Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus is a frightening adaptation of the German narrative of Johann Faust who traded his soul for knowledge and power. With its emphasis on intellectual pursuits, this play illustrates Marlowe's contribution to the Elizabethan drama. While much of Marlowe's life is a mystery, we do know that unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe attended a Corpus Christi College on a scholarship. During this time, he began writing plays. Roma Gill points out that Marlowe's writing began with translating Ovid and Lucan. (Gill) She states:
Marlowe's translations of these elegies are not uniformly successful; but they nevertheless form an impressive achievement. For the Latin elegiac couplet, Marlowe substituted the rhymed pentameter couplet -- which John Donne later followed, imitating Marlowe with his own elegies. (Gill)
These translations illustrate an interest traditional verse and, at the same time, demonstrate his ability to improvise upon them. When he was 26 years old, he wrote the play Tamburlaine, whose protagonist is the "vehicle for the expression for boundless energy and ambition, the impulse to strive constantly upward to absolute power" (Abrams 792). These same characteristics are reflected in Doctor Faustus M.H. Abrams asserts the English theater had not seen characters like this before. After the success of Tamburlaine, Marlowe lived with fellow playwright Thomas Kyd, who informed the Privy Council in England that Marlowe was guilty of atheism and treason. In May of 1593, Marlowe was stabbed and killed in an argument that took place in the Widow Bull Inn. His short live leaves us to wonder what might have been, especially when we consider the popularity of Shakespeare.
During the few years he lived, he contributed much to English drama. Marlowe is considered a "University Wit," (Egendorf 18) along with John Lyly and Robert Greene, because his plays featured blank verse and "often examined the ways in which an outsider can usurp power through treachery" (18). Interestingly, despite Marlowe's contributions to Elizabethan drama, he and the other university wits did not change English theater. This is primarily because they despised the popular theater and "sought to use their education to write more erudite drama" (Egendorf 18) that appealed to intellectuals. Egendorf explains that this goal was not achieved because the popular culture at the time expected playwrights to conform to traditional dramatic techniques. As a result, Marlowe and his fellow wits were forced to sacrifice their lofty ideals in order to survive. Nevertheless, Marlowe's plays are unique in several aspects.
For instance, Marlowe is credited with advancing the art of dramatic structure in English drama. He also perfected dramatic poetry. (Wilson 275) Many critics refer to Marlowe's "mighty line" (275), which demonstrates the power of dramatic verse he developed. An example of such a line can be found in Faustus when he meets Helen of Troy. He tells her: Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?/Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss (V.i.98-100)
This is an incredible achievement on Marlowe's part, which was later perfected by Shakespeare.
Marlowe was alive during a time of discovery and this is evident in The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. Arnold Schmidt observes that aspects of Humanism, Individualism, and the New Science had a profound impact on Marlowe's plays. (Schmidt) Renaissance Humanists preferred individual values to medieval social and religious attitudes. A significant aspect of humanism focused on personal happiness in the earthly realm as opposed to viewing life in regards to happiness in the afterlife. This intellectual freedom revolutionized a period of new science, from which emerged Galileo and Copernicus. The social climate also allowed all individuals the opportunity to advance in society. As a result, ambition and strength characterized the "upwardly mobile Renaissance individual" (Schmidt). Schmidt notes:
Marlowe's heroes epitomize this character type, aspiring to a greatness that extends beyond their current status. This overzealous ambition often results in ruthless and irrational actions; they have the power to make their own choices, yet those choices lead to their downfall. In this sense, Marlowe's work serves to caution the viewer against this kind of behavior. (Schmidt)
If any character captures this sentiment, it is Faustus and his insatiable desire for knowledge and power.
In addition, D.J. Palmer claims that Marlowe and Kyd are chiefly responsible for developing the characteristics of the tragic hero in Elizabethan drama. (Palmer 52) Judgment is conveyed through irony and protagonists are unlike earlier heroes by a "greater measure of awareness which endows them with spiritual grandeur" (55). Additionally, these characters exist in a:
Vaster, more spacious world than Elizabethan drama had previously known, for not only do they have it more to themselves but their passions convulse the whole universe, soaring beyond that limited sphere of action which circumscribes the lives of tyrants, revengers, and lovers. (Palmer 58)
Palmer observes that Marlovian drama is "more intellectual and metaphysical in its conception if human will and action: he brings to the stage a diversity of speculative interests, notably in theology, political theory, and astronomy" (58). Additionally, Marlowe's learning is "vital to the presentation of the character and tragic conflict" (58) of the play. When we examine Faustus' motivations, we realize that they do not stem from any particular situation or from an interaction between character and circumstance. Instead his passion is "self-generated" (59). Death is the final victory in Marlovian tragedies, which leaves us realizing our mortality with a "peculiar intensity" (59).
As a result of this combination, no other Elizabethan playwright is as "both philosophical and as exciting" as Marlowe.
The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus is undoubtedly Marlowe's most famous piece, primarily because the play revolves around the infamous Faust, who is important in Renaissance literature. The story of Faustus has been adapted over the centuries and Mack Maynard claims that Marlowe's depiction of the man "exemplifies the intellectual aspirations of the Renaissance" (Maynard 1829), but he is haunted by a sense of "vanity and sinfulness" (1829). The popular tendency is to associate Faustus with witchcraft and the subsequent punishment for dabbling in the dark side. However, Marlowe's tragedy encompasses "larger and deeper implications" (1829). This is primarily because of the renaissance influence.
Maynard demonstrates how Marlowe presents us with two phases of Faustus. The first phase depicts a man who becomes dissatisfied with his knowledge and the second phase depicts a man who "embraces magic and the devil's art" (1829). This second image of Faustus is significant because it appeals to the values of the Renaissance, where attitudes of discovery are met with excitement and delight. Marlowe's Faustus is a more interesting version of the story because Faustus' despair "cuts deeper" (Maynard 1830) than that of a man who simply dabbles with magic. As a Renaissance character, Faustus "embodies a more deeply earned dissatisfaction" (Maynard 1830). The drama represents something more than ordinary melancholy in that it:
Seems to suggest that the seeds of damnation are implicit in some of the most cherished and proud pursuits of the period; their depiction as devilish temptations is a concrete way of symbolizing their comprehensively damning nature" (1830).
From this perspective, Maynard asserts that the play is one of the "most contemporary statements we have of mans' terror at the daring of his own thought and the needs for limits" (1830). The play with its Renaissance influences adds another dimension to the character of Faustus, which makes him and his terror appear more real.
The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus exhibits the traditional characteristics of the tragedy that we have come to associate with Elizabethan drama. For example, the play takes place in five acts and we have the tragic hero who falls as a result of his own tragic flaw. However, the play also bears an influence of medieval morality plays. Glynne Wickham asserts that mortality plays prepared the way for later dramas. He asserts that the dramatic qualities of the morality plays "enable authors and the actors to develop their crafts experimentally little by little, while depending for the broad effect upon well-tried routines with which their audiences were already familiar" (Wickham qtd. In Egendorf 16). The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus is an example of how playwrights were ingenious and still borrowed from the past. The tragedy still contains the chorus that is associated with the medieval plays. In addition, Faustus encounters the seven deadly sins, which was a common feature in morality plays in the past.
Marlowe paints Faustus as a tragic hero early in the play with his lofty ideals, which will ultimately lead to his downfall. His' ignorance is revealed in his early discussion with Mephistophilis when he is told that Lucifer became the prince of devils as a result of his "aspiring…