Doctor Faustus as a Tragedy
Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus is commended universally as a masterly specimen of the English tragedy. The play marks a clash between the values of the medieval world and the emerging humanism in Renaissance. The play is found to evoke a unique interest even among the modern plays for its dramatic quality.
The materials of Doctor Faustus belong to the German legend of Doctor Faustus or Faust. But Marlowe turns the rough materials of the crude story of a vulgar enchanter of the legend into a poetic tragedy of a great, though erring, soul. In his dramatic treatment and poetic imagination, in his conceptions of the dramatic motive, the sheer genius of Marlowe’s creative mind is all clearly expressive. The great German master Goethe pays an eloquent compliment to the play in his observation –
“How greatly is it all planned”.
Goethe has condensed into a brief phrase what is so great and unique in Marlowe’s play. He has suggested here, with conspicuous clarity, the remarkable qualities of Marlowe’s play. The implication is no doubt an involuntary praise of the play as a great and effective tragedy.
Doctor Faustus in Goethe’s commendation, is a great tragedy, of course a great Romantic tragedy. Tragedy, in the Aristotelian concept, is the mimesis of a serious action, complete in itself and of a certain limited length, with the cathartic effect to have the purgation of the spontaneous feeling of pity and fear.
This traditional definition of tragedy is perfectly applicable to Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus which represents the serious fate of a fascinating figure. Doctor Faustus, Marlowe’s hero, is no vulgar and greedy enchanter of the German story. The play is concerned with his high ambition, unfortunate hamartia and poignant end. Indeed, Marlowe’s tragic theme in Doctor Faustus is brilliant and this is made particularly so by the presentation of the deep conflict in the hero’s soul.
The play does not represent merely the evil nature of a man who is a poor victim of the devil, but well exhibits the conflict between good and evil in the soul of a talented personality. Faustus’s submission to the devil, his dangerous temptation to enjoy the power of necromancy, his frantic attempt to have pleasure, knowledge and authority and his pitiful repentance are all framed in a unique manner to create a great tragedy out of some loose, detached facts of the German story.
Again Marlowe’s conception of the tragic character in Faustus is also unique. His hero, as stated already, is not a vulgar and greedy enchanter of the German legend. He is a mighty personality, a captivating character and possesses a certain amount of fineness, just as conceived by Aristotle in his description of the tragic character.
Of course, Faustus, like other tragic characters, suffers from the hamartia which is the cause of his downfall and doom. He is tempted, just like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, by that which is unholy, but like Macbeth, he bears in him a strong element of tragic grandeur and remains stirring and commendable even in his fall.
As a matter of fact, Marlowe’s conception of the character of his hero has a distinctive quality. He is not a man who has simply sold himself to the devil in lieu of material advancement. He is a man of science and knowledge, of poetic sensibility and imaginative capability. He remains fascinating even in his fall and rouses the profound admiration that a tragic hero gets for his unfortunate temptation and pitiful doom.
A tragic hero, as already indicated, is a fine character whose fall and suffering rouse at once involuntary pity and condemnation for him. There is the sense of admiration for his grandness and with this goes the sense of fear at his unfortunate fall under the heavy impact of certain forces or inner weaknesses. This may justly be said about Marlowe’s lasts whose fall is a thrilling account of the sad loss of a fine spirit. His last words are impelled with the truly tragic touch and brings out the deep pathos in the unfortunate failing of a great and mis-directed soul:
“My God! my God, look not so fierce on me!
Adders and Serpents, let me breath a while!
Ugly hell, gape not come not Lucifer !
I’ll burn my books! Ah, Mephistopheles !”
The intensity of a tragic theme is particularly achieved by means of the conflict, external as well as internal. In fact, no great tragedy is possible without an intense conflict, and it is the intense internal conflict that makes the tragic effect more penetrative and even universal. Marlowe’s other remarkable play Edward II has external conflicts, but Doctor Faustus is specifically noticeable for the inner conflict it demonstrates. As a fact, the play well exhibits the conflict in Faustus’s inner cell between the good angel and the evil. Faustus’ submission to the devil, his desperate effort to enjoy the pleasure and the knowledge of life and the dictate of his conscience and his pitiful repentance are well balanced to intensify the tragic impact.
Moreover, there is another quality of Marlowe’s play as a tragedy. This is the unique charm of his poetry. His materials are, no doubt, borrowed from different sources, but his poetry is his own, which no German story would ever attain. Indeed, the play abounds in Marlowe’s rich poetic imagination and sensibility. The description of Helen (Act V, Sc. i) is one of Marlowe’s many passages of poetic sensuousness and imagination. Doctor Faustus, a characteristic Marlovian hero, is essentially a poet, and his poetry is expressed all through his speeches. This has added to the attractiveness of his tragic character as well as the tragic theme of the play.
Faustus gets himself in so deep, his tragic flaw or error in judgment is so egregious that it leads ultimately and necessarily to his death, thus fulfilling the fate of an Elizabethan tragic hero.
Doctor Faustus is a great tragedy. The borrowed materials from the German tale, under the spell of the Marlovian tragic art is transformed to the rich ores for the exciting and impulsive theme of a great tragedy.