Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Ambition and Failure in Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus"

Christopher Marlowe’s most famous play, Dr Faustus, relates the tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil. In exchange for his soul, Faustus is granted the service of one of Lucifer’s devils, Mephostophilis, for 24 years. After that time is up, Faustus is condemned to eternal damnation.

In the play’s first few scenes Faustus outlines his reasons for wanting these magical powers. He explains his desire to learn the intricacies of the world and the universe, requesting a book containing “all characters of planets of the heavens” and “all plants, herbs, and trees that grow upon the earth,” all of which Mephostophilis is able to provide. Faustus’s scholarly ambition seems to the audience to be admirable and even commendable, and the sincerity of these wishes is reinforced by the eloquence of his earlier soliloquies. However, he also seems to be perpetually concerned with the power and authority he can gain through his new magical pursuits; for instance, he says: “By him [Mephostophilis] I’ll be great emperor of the world…” Although the audience is somewhat inspired by his hopes to “make a bridge thorough the moving air…” and to “join the hills that bind the Afric shore,” his ambitious schemes are wholly motivated by a desire for power, and indeed he tells the audience: “And make that country [Afric] continent to Spain, / And both contributory to my crown…” Moreover, Faustus seems to revel in the authority of “that damned art” and says:

“Letting him [i.e. himself] live in all voluptuousness,
Having thee ever to attend on me,
To give me whatsoever I demand…”

Faustus appears to be driven to sign the contract by his egocentric and selfish wish for personal power.

Faustus’s horizons seem to narrow even more once he has been granted his magical powers. He suddenly loses all his ambition to change the world for the better and to obtain those things that he most desires. Instead, he turns to making practical jokes on the fools of the play, including the Clown [Robin], the Horse-courser, Carter, and Dick. He even goes so far as to free one of the Pope’s prisoners, resulting in two innocent cardinals being sent to the dungeon. Although these tricks are amusing for the audience, Faustus seems to be using what he calls his “wit” for entirely the wrong reasons. He puts his powers to a particularly unworthy ends in Scene XII when he produces horns on Benvolio’s head, motivated by nothing other than spite. Faustus uses his unlimited power for his own amusement and to deceive others, rather than to achieve any respectable end. His power has not turned him into a wicked and evil magician, but rather it has turned his great ambitions into petty amusements and delights.

Faustus also uses his powers to impress. We see him presenting the Duke and Duchess of Vanholt with “pleasant sights” that “so delighted” them. He is determined to receive their praise and says: “Madam, I will do more than this for your content.” He continues to call the two of them “your Grace” or “my good lord”, even though he is the most powerful man in the world. The audience is bemused; why is Faustus seeking the praise of lowly dukes and duchesses when he could be “great emperor of the world”? He has lost his vision entirely, and his unlimited power has rendered him utterly lost and confused as to what to do with it. Indeed, Lord Acton famously said: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We see this demonstrated early on in the play when Faustus orders Mephostophilis to fetch him a wife. After Mephostophilis has warned him against having a wife, Faustus changes his mind and says: “No, I’ll no wife.” He is entirely unsure of what he really wants with his powers, and therefore he is content with using them for unworthy ends. Moreover, the way in which Faustus refers to himself in the third person may suggest his own lack of power and autonomy. He is under the control of some other force, and this could explain his loss of ambition.

When Faustus summons “Sweet Helen” of Troy she is depicted sucking his soul from his body. In this way, Faustus is being tricked by his own art. This is reinforced by Mephostophilis when he says: “His store of pleasures must be sauc’d with pain.” Although Faustus has unlimited power, he can never escape the pact he made with the devil. His unlimited power has left him as nothing more than “a man condemned to die”. Because of his rejection of God and God’s salvation, and because of his hardened heart and unwillingness to repent, he is condemned to mediocrity. He is lost in his unlimited power, and so his awe-inspiring plans become trivial games and a hunger for praise; Marlowe is suggesting that power takes away all vision and ambition. He seems to have wasted his magical gifts, and that is perhaps why we pity him at the end of the play. He knew what he was doing when he made the pact, and he is entirely to blame; however, the audience can’t help sympathising with Faustus. Despite his selfish motivations and spiteful tricks, the audience still likes him. Perhaps it is because he never became “great emperor of the world” that we sympathise with him. It is because his time runs out so fast, and because he never really achieves anything, that we pity him in his eternal damnation.

Faustus is “born of parents base of stock”. Could Marlowe’s play be a warning to the middle-classes about the advancement of commoners through education? Many people believe that the play is simply suggesting that those of humble beginnings have no right to have such power and ask such questions, and they suggest that this is the reason for Faustus’s inevitable downfall. Was Marlowe trying to praise his superiors by implying that such power only belongs to them?

No comments:

Post a Comment