Tale As Old As Time, Sin As Old As Man: A Short Study Of The Themes In
The Tragical History Of Dr. Faustus
0 comment Saturday, April 19, 2014 |
The tragedy of Dr. Faustus, as penned by noted playwright Christopher Marlowe, is a timeless tale of a man looking into the outer reaches of the abyss, only to lose his soul and humanity in the process. Though the entire play is rich in detail and metaphor (and humor for that matter... there needed to be some levity in these tragedies you know), two themes seem to stand out amongst the rest. These are of forbidden knowledge and redemption.
At the start of the play, Faustus is an aged and learned scholar knowledgeable in every field of study known to Man. He has become bored, the thrill of academic study now nothing but an empty and unfulfilling task. He has fallen into that stickiest of character-related paradoxes: he has lived all his life loving nothing more than scholastic endeavors, but now that his well has dried up so to speak, he can no longer live without the one thing that has kept him going. His die-hard pursuit of knowledge that once stimulated him is now his worst enemy... there's nothing left for him to learn.
Without anything to stave the hunger of his voracious mind, he begins exploring the darker sides of knowledge, despite his better judgment. For all we know, Faustus may have been an upstanding Catholic man who would never have dreamed of conjuring spirits. But his thirst for knowledge must be quenched and, with all the earthly knowledge of Man already obtained, Faustus seeks to know the secrets of Heaven and Hell. The only means of doing this is selling his soul to Lucifer.

What Faustus begins to realize is that there are some things that no man was meant to bear witness to. As Nietzsche would say, Faustus peered into the abyss for so long that the abyss began staring into him. As the play progresses, Faustus' humanity begins to crack under the tremendous weight of the knowledge he has gleaned.
This begins to happen around the time Faustus ascends into space aboard his fiery dragon. Having stared at the earth from the seat of the Gods, Faustus slowly begins losing a sense of who and what he is in the world. In this sense he has truly lost his soul. Faustus dared to peer into the forbidden fires of the unknown and thus had his soul burned from his body, much as Adam and Eve were turned away from the world when they tasted the succulent fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
After having this epiphany of sorts, Faustus begins to realize his mistake. Not only has his mind beheld incomprehensible sights, but his eternal body will now be tortured for all eternity in the depths of Hell. Faustus grieves and bemoans his unholy fate, fearing the end that draws ever nearer. The Good Angel that accompanies him desperately tries to convince him to repent his sins and ask for God's forgiveness. Faustus' scholar friends, upon finding out his predicament, also beseech him to do the same.

But no matter how many assurances of salvation he receives, Faustus remains immobile with profound fear. He is afraid to call out God's name since Lucifer swore that his demons would tear him limb from limb if he did. And even when the Good Angel tells Faustus that the Devil speaks lies, the sorcerer still persists with his wary refusal of seeking redemption. This is his greatest fault and what leads to his untimely and torturous end. Faustus hesitates and waits until the last minute.
And of course it's all too late. Faustus seems to have given up on himself, seeing himself as a doomed man from the start. The stubbornness he exhibits is infuriating because he chooses not to seek God's redemption, even if it means the salvation of his soul. It seems ironic that a man who was willing to risk everything to dabble with the dark side has such a difficult time accepting the assistance of Heaven in his time of need. But this would not be a tragedy if Faustus did not suffer for his fatal flaws in some way. And suffer he does.
The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus is a mesmerizing and fascinating piece of literature. It has equal amounts of comedy, mystery, magic, and horror that ensures pleasure for everyone. I'm sure a live performance of Marlowe's immortal story would only prove to be a sumptuous feast for both the eyes and the mind. But underneath this seemingly harmless mask lies an all-too real and somber message: that of Man's probing into the forbidden realms and the terrible price he had to pay for it.

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