English 9H, 7
Elizabeth I & Marlowe’s Faustus – Pragmatism and Lasting Accomplishment vs. Impetousity and Fleeting Aggrandizement
Goethe’s Faust. Milton’s Paradise Lost. Shakespeare’s Macbeth. All famous works which were foreshadowed by a play called The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, a play so great as to make Goethe say “How greatly is it planned!” (Knoll 72). Doctor Faustus was written by Christopher Marlowe, a poet whose fame among his contemporaries is second only to Shakespeare’s (Farnham 1). Marlowe lived in an England ruled by Elizabeth I, a great patroness of the arts as well as a pragmatic ruler whose main use for power was the betterment of the kingdom and the general public. In this famous play, which many consider to be Marlowe’s crowning achievement, the scholar Faustus, blinded with the lust for power and knowledge, signs a demonic pact in which he trades his eternal soul for twenty-four years of his fondest wishes (Farnham 6-7). Faustus then goes on to waste what little power was given him on increasing his fame (Frye 57). In stark contrast to Elizabeth I’s pragmatic use for power, Marlowe’s Faustus, blinded by a terrible lust for power, squandered what little ill-gotten power was allotted him by Lucifer, accomplishing nothing of any real lasting value and serving no cause save his own fleeting aggrandizement.
Elizabeth I was arguably one of the most effective rulers England ever had; a “royal intellectual”, Elizabeth’s main interest in intellect, was its power to influence people and events. She was a pragmatic queen who loved to mull over her options (Kendall 1-2). For example, Elizabeth sympathized with her Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart Queen of Scots, both as a queen and as a woman but, when a Catholic plot against Elizabeth’s life failed, she overcame her personal feelings regarding Mary. This allowed her allowing her to make a difficul tchoice — the choice to have Mary executed on February 8, 1587. She did this to remove the Catholic threat for the good of the country (Johnson 39-41). She never married and used her maidenhood as a tool of statecraft, playing her suitors, both Catholic and Protestant, against each other (Slavin). “Moved by male beauty, she never succumbed to it, and could bring herself to send her loved Essex to the block” (Smith ix). One of the great speakers of her time, her speeches could incite the public, coax Parliament into doing what she them to do, and smooth over many delicate diplomatic situations (Green 30). Her pragmatism and talent helped make England a great cultural center and a force with which to be reckoned. She was a great patroness of the arts as well as doing many things, just some of which are the following: making the Church of England England’s main church, avoiding war with Roman Catholic countries, driving back the Spanish Armada, establishing England as “Queen of the Seas” through her defeating Spain, and helping the economy of England to prosper (Slavin). Literature and the arts flourished; Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Spenser wrote Doctor Faustus, Julius Caesar, and The Fairy Queene, respectively. The ascendancy of the pragmatic Elizabeth I to the English throne in 1558 at the tender age of twenty-four marked the beginning of a new “golden age” for England (Slavin).
In stark contrast to Elizabeth’s pragmatism and accomplishment, Faustus was an intellectual whose impetuosity and lust for personal fame eventually destroyed him. He becomes disillusioned with normal scholarly pursuits and, thinking that “A sound magician is a demi-god”, declares “Here tire, my brains, to get a deity!” (Marlowe 9). The main body of preparation that Faustus makes before conjuring Mephistopheles consists merely of daydreaming about what he will do with demonic power. Faustus hopes to use his powers to make spirits fetch for him gold from India, pearls from the oceans, and “pleasant fruits and princely delicates” (Marlowe, Doctor 9) from the New World. He daydreams about having the spirits wall Germany with brass, having the spirits take the signiory of Emden, and having the spirits drive the Prince of Parma from Germany (Marlowe, Doctor 9). All of these early aims, however grandiose, are still merely for Faustus’s aggrandizement (Sewall 63-64). This haste is “characteristic of Faustus, who far too briefly considers and rejects his accomplishments in all major branches of learning–he rejects a basic rule of magic, black or white. He resolves to conjure at once, and thus makes impossible the purification, the ritual preparations, recommended by magical handbooks” (Traister 80). He is blinded with lust for demonic power, saying “How am I glutted with conceit of this!” in scene one (Marlowe 10). After a short lesson in elementary magic from his friends Valdes and Cornelius, Faustus attempts to call up Mephistopheles by reciting a spell in which he renounces his faith in the Christian Trinity and “turns to the infernal trinity of Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Demogorgon” (Marlowe 18). Mephistopheles appears, and when asked by Faustus if his “conjuring speeches” summoned him, he says that it was not the conjuring spell in of itself that brought him, but rather that the spell had brought him because of something it happened to include: namely, his “rack[ing] the name of God, Abjur[ing] the scriptures and his saviour Christ” (Marlowe 20). Mephistopheles goes on to say that he seeks Faustus’s soul, that Faustus is “in danger to be damn’d”, and that a show of Faustus’s readiness to give up his soul to the Devil brought him to Faustus of his own free will (Marlowe 20). Faustus then rushes into the heady act of selling his soul to the Devil for twenty-four years of Mephistopheles’ service (Marlowe 30). He is even eager to sell his soul, saying “Had I as many souls as there be stars, I’d give them all for Mephistopheles” (Marlowe 22). Faustus follows vague feelings of dissatisfaction to sell his immortal soul to the Devil for twenty-four years of service from Mephistopheles. Faustus’s impetuous actions lead to his downfall and guarantee that his life after taking up conjuring has little accomplishment of any enduring value.
Faustus’s shortsighted choice to give up all that he accomplished as a scholar to sell his soul to the devil ensured that his name would go down through the ages, not as a great scholar, but as a prankster and a weak man — an example of what decisions one should not make. His life was, before his breach from the honorable sciences, bright and full of promise. He was the pride of Wittenberg, for he was “grac’d with doctor’s name”, his “bills [were] hung up as monuments”, and he cured a “thousand desperate maladies” (Marlowe 5). Faustus’s position after signing the pact is not far from that of a wandering entertainer–he goes from court to court, putting on shows and pulling pranks. Faustus entertains the emperor he had hoped to control, and “finds himself pensioned off at the conclusion of the evening’s show.” (Frye 57) The spirits which he had hoped would bring him riches only bring out-of-season grapes to satisfy the pregnant Duchess of Vanholt’s cravings. “Faustus accepts the patronage of those whom he once wished to patronize.” (Frye 57). If not for Faustus’s impractical and shortsighted decision to sell his soul, he might have gone down in history as a great scholar and physician rather than a man who was tricked into giving up greatness for petty magic tricks and fleeting fame.
When looking at the play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, one cannot help but wonder what comparisons, contrasts, or allegories Marlowe wished to impart upon someone reading his play. Maybe he wished to show a contrast between the impetuosity and fleeting fascination of the Faustus of his play and the pragmatism and lasting fame of the ruler of his country. Perhaps he wished to make the reader walk away with a moral–”‘Tis better to be an Elizabeth than a Faustus.”
Farnham, Willard ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Doctor Faustus. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
Frye, Roland M. “Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: The Repudiation of Humanity.”In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Doctor Faustus. Ed. Willard Farnham. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
Kendall, Allen. Elizabeth I. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977.
Knoll, Robert E. Christopher Marlowe. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1963.
Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus. London: Meuthen and Co. Ltd., 1972.