Faustus: the Punishment of Loss
For a play that has retained much of its scholarly value over the four hundred and ten years, there is surprisingly little known about Christopher Marlowe’s masterpiece, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. The date of its first performance is unknown, and is highly obscured by the added facts that there are two texts of Doctor Faustus, one published in 1604; the other in 1616 (Ribner viii). Christopher Marlowe, even in these early times, set a standard for tragic plays, which would not be rivaled until Shakespeare unleashed his literary landmarks at around the same time Marlowe’s career ended. Despite the lack of specifics on this seminal work, it is still easy to feel the pain Christopher Marlowe wished to convey with this text. Within the rich dialogue of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe attempts to communicate a personal struggle; both emotional and spiritual, between what Marlowe views as human nature and what the world views as God’s desires for man, and the overwhelming feelings of loss which accompany this struggle.
Doctor Faustus is a play that thrives primarily on the discourses that abound throughout its length. In the dialogue between the two main characters, Doctor Faustus himself, and the demon Mephistophilis, one finds almost the entirety of the play. Doctor Faustus “…is a man who of his own conscious willfulness brings tragedy and torment crashing down on his head…”(Cole 191). Faustus finds himself melancholic with the pursuit of knowledge he has thus far attained, commenting:
“Be a physician, Faustus; heap up gold,
And be eternized for some wonderous cure…
Why, Faustus, hast thou not attained that end?
Is it not thy common talk sound aphorisms?” (Ribner 5)
He has grown sick of the pursuit of knowledge as he sees it, and believing himself to have become educated in all of the worlds major subjects, seeks the power of God himself (Ellis-Fermor, 74). Through the art of conjuring spirits, commenting, “…A sound magician is a mighty God…” (Ribner 7). The human lust for power has reached a new height in Faustus, and to attain what he desires, the easiest means are demonic. On his way to making the decision to enlist infernal forces in his quest for power, Faustus is prodded by friends, Valdes and Cornelius, themselves skilled practitioners of the dark arts, and Faustus fast finds himself in a regrettable position. Despite this peer pressure, a fact that may not be neglected is the fact that Faustus makes the choice to conjure of his own free will, and must deal with the results himself.
In his ignorance of conjuring, he conjures up the demon Mephistophilis, expecting to be able to command the demon at his will. Mephistophilis, however, informs him that he is only a servant to Lucifer, “…and may not follow thee without his leave”(Ribner 11). To be served by Mephistophilis, Faustus is informed, he must give his soul for an eternity of damnation to Lucifer. Faustus questions this, stating the fact that Lucifer had once been an angel himself, and questioning how this came to be. Mephistophilis replies: “O, by aspiring pride and insolence/For which God threw him from the face of heaven” (Ribner 12). Faustus, however, does not heed this or any other of Mephistophilis’ warnings, and continues on his path, even after the protest of his own blood gives, freezing in Faustus’ very veins while he attempts to sign a contract giving his soul to Lucifer (Brockbank 116).
Faustus is not deterred, and commits his soul to Lucifer for all eternity, in exchange for twenty-four years of service from Mephistophilis. He begins to have doubts shortly before signing the pact, however, and asks that Mephistophilis to tell him of hell.
“Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it…/O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands.” (Ribner 12). After the contract is in place, however, Mephistophilis begins to entertain him, providing him with women and knowledge of the black arts, or magic. Interesting to note, is that the first thing Faustus asks of Mephistophilis is knowledge, the very same knowledge on which he turned his back by delving into conjuring. Faustus does not have long before he realizes that magic will bring him no closer to the understanding he desires than did the lengthy pursuit of knowledge (Ellis-Fermor 64). For the remainder of the play, Faustus begins a cycle of repentance, followed by renewed blasphemy, which will continue for the rest of the twenty-four years.
A key concept in understanding the spiritual tragedy with which Faustus has plagued himself is the concept of poena damni, or the punishment of loss, a concept first advanced by Thomas Aquinas, (Cole 191-193) who stated “…Man’s extreme unhappiness will consist in the fact that his intellect is completely shut off from the divine light, and that his affections are stubbornly turned against God’s goodness. And this is the chief suffering of the damned…the punishment of loss” (Vollert 188).
Put more mildly by St. Augustine, “Every disordered spirit shall be a punishment to itself” (Cole 190). The driving idea behind this concept states that the majority of Faustus’ pain leapt from the fact that he had cut himself off from God’s light forever, put simply by Mephistophilis “…Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God/ And tasted the eternal joys of heaven/ Am not tormented with ten thousand hells…” (Ribner 12).
Faustus has traded his immortal soul for a chance to play God, but in the end, realizes that “Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man!” (Ribner 24). He is confronted with the ultimate feeling of loss, loss of an eternity of happiness and bliss, and loss the ultimate goal he sought in achieving magic. He is no more a King than any common servant, for he is but a servant to Lucifer, and will be for all eternity. Faustus’ mission has failed.
Despite the ample text in this play, it is highly likely that a significant portion of Marlowe’s original text has been lost over the years, and that we are missing the actual ending of the play. Despite this fact, however, ample symbolism exists to gather Marlowe’s intended meaning and message for this play. Marlowe desired this to stand as an example of exactly what human greed and pride can do when mixed with a healthy dose of avoiding considering the long-term consequences. Faustus is a shortsighted man who would give his very soul, and his relationship with his creator to capture power that is not rightfully his. St. Augustine writes: “If the soul should go out of its way to produce a false imitation of God, and to will to take pleasure in its own power…that is pride, the beginning of all sin, and the beginning of the pride of man is to fall off from God” (Cole 195). It was clearly Marlowe’s intent to show Faustus’ pride; Faustus’ actions are not at all hidden from the reader.
The irony in Doctor Faustus, however, is hidden. Faustus sells his soul in an attempt to gain the power to control “what shall be” (Cole 198), and then, in the pit of his despair, he begins to think that he has controlled nothing, and that he received the short end of the bargain. Faustus, however, was wholly aware that he would be damned, and by selling his soul, actually willed that damnation would come to him, even if damnation was only a consequence of his actions. The irony, of course, is that Faustus’ will was made to be.
Despite all that is hidden however, this play has surprisingly little room to hide it in. Many critics have commented on the lack of depth contained within the dialogue or its “two-dimensionality” (Ellis-Fermor 69). The idea that the text is in fact two-dimensional may stem from the fact that most do not read fully into the loss communicated within the discourse carried on between Faustus and Mephistophilis. To fully understand this dialogue one must surpass the shallow meanings of the play as being a lecture on greed, and delve into the more hidden meaning, the pain of loss and solitude. Marlowe’s lines in this sense communicate a more intense and personal struggle, between one, one’s self, and one’s environment for power over his one’s life.
The center of the play can be found in Faustus’ solitude, the fact that all his decisions are strictly his own. When his twenty-four years are up Faustus knows that there is no one to blame but himself for the loss of everything he had. Faustus made the choices himself, ignored the repeated warnings and attempts to save his soul himself, and failed to repent his own sins. At the end, Faustus is completely isolated from everything he worked so hard for, with no real power, facing an eternity of damnation and poena damni – the punishment of loss.
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Word Count: 1490