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The Dilemma of Dr. Faustus: The Medieval-Renaissance Conflict in Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragic History of Dr. Faustus

Faustus’ plight is likened to that of Icarus, a rebellious figure in Greek mythology for whom was fashioned a pair of wings, bound to his body only by wax. The gift from his father came with a warning: to avoid flying too close to the sun. Drunk with the power of flight, Icarus disobeys his father’s command, flies too high, and falls to his eternal demise. This comparison at the beginning of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragic History of Dr. Faustus portends a divergence from custom. Like Icarus, Dr. Faustus, having achieved a certain degree of knowledge, is said to be so swollen with conceit that he pursues not only knowledge but the ‘black arts.’ Hence, Dr. Faustus embarks on a rather short journey of life, deeply marked with conflict between medieval values and Renaissance ideals. Faustus’s unrelenting quest for knowledge flouts medieval thought. Indeed, many scholars see this particular Marlowe hero as a man of exceptional learning. In his Treatise, John Bakeless insists that he has “mastered all the traditional ‘four faculties’ of the early universities, any one of which was a lifework for anybody except the hero of a Marlowe play.” Bakeless concludes that because legitimate means of learning could not satiate Faustus’ curiosity, he turned instead to “the black arts” (qtd. in Cullen 6). Faustus seems to confirm this when he says, “’Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me” (1.1.109). Magic in Faustus’ time, however, could mean anything that the commoner could not understand. The pursuit of learning outside the traditional trades and crafts was not a necessity in the medieval world. This pursuit was exclusively available to the clergy and the aristocracy, as exposure of the commoner to knowledge, say, developments in science and the dogmas of the Church at the same time, risks the danger of inquiry into inconsistencies between the two. As a result, not only did the medieval Catholic Church fail to educate its flock on the Bible and the skills of reading and writing; it also had monopoly over which scientific theories could be considered acceptable and non-heretical.

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Moreover, medieval thought categorizes excessive knowledge as unholy for anyone—noble, commoner or clergy--to wield. A mind that dabbled with lesser known crafts or uncommon intellectual pursuits could then be easily suspected of sorcery or witchcraft. In Faustus, this conflict is manifested in several passages, but particularly in the exchange between the Good Angel and the Evil Angel. On one hand, the Good Angel, representing Faustus’ medieval inclinations, draws him toward the old values of medieval times, saying: "O Faustus, lay that damned book aside/ And gaze not on it lest it tempt thy soul/ And heap God's heavy wrath upon thy head!/ Read, read the Scriptures - that is blasphemy!" ( 1.1.67-69 ). The Good Angel’s attitudes toward books reflect the medieval resistance against enlightenment. The description of the books themselves-“damned” tools of temptation that will bring “God's heavy wrath”--reflects the strength of that resistance. That books are a “blasphemy” points to the medieval mindset that too much knowledge possessed by one person is suspicious and is likely to be considered an affront against God. On the other hand, the Evil Angel fuels Faustus’ thirst for knowledge, saying, “Go forward, Faustus, in that famous art/ Wherein all nature’s treasure is contained” (1.1.73-74). Some scholars, however, disagree that Faustus embodies the Renaissance man. Of Faustus, J. Cullen states: “His words and actions show that his tragedy results from culpable ignorance, and not from any superior attainments that set him at odds with conventional thinkers” (Dr. Faustus and Renaissance Learning 9). According to Cullen, the ethical application of knowledge as a guiding principle for faith and daily life is one of the measures of a Renaissance man, a criterion which Faustus fails to fulfill (9). The Good Angel’s portrayal as Faustus’ key to salvation reveals the theme of redemption and sin. This presents the opportunity for the discussion of values, traditions, and concepts promoted by the Christian Church, which the medieval commoner held in high regard. Faustus, however, in reaching for the rewards of knowledge, chooses to break away from the bonds of morality and seemingly meaningless ritual espoused by the Church, saying, Divinity, adieu! These necromantic books are heavenly, Lines, circles, scenes, letters and characters: Aye, these are those that Faustus most desires. Oh, what a world of profit and delight, Of power, of honor, of omnipotence, Is promised to the studious artisan. (1.1.48-54) In the same passage, Faustus anticipates the rewards of such liberation: self-gain, glory, riches and power. The Evil Angel reinforces this, encouraging Faustus to explore knowledge beyond Church-sanctioned limits. It also dangles the reward of power, saying, “Be thou on earth as

