Friday, June 24, 2011

Optional Play: Doctor Faustus

This play is twisted…and also kind of sad. But more twisted than anything else. Bottom line: the play is about a man’s decision to sell his soul to the devil for a slightly better life here on earth and the natural consequence that comes from such a decision. Devils (yes, plural) show up; the seven deadly sins make an appearance; there is a good angel, but unfortunately everything he says is always immediately refuted by the bad angel. Because of Dr. Faustus’ desire for knowledge and his own personal demon helper, the play ends the only way it can. And the reader can’t make any mistake about it – Faustus did it to himself.


While the play is often referred to as simply Dr. Faustus, the full title is The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. And it is indeed quite tragic. Probably what makes it so tragic is not necessarily the fact the Faustus sold his soul to the devil for talents and knowledge that he eventually wasted (although that is sad), what makes it worse is the multiple opportunities he has to repent and save himself and he neglected to do so. For some reason it reminds me of something Mr. Burns from The Simpsons said (yes I am going there):

Homer: Mr. Burns, you’re the richest man I know.
Burns: Yes, but I’d trade it all for a little more.

You get the idea (kind of)…Enough would have never been enough for this guy, even at the price of his own eternity. Anyway, my point is it is a tragedy.


Sin, Satanism, death, magic, the eternal battle between good and evil (show mostly through the presence of the good and evil angels that show up to offer their two cents) – all are prominent themed and motifs throughout the play. Also, the type of end that a life spent bound to the devil and separated from God can lead to.

I also like to put the character of Faustus in with other over-zealous literary figures such as Captain Ahab and Victor Frankenstein. All three men flouted all reason (and sometimes the advice of peers) and ruthlessly pursued activities and/or goals that would result in their demise. Much like Captain Ahab, who had already gone up against the white whale once and lost a leg, Faustus had the opportunity of turning back and saving himself, but he felt that he was too far gone to give up what he had started. And like Victor Frankenstein, Faustus is unsatisfied with the amount of scientific knowledge currently available to him and desires to know more than any human possibly could in their lifetime, so he does what he shouldn’t do, and decides to consult with Satan. Also, like Victor Frankenstein, it can be argued that had Faustus known what he was really getting into, he would not have entered into the deal in the first place.


Of course, there is immediately going to be a certain amount of controversy surrounding this play, for any time period, because of its themes of Satanism and deals with the devil. But what has caused critics and readers even more trouble is the Calvinist doctrine and the conflicting arguments as to whether or not Marlowe is supporting the ideas of predestination or challenging them. At the tie this play was performed, the idea of predestination was on the rise in England.

For Calvinists, Faustus would represent the absolute worst kind of sinner: one who knew of the heavenly offerings of a life submitted to Christ and rejected it in full knowledge that the complete opposite destination (hell) was the only other option. For Calvinists, Faustus’ fate was not only pre-determined but well deserved. Even though he was baptized earlier in life, he still did not receive salvation because it simply was not meant to be.

For the anti-Calvinists, Faustus simply exercised his free will and decided not to accept Christ’s salvation, but instead accepted Satan’s eternal damnation. They argue that, just like anyone else, Faustus was free to choose his own destiny, and he happened to choose poorly. For an anti-Calvinist, the idea that God would choose this fate for Faustus before he was even born is absolutely ghastly. But then I would also like to ask, who in their right mind would choose it for themselves?

There will be no entry next week as I will be on vacation in Chicago. The following week will most likely include a post on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. I also recently realized that I am running out of weeks before the big day. Fortunately I am also slowly running out of books, but there are still more of them than I have weeks. My solution? I’ll just have to double-up and post more than once a week. It’ll be somewhat painful, but fortunately I have already eliminated all of the monsters and have only short novels and poetry left. Viva life!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Optional Play: The Jew of Malta

This post will probably prove to be somewhat difficult for me since every play I read that was written earlier than the 20th century I end up relating to Shakespeare. Fortunately, that works out pretty well with Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta as it is considered to have been a major influence on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. However, while The Merchant of Venice is more of a tragic comedy, there is not much that is at all funny or humorous about The Jew of Malta.


My knee-jerk reaction is to call this a tragedy, because almost everyone, including our main character and anti-hero, is dead at the end. But can it really be called a tragedy when the anti-hero was an evil, vengeful, and manipulative old man who would not even think twice about (spoiler alert!) killing his own daughter? I would say no, but then, what would we call it? Oddly enough, Aristotle would have called this a tragedy simply because there is a happy ending, so there you go.


