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!

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