Parlor tricks, pranks and general shenanigans could be said to belong to a comedy, but they’re all present in Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play, “The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus.” Why?
“Faustus” is the most memorable take on the “Deal with the Devil” trope, in which a character sells their soul to a demon or magical being for some kind of power or object of desire they would not otherwise have. In this play, the scholar and teacher John Faustus signs a contract with Satan for the servitude of the demon Mephistopheles on the condition that Satan gets to claim his soul in 24 years’ time. In other words, Faustus only gets 24 years to live.
With Mephistopheles at his disposal, Faustus has theoretically near-limitless power. He plans to use his power to drive foreign invaders out of Germany, bend the Rhine into a moat around the town of Wittenberg and erect a protective brass wall around the country. Not so nobly, he wishes to enrich himself with orient pearls, Spanish gold and, naturally, rule over his new Germany.
Well, he says he’s going to do that. What really happens is that he spends the next 24 years using his magical powers to ask trivial questions, summon food out of season for a royal court, summon ghosts for his university students and, I kid you not, turn invisible to prank the pope. Finally, the 24 years are up, and Faustus realizes he has wasted his life. He warns his students to never do what he did and claims to repent. Yet Satan, Beelzebub and Mephistopheles arrive at his bed that night nonetheless, and drag him to Hell. What is with this play?
Theater historians and scholars aren’t quite sure, actually. The play isn’t tragic unless it’s subversive. Faustus’s tragic flaw is that he believes he matters and that he can shape his future. He has great ambitions to rise above his station and believes knowledge will get him what he wants. He is the manifestation of the audience’s newfound individuality and belief in knowledge, courtesy of the Renaissance.
The play can be considered tragic because Faustus is a smart man with many accomplishments. He wants to have great power and pursues it through worldly means while missing the spiritual answer to eternal life. When he gets dragged to Hell, we see this man scared and humbled, praying for forgiveness at the last possible second. It is pathetic and sad. Keep in mind, though, that fear of Hell is why most people in the audience would be in the church. In this interpretation, Marlowe’s play indicts the system of the church for controlling people with fear. Seeing as Marlowe was suspected of being an atheist by his contemporaries, such a critical reading would make sense.
On the other hand, to read “Faustus” as a cautionary tale compliant with the prevailing religious norms of the time– witchcraft exists and is evil, and that the faithless actively reject God– makes Faustus illogical, lazy, arrogant and stupid. In such a case, Faustus is no longer tragic because he’s just an incompetent jerk. Despite summoning a demon and meeting Satan, Faustus maintains his belief that there is no God or Hell. A reading about arrogance would also explain why Faustus keeps referring to himself in the third person.
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