There is some serious religious conflict going on in this play. At the beginning, in order to pay off a debt to the Turks (who are Muslim), the Christian governor of Malta demands that the debt be paid exclusively by the country’s Jewish population. And because Barabas protested, he has all of his money and property taken as opposed to just a portion of it. When his daughter runs off to be a nun, he then proceeds to poison the entire nunnery, thus all of the nuns and not just his daughter because she became a Christian (and she did so as a reaction to him orchestrating the death of the man she loved). In the end, Barabas first plots with the Turks to take over the city, but as soon as he is named governor, be plots with the Christians to devise a trap to destroy the Turks. While the trap works, the Christians also manage to have Barabas killed as he falls victim to one of his own traps, and then they proceed take hold of the Turkish prince, thus winning the city back for themselves. All in all, while it is tempting to accuse the play of anti-semitism, really none of the religious groups come out holy and blameless.

Also a running theme of revenge, mostly on the side of Barabas, but not exclusively. He seeks revenge against the governor for the seizure of his money and property; against his daughter for her conversion to Christianity; and also against his former servant Ithamore who has turned against him for the love of a prostitute. Of course, his daughters conversion was done as revenge against him for killing the man she loved, and he is killed in the end at the hands of the Christian governor since he first plotted with the enemy Turks to have Malta taken over. And this running theme of revenge fits nicely with another theme of greed. This whole mess starts because Barabas has all of his money and property unfairly seized so that Malta can pay off the Turks without taking money from their Christian inhabitants. Ithamore also falls prey to greed as he is persuaded by his prostitute lover to continually request money from Barabas in exchange for keeping his crimes a secret. Everyone is manipulating someone at some point and while alliances and agreements are made, everyone is ultimately proved to be out for themselves. “There is none righteous, no, not even one.” – Romans 3:10.


As I mentioned before, it is believed this play was an influence for Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. At one point Barabas explains his acts of treachery as his attempt to follow the Christian example. Shylock makes a similar speech in The Merchant of Venice (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”) in which he states he is simply doing what any Christian man would do.

Barabas’ name also comes from the thief and murderer “Barabbas” of the New Testament who was released instead of Jesus Christ by Pontius Pilate at the insistence of the crowd.

There has been much debate as to how an Elizabethan audience would have viewed the depiction of Barabas the Jew. The play does leave itself open to accusation of anti-semitism, but as I mentioned before, the characters of other religions don’t necessarily come off as great examples of their faith either. Plus, there are rare (as in extremely rare) instances where the audience can see Barabas’ humanity. However, having him as the main character and the one doing the most scheming and plotting will leave an audience with mixed emotions about his character in relation to his religion.

Next time I will cover the play that led me to choose Christopher Marlowe, and that is The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. It is the classic tale of a man selling his soul to the devil for power no human should have, and the ultimate (and only) result that comes from a decision like that.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Required Work: Paradise Lost

This is it…this is the last “monster” that was left on my list. I had avoided it all this time but I finally had to face it. I much preferred attacking John Milton’s Paradise Lost at the beginning of summer instead of scrambling to finish it before school starts at the end. And I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. It is still not one of my favorite books and it won’t be one that I’ll read over and over again, but it wasn’t as difficult and tedious as I was expecting, even with my natural aversion to epic poems. The storyline was interesting enough to hold my attention through 400 pages, and not often did I feel like the language was weighing me down. Overall, I am glad I read it, but of course, still sad I couldn’t just enjoy it but now have to pick it apart and be able to discuss it.


Paradise Lost is for sure an epic poem in blank verse. It is a lengthy narrative poem that deals with the rather serious issue of the fall of man. A work such as Beowulf would be classified as a primary epic (although pinning that work down to any specific genre would be difficult, but it is most commonly seen as an epic), while Paradise Lost, which was written much later, would be known as a literary or secondary epic. And while many of the early epic poems were part of the early oral tradition, epics have been written down at least since the works of Virgil and Dante Alighieri.

Paradise Lost can also be viewed as Milton’s attempt at a Theodicy – a theological study that attempts to justify God’s intrinsic nature of benevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence despite the existence of evil. In Book I Milton states hi wish to “justify the ways of God to men.”


I suppose the most obvious theme would be that of rebellion against God and its consequences, as not only do Adam and Eve experience this firsthand, but the book starts off with the rebellion of Satan and his followers and what resulted from that. In both instances, the guilty were forced out of their respective paradises never to return.

Throughout the poem Milton incorporates Paganism, classical mythology, and of course, Christianity into the story. He also manages to tackle several difficult theological issues (predestination, the introduction of sin and death into the world, etc.) and even takes on the forever troubling relationship between God’s foresight and free will. Not exactly the most easily conveyed ideas, but somehow Milton makes it work while still telling a story.

Another theme, or at least a good point of discussion, is the relationship between Adam and Eve. In the beginning, before the fall, Milton presents their relationship as one of mutual dependence where neither person is dominant. Adam may be above Eve in intellect and in his relation to God, but Eve also gains knowledge through experience. And neither sees the roles as forced on them, but a requirement for the strength of their relationship. Of course, critics and readers will always end up going with either an Adam-centric or Eve-centric viewpoint, but Milton seems to portray them as pretty equal. They depend upon each other and use their differences to make the relationship work…until they sin against God…then they have a whole other mess to deal with.