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Jove is in the sky/ Lord and commander of these elements”; when Faustus contemplates some medieval values as a means to salvation--contrition, prayer, repentance--which the Good Angel says are “means to bring thee to heaven” (1.5.17), the Evil Angel quickly dismisses these as “illusions, fruits of lunacy” (1.5.18). Faustus also attacks, in a dismissive manner, one institution the Catholic Church promotes: the sacrament of marriage. When Faustus asks Mephistophilis for a wife, he waves the request aside, saying, “Marriage is but a ceremonial toy” (1.5.147). Helen of Troy, one of Faustus’ last requests, represents an end to medieval morals. Upon seeing Helen, Faustus wonders, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/ And burnt the topless towers of Illium? / Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss./ Her kiss suck forth my soul. See where it flies!" (5.1.95-99). Hailed the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen is a fitting object of Faustus’ want, representing carnal desire and worldliness. Faustus critiques and resents the church institution in its characterization of its bishops. At the beginning of the play, Faustus dismisses the first evil spirit he summons, saying, I charge thee to return and change thy shape Thou art too ugly to attend on me. Go, and return an old Franciscan friar? That holy shape becomes a devil best. (1.2.22-25) The portrayal of Pope Adrian typifies the excesses and human vices of the church. After the Pope releases Bruno into the hands of the Faustus and Mephistophilis (then in the guise of two cardinals), he says, “ Go presently, and bring a banquet forth/ That we may solemnize Saint Peter’s feast/ And with Lord Raymond, King of Hungary,/ Drink to our late and happy victory” (3.2.200-203). Marlowe’s Faustus challenges the medieval concept of hell. In medieval times, hell is nothing but a terrible place of punishment, lowest in hierarchy after heaven and earth. While Faustus, during his last moments on earth, sees hell as a fiery place for the eternal torture of souls, Mephistophilis offers a different definition. Much earlier in the story, when Faustus asks Mephistophilis why he is out of hell, the devil replies, Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it. Thinks’t thou that I that 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? (1.2.75-79)

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This presents a crucial shift from a physical description of the tortures of hell, for which the Church’s human congregation can find equivalents in its own physical existence, to the comparative, psychoemotional threat of being deprived of the joys of heaven, which the same human persons have not experienced. While hell continues to be perceived by some as a physical place of damnation, Faustus, at the time of its publication, brought forth a notion of hell that deviated from the medieval perspective. The intensity of the conflict between Renaissance ideals and medieval values manifests in the many occasions that Faustus’ resolve seems to falter after he has already sold his soul to Lucifer. The “powerful intensity of the action” is maintained in “the inclination of Faustus to despair of God’s mercy” (Cullen 6). In the beginning of Scene V, Faustus holds a conversation with himself, saying at first, “Now Faustus, must thou needs be damned?/ And canst thou not be saved?” (1.5.59-60). A few lines later, he turns around, saying, “Despair in God and trust in Belzebub./ Now go not backward. No, Faustus, be resolute” (1.5.63-64). Earlier, he betrays his apprehensions, when—ironically--his use of instruments of astronomy to view the heavens causes him to declare, “When I behold the heavens then I repent./ And curse thee, wicked Mephistophilis,/ Because thou hast deprived me of those joys” (2.1.1-3). Later in the same scene, he pleads, “Ah, Christ my savior,/ Seek to save distressed Faustus’ soul” (2.1.81-82). Throughout the play, Faustus would occasionally make small outbursts that belie the fears and anxiety resulting from some deep, repressed appreciation of the enormity of his actions. It is interesting to note that, although Faustus is drawn away from medieval values by the devils Mephistophilis, Lucifer and Belzebub, they present him with the delights of the seven deadly sins, which are in themselves Catholic Christian concepts. The extent of the representation of the conflict between the medieval and the Renaissance in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is debatable, partly because whether or not Faustus was indeed a Renaissance man or remained medieval while pretending otherwise remains in question. However, there is some agreement that a conflict indeed exists--in Faustus’ pursuit of knowledge beyond what is deemed acceptable by medieval society and in his the criticism of the doctrines and hierarchies of the church. The accuracy and degree of representation of the conflict may be disputed, but its mere existence ensures Dr. Faustus’ place in literature and history, as a reflection of man’s choice between the conventional and the radical, the orthodox and the heretical, between blind faith and thoughtful skepticism.

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Works Cited Cullen, Joseph. “Dr. Faustus and Renaissance Learning.” The Modern Language Review 51.1 (1956): 501-517. 23 November 2010 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3718255>. Damrosch, David et. al. Masters of British Literature Volume A: The Middle Ages, The Early Modern Period, and the Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.

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