Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus as a Morality Play: MA English Study Material

Whether Doctor Faustus is a Morality Play is a set question in the MA examinations of all Bengal universities including the University of Calcutta, Burdwan University and Rabindrabharati University.

Study Material for MA course in English at West Bengal Universities including the Calcutta, Jadavpur, Burdwan, Kalyani University

The early fifteenth century marks the flourish and culmination of the Morality plays. Earlier, the Miracle plays would usually deal with some biblical or apostolical events. The Moralities instead focused on man, tempted to commit sin by evil powers and then led to destruction.

M. H. Abrams defines Morality plays as "dramatized allegories of a representative Christian life in the plot form of a quest for salvation, in which the crucial events are temptations, sinning, and the climactic confrontation with death." The protagonist of such plays usually stood for mankind or everyman, while angelic and demonic forces strived to win his soul. Among the rest were virtues, vices and death personified. An early Morality play, The Castle of Perseverance, records the spiritual progress of mankind from his hour of birth to the Day of Judgement. The Good and Bad angels contest to win his soul, as he forsakes the former to consort with Seven Deadly Sins. Later, Penance becomes his saviour, and lodges him safely in the Castle of Perseverance.

The original German legend, Historia von D. Johann Fausten, was indeed a true Christian document. Its publisher, a Lutheran Johann Spies, meant it to be a moral homily to warn pious Christians against the pitfalls of magic. Its English translation, The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr. John Faustus, also fails to transcend the religious arena. Nevertheless, Marlowe needed to revise the format of the traditional Christian Morality plays as he sought to problematize in it subtler late-Renaissance ideas.

Faustus is not the typical Morality play protagonist, humble and innocent, tempted to sin and punished. He represents the Renaissance iconoclastic intelligentsia, challenging the heavens like soaring Icarus. Faustus aspires to be omnipotent "on earth as Jove is in the sky", and compares his own powers to what Jeremiah attributed to God. This pride, or hubris, finally goads him unto his tragedy. Instead of sin, Jonathan Dollimore argues, his "conscious and deliberate transgression of limit" results in his damnation. His own egotist ambition tempts him, and not Mephistophilis. Hence, Mephistophilis is not as bright a character as the Miltonic Satan to come.

Again, Faustus is neither out and out evil, nor offers serious threats to humanity or religion. He considers divinities to dwarf one's intellectual possibilities, and casts aside what he thinks old wives' tales. Despite his "base of stock" parentage, he wants to overpower the church and the nobility alike, as evident from the miseries of Pope Adrian as well as the knights in King Carolus' court. To emphasize the orthodox hierarchy, Marlowe presents all the common men clownishly, like the Carter and the Horse-courser. It is ironical that Faustus' activities in the comic scenes often resemble their silly buffoonery.

Thus of the Seven Cardinal Virtues, Faustus only lacks in Faith. However, this was enough to shake the orthodoxy, and Faustus is made to bow before Christianity. He mortgages himself to devils, prefers clownish fun to joy absolute, and is damned thereafter, in the ever burning hell. Even before the ultimate damnation, Faustus suffers hellishly due to his inner conflict. He oscillates between God and devils. Personifications of this dilemma, the Good Angel prompts him to choose the divine way, while the Bad one keeps on tempting him. Faustus pursues the latter.

After signing the deed, he ironically echoes Christ's last words – "Consummatum est" – this is finished. Yet again God's warning "Homo fuge" appears on his arm, but he persists the devilish way. Faustus is further cautioned by the Old Man, but he sees no hope and utters – "Damn'd art thou, Faustus, damn'd: despair and die." He forgets that it is never too late for God to forgive a repentant. Also, whenever he seeks to repent, devils threaten him to tear him apart. Finally, he is damned in hell.

Clearly, Christopher Marlowe follows the typical Morality play motif of ambitious man tempted to sin, despite warnings, and finally facing divine wrath. Whether he depicts Faustus' humanism more gloriously than the facets of orthodoxy is a different problem. Marlowe also exploits certain theatrical devices that were common to the Morality audience. The single figure chorus in the prologue is more like the 'Doctor' or presenter in a Morality play than the choric group in Greek tragedies. The Good and the Bad angels, symbols of the conflicting aspects of human psyche, were also familiar characters in the earlier Christian drama. Personification of abstract virtues and vices was another distinguishing Morality play feature, and the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins in Act II Scene ii fulfils that criterion. Again, the final epilogue serves as the moral of a Morality play, warning a Christian not to forfeit his faith. Faustus has done what heavenly powers do not permit and damned thereby in hell; "forward wits" better pay heed.

Nevertheless, many a scholar does not call it a Morality play. It never justifies the goodness or justice of Christianity. It rather exposes the drawbacks of orthodoxy that dwarf intellectual possibilities, and advocates fait accompli. It reduces a wise scholar, eager to unravel mysteries of the world, to a mere trickster taking pride in his buffoonery. Whatever punishment may be imposed on Faustus, his shocking question is never answered –

"The reward of sin is death…
If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us.
Why, then, belike we must sin, and so consequently die.
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this, Che sera sera,
What will be, shall be?

Thus considered, Doctor Faustus is not a Morality play and never advocates faithful submission to divine laws. Marlowe uses the Morality play motif and the Christian concepts of heaven and hell, but problematizes underneath the anti-Christian pessimism of futile human aspirations.


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