Although this doesn’t really qualify as a theme, it is interesting the note the character of Satan as more of an anti-hero than just the “bad guy.” The story really isn’t about him, but he is a main driving force in the plot. Some critics see him as more of a sympathetic character, which is confusing sine Milton is attempting to justify God’s actions. Because of the sympathetic portrayal, critics have argued that Satan’s presence maybe serves as a criticism on the church of Milton’s time.


The poem was originally published in 1667 in ten books. A second edition was published in 1674 in 12 books (much like Virgil’s Aeneid) with minor revisions. Milton was blind when the poem was written so it was transcribed by his daughters.

In the 20th century a common interpretation of the work was that Milton was actually more sympathetic towards the devil than he was Adam and Eve. But other critics, such as C.S. Lewis, rejected this interpretation and argue that Paradise Lost simply represents the Biblical scripture on which it was based. Later, Satan starts to be seen less as a hero, and more as a character that starts out as a hero before eventually being reduced to a being that can’t even control his own body. At some point Satan becomes an anti-hero who doesn’t submit to authority and acts out of his own arrogance and delusion. Bottom line: the character of Satan has influenced many different arguments and viewpoints over time, and I am sure more will come up as long as this work remains part of the cannon.

Also, the amount of literary works which are critical of the church during Milton’s time adds to the belief that the sympathy the reader tends to feel towards Satan is Milton’s way of criticizing the church of Renaissance England.

Now, because I finished working on Paradise Lost a full two weeks ahead of schedule (yea!), I will go ahead and deal with the plays of Christopher Marlowe. After that, I hope to discuss the stories of Frederick Douglass and Harriett Jacobs.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Required Works: The Speeches of Queen Elizabeth I

This should be a relatively short post (I hope), as we won’t be dealing with any major works of literature. Instead, today’s post is on two famous speeches by Queen Elizabeth I of England: The “Speech to the Troops at Tillbury,” and the “Golden Speech.”


There isn’t much to say for this section as these are both speeches, and very persuasive ones at that. The “Speech to the Troops at Tillbury” was made to inspire courage and a sense of patriotism in the soldiers who were about to face an invasion by the Spanish Armada, while the “Golden Speech” was delivered to Members of the Commons regarding economic issues facing the country.


In her “Speech to the Troops at Tillbury,” from just the first few lines I can tell that the Queen was extremely careful in choosing her words to achieve the best affect that she was going for. From the outset she makes it perfectly clear that she trusts her people, and manages to separate herself from the image of a tyrant (whether there was fear that her people viewed her as such I am really not sure). She showed up to make the speech wearing a breastplate of armor over her dress, as if she truly was one of her soldiers. And to drive that image home, she asserts that she is more than ready to “live and die amongst you all.” She then addresses the fact that she is but a “week and feeble woman,” but she insists that she has the “heart and stomach of a king,” thus making her adequate for battle and to be a leader. I will point out though that in the last paragraph she makes sure to ever so slightly point out that her lieutenant general will “be in [her] stead” during the actual battle. Fortunately for England, none of this was even necessary as the Spanish Armada had already been defeated.

In the “Golden Speech,” Elizabeth addresses concerns over price-fixing and widespread resentment by first professing ignorance of any misdeeds, and then she wins the members of the House of Commons over with promises and an appeal to their emotions. Once again, Elizabeth chooses her words very carefully. She immediately absolves herself of any responsibility to any misconduct, and then goes on to profess her unending love and respect for her country, her position, and of course, the Members themselves. She repeatedly places any authority she has under God and continually remarks that she would only operate the way God would want her too. Hard to argue with someone who insists they only operate within the power of the Almighty.


As mentioned before, the “Speech to the Troops at Tillbury” was made in anticipation of an invasion by the Spanish Armada. The Armada set out on July 12th, but a miscalculation, misfortune, and an attack by the English on July 29 caused the fleet to be dispersed and therefore be defeated. Elizabeth made the speech on the 8th of August, long after there was any need to rouse the troops. But of course, there was no email or texting back then, and news traveled slowly. So no invasion came, England rejoiced, and the defeat served as a propaganda victory for both Elizabeth and Protestant England as many believed it proved God’s favor for a country under the rule of a virgin queen, despite the fact that it was not a turning point in a war that still often favored the Spanish.

During the last years of her reign Elizabeth relied on monopolies rather than asking Parliament for subsidies during the war, but as I mentioned before, this led to price-fixing and agitation in the House of Commons. Elizabeth’s “Golden Speech” is said to mark the end of her reign, which is commonly known as England’s “Golden Era.” In it she announces that this would be her last Parliament, and the speech itself would be reprinted over time whenever England was in danger.

And there you have it. Fairly straightforward and uncomplicated. I can almost guarantee that will be the last time I can say that.