Christopher Marlowe uses Christian and Classical allegory in his morality play The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus to convey the message of a tragic downfall by excessive pride and overreaching one’s goal. The protagonist Dr. Faustus is an example of a doomed fool and not a tragic hero as he fails to evoke emotional response with the readers because of his absurd actions giving up to evil and initially reading only selective biblical verses that shaped his understanding of theology and failure to repent when given many chances even after selling his soul to Lucifer.
In this essay, I will explore elements of Icarus, the Seven Deadly Sins particularly pride, the old man, and bible shown throughout the Marlowe’s play to discuss their significance to Faustus’s pride which is his flaw and what meaning does it add to the overall narrative.
Marlowe implies the classical Greek myth of Icarus in the prologue as a symbol for excessive pride and presumptions. “His waxen wings did mount above his reach” (Prologue 21-22). The chorus hints Icarus and compares him to Faustus; that he will fly too high, foreshadowing his downfall from the beginning of the play, giving up the whole story leaving no “elements of surprise” for the readers to know what is going to happen in the play (Budra 1). Icarus ignored his father’s advice to not fly too close to the sun because his waxed wings will melt.
Faustus On the other hand also ignoring warnings from the good angel, wants to exceed the limitation of normal human knowledge and powers, which he does by obtaining dark powers from Lucifer in exchange for his soul. Arguably Icarus does the same by flying too high, making him long for “unattainable” abilities. Both of their downfalls were led by their hubris trying to overreach their goals. The comparison helps the readers better understand Faustus desire for powers and connects the figures together from the start, setting the pride and greed theme to it but not necessarily feeling pity or empathy because the characters led to their own misfortunes.
Lucifer and Belzebub distract Faustus with a parade of the seven deadly sins in order not to repent, the sins come out as humans but they are acted out by Faustus throughout the play. Pride is the first sin introduced, “I am pride. I disdain to have any parents.” (2.1.108). Pride doesn’t acknowledge his parents because he believes no authority above him (Budra 2). Also perhaps to resemble Faustus parents being “normal” and Faustus helped himself reach his title.
Pride being introduced first in the parade is significant because it perhaps is the start of all sins, similarly for Lucifer for being a castaway from heaven because of his vanity, and also it is the main vice Faustus commits throughout the play, failing to repent believing that his sin is too big to be forgiven by god. Ironically his ego doesn’t let him see his own pride and mistakes, he attempts to commit the sins during the play, for instance greed for unattainable powers, wrath towards Benvolio when he made horns appear on his head, and his lust towards Helen in the end that he chose instead of repenting when given the last chance. The personification of the Christian allegory creates depth in the vices and makes them visible to Faustus in different shapes yet he doesn’t recognize his own sins which he should and take it as a serious warning to repent.
The old man appear shortly in the end of the play to convince Faustus to repent; he is a symbol for faith and salvation, ultimately Jesus Christ because of the epic hero and “savior” attributes, confirming Faustus that he still have time to repent nonetheless what the devils have told him (Budra 3). Unlike the good or bad angel, the old man is a character and not Faustus conscience, which gives some assertion and hope to Faustus. Faustus actually starts repenting but is interrupted by Mephostophilis and rejoins evil.
Faustus pride takes in charge and orders Mephostophilis to torment the old man for making him repent but Mephostophilis replies “his faith is great: I cannot touch his soul./ But what I may afflict his body with / I will attempt, which is but little worth.”( 5.1.82-84). Mephostophilis may not touch the old man’ soul because of his strong faith but can only hurt him physically; it doesn’t seem to matter because the soul is more important than the body, which is what Faustus must also realize that spiritual pain is far beyond physical pain (Budra 3). I believe that Marlowe chose an old character instead of a younger one because age is a symbol for maturity and rationality. The old man may also be an epic hero because he comes with good attributes in time where Faustus is vulnerable. Faustus makes it harder for him to repent and keeps his pride higher than his surroundings, leaving readers to feel displeasure with Faustus continuous ignorance.
A quality of the tragic hero is to evoke pity, fear or empathy. It seems difficult to do so with Faustus foolish ignorance not trying to regain his soul back when given the chance and initially reading selected quotations from the Epistle to the Romans. “The reward of sin is death” (1.1.40), the verse claims man is inevitable to sin, and the consequences to sin is death; but misses the rest of the line which suggests one may to repent to Jesus Christ at anytime, and salvation then becomes possible (Budra 1). With all the knowledge and intellectual abilities Faustus possess, he misreads the New Testament or perhaps skips the line unintentionally, just like how he easily finds loopholes and shifts from studying one discipline to another. One could also argue that Mephostophilis seems to be “controlling” all along, by slowly drifting him into necromancy because of his pride and wanting more out of human powers, where “magic” seems to be working and omnipotent in a way (Budra 2).
Because of his pride, Faustus doesn’t seem to try to put his own mark in the sciences; instead he gets bored quickly and shifts fields. A silly mistake nonetheless, his experiences with theology pushes him into selling his soul and make believe that his sin is too great to be forgiven. Although Faustus understands his own doom but still refuses to repent when given the chances, making him a fool rather than a tragic hero yet he does posses a tragic flaw. The bible is an important symbol for being the book of Christianity which Faustus unsuccessfully reads only selective parts of it that shaped his fault understanding of faith.
Faustus pride comes from his scholarly accolades which deludes him into believing that he could manipulate fallen angels and makes him negate the fact that he is a human being, prone to earthly desires such as lust, gluttony and wrath. Marlowe uses different forms of literary tools such as allegory and symbolism to set elements of pride and greed such Icarus allusion. The sins on the other hand is a warning that all individuals are humans prone for earthly desires.
Christian moral story to learn from Marlowe’s play is that one may repent anytime nonetheless how bad it is, thus the old man coming in the end of the play. Faustus can be considered as an everyday man, while temptation of luxury and forbidden powers can be any other forms of temptation for humans. Faustus is a doomed Fool for misreading the bible, not taking the warnings of hell seriously and knowing that god exists; he still persists on selling his soul and not pursue goodness.
He focused on limited knowledge provided by Mephostophilis and doesn’t come in terms with his Hubris, which he doesn’t realize and eventually leads him to his downfall. Even though Faustus is scholar, he fails to seize the chances to regain his soul back through repentance by the many chances given to him during the twenty-four years; there are no possible actions to free Faustus’s soul from the devil other than him repenting or Lucifer destroying the contract.
Budra, Paul. “Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.” English 203 Seminars. Simon Fraser University. Vancouver. 13 Jan. 2016. Seminar
Budra, Paul. “Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.” English 203 Seminars. Simon Fraser University. Vancouver. 18 Jan. 2016. Seminar
Budra, Paul. “Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.” English 203 Seminars. Simon Fraser University. Vancouver. 20 Jan. 2016. Seminar
Marlowe, Christopher. “The Tragical history of Dr. Faustus.” The Longman Anthology: New York: Pearson, 2010. Page 1110 – 1160. Print.
The Holy Bible New International Version. Australia: International Bible Society, 2007. Print.