people. This matter is very important. A hero of the tragedy should not be an ordinary man but should be some higher and extra ordinary. He is exceptional than other people.

From this point of view, perhaps we can say that Doctor Faustus is a good example of tragic hero. If we look at the opening scene then we will notice that he was unhappy because he grew tired of life. He was a scholar and he wanted new knowledge. He got all the knowledge but except black magic. He realized that he did not have all the knowledge and there was something missing. So, he sought the new knowledge and he was not afraid of it. He was also not afraid of anything a deal with Lucifer and Mephistopheles.

After Doctor Faustus could make a deal with Mephistopheles then he started to enjoy all the knowledge but the main problem is that instead of gaining more knowledge, he became hungry for power. He wanted to be the boss of everyone and he wanted that other obey him. This is the thing that ultimately leads him into the tragedy. This is the thing that perhaps also takes away the sympathy from the audience.

I think that the main problem of Doctor Faustus is that he was proud and he was greedy. Although, he was thirsty for knowledge but in his character, there was a mixture of knowledge and power both. He was not happy along with knowledge but he wanted to become the dominant person. That is why, I think that his tragic flow was pride and thirst. He was also very proud and not satisfied with the things he got. His pride makes him abnormal and this way he wanted to make a deal with the devil despite knowing after a certain period of time his soul will be captured and he will suffer eternal damnation. The last scene perhaps disappoints the audience because there we can find that Doctor Faustus hopeless and desperate. He wanted to get back his belief on god and Jesus Christ. He regretted a lot why he made the deal with Lucifer. He perhaps wanted another chance from god. It is clear that if he got another chance or opportunity from god then he would not waste it and he would denounced Lucifer and come back into the way of god.

I think that Doctor Faustus is a renaissance tragic hero. Like many other people in renaissance time, he had the desire to go beyond the limit of knowledge and religion. He also challenged religion but in the end he could not win over religion. The struggle between religion and the new class of educated people who were secular by nature is perhaps the main theme of renaissance. Thus, I think that Doctor Faustus was a renaissance tragic hero.

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