Plot of Dr. Faustus
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The use of irony in ‘Doctor Faustus’ .
Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe presents a play set at a time of significant transition from the medieval period to the Renaissance, shifting the focus of life from God to the individual. Heavily influenced by Greek tragedy, Marlowe portrays and, to an extent, criticizes Doctor Faustus the protagonist as a tragic hero who pursues the Renaissance attitude in a medieval world. The writer weaves irony through the characters of Faustus and Mephistopheles, literary structure, the juxtaposition and contrasts of scenes, the conflict between medieval and Renaissance ideas, the clash between knowledge and salvation, and the symbolism of magic as limitless possibilities, to illustrate that what Faustus thought could help him conquer the world only degrades and destroys him. Marlowe creates irony in the rebelling nature of Doctor Faustus to perhaps depict the vacillating nature of man. The first scene that introduces the protagonist opens in the setting of a study room, emphasizing Faustus as a respectable scholar with the honorary name of a doctor. Typically, an intellectual would advocate and commend the exalted academia like medicine and law. Yet Faustus, like an adept rhetoric, criticizes the high professions of logic, physics, law and theology, cites reputable scholars of the respective discipline, and uses Latin quotations for each field to reflect his intelligence, such as Aristotle’s logic in Analytics (1.1, 6), Galen’s physics (1.1, 12-3), Justinian law (1.1, 25-31) and theology in Jerome’s Bible (1.1, 36). Instead the doctor turns to magic, a forbidden and ridiculed art in medieval times. He crowns magic at the top of intellectual disciplines, which implies that his wisdom outstretches all earthly knowledge into the non-existential realm, reflecting his pride and naivety. Furthermore, he mocks religion by using religious jargon to describe the supernatural, for example, “these metaphysics of magicians/And necromantic books are heavenly” (1.1, 49-50), which is ironic because he refers to the works of the devil to be “heavenly”. This extreme rebellion against proper education for unworldly crafts and the defiance against God for the devil illustrate the Renaissance movement as the act of individual interest overthrowing conventional propriety and traditional learning from medieval authority. Moving astray from intellectual studies towards the irrational and censored ‘black arts’ easily foreshadows the tragic downfall of Faustus; yet Faustus’ naivety and ignorance of his ultimate end shapes an irony that only the audience and the Chorus can perceive, generating an emotional response within the audience and readers that perhaps warns them against the greed for excessive possession including knowledge and control. To Marlowe who denounces organized religion, the design of a scholarly character pursuing his own interests beyond the boundaries of medieval practice mirrors his ideal human attitude. However, the tragic ending of Faustus seems to contradict Marlowe’s favor for the Faustian ideology by implementing the dire dangers when Faustus approaches death as a consequence of defying God. Faustus ironically appears to be more evil than Mephistopheles the devil. Faustus voluntarily curses God and calls upon the devil to take his soul out of his ambition to be omnipotent and essentially to be godlike. On the other hand, Mephistopheles warns Faustus of the horrors of Hell and even admits that Lucifer is less powerful than God, which is ironic for a devil to do so. Even though Mephistopheles consistently threatens Faustus to honor his pact with Lucifer, nevertheless, Faustus yearns to worship the devil even if it means the possibility of going to hell after death, which indicates that Faustus places greater emphasis on earthly pleasures than what occurs to his soul after death. Most people avoid going to Hell and fear associating with the devil, yet Marlowe ironically arranges Faustus to courageously and almost foolishly reject Hell and persistently implore the strength and support of Lucifer. His shortsightedness and deception of reality form an irony against our first encounter with Faustus who claims that his intellect supersedes that of the key professions. In effect, Marlowe subtly implies that mankind can be more dangerous and evil than a devil from Hell, which builds another irony. It corresponds to the truism that “man himself is his own worst enemy” (Hook 2008); that due to the sin of greed and pride, Faustus himself is the only hindrance from God and his salvation: while Faustus initially believes that God cannot save him from death, Faustus, thinking that he can glorify himself through the power of the Lucifer, brings himself closer towards death by conjuring devilish deeds. Under the influence of the Renaissance movement, Faustus exhibits a sense of self-centeredness and arrogance in the overcoming of obstacles to acquire what he wants. For example, he, an ordinary man with no supernatural power, commands Mephistopheles the devil to reappear as a Franciscan friar because its true appearance seems too horrifying for Faustus. Marlowe uses this scene of man demonstrating authority over a devil to shatter social hierarchy and conventional etiquette, which mirrors our modern society where one who has courage, aggression and the necessary set of qualities can exceed his elder. From another perspective, man is like Lucifer the devil who can command the lesser devil such as Mephistopheles, which subtly proposes mankind to have an evil nature as epitomized by Faustus. Marlowe exhibits the literary effect of the acceleration of time literally by portraying the passing of twenty-four years within less than fifty pages of the play. When Faustus first bargains twenty-four years with Lucifer, it appears like quite a long time for both Faustus and the audience. However, the swift array of a few small-scale events since Faustus’ first contract with Lucifer diminishes the magnitude of twenty-four years into merely fifty pages, illuminating to the audience how Faustus may have felt about his short lifetime approaching an end; hence the irony that Faustus enthusiastically signs an agreement with the devil to grant him a short twenty-four years of ‘invincibility’. It suggests to an extent that one fails to comprehend the true value of things and consequences until one approaches or experiences it. Similarly, Faustus disbelieves in God and Hell until the very last minute towards his death when it is too late. Marlowe also establishes a paradox in Christianity by setting a timeframe of repentance in Doctor Faustus as a Christian tragedy, suggesting that Christian salvation cannot save all souls because one can be too late to repent. Faustus’ final plead for mercy from Lucifer, also a plea for God’s mercy, “I will burn my books” implies that knowledge, at least “unlawful” knowledge hinders the path to God and the attainment of eternal salvation. This pattern mirrors the biblical story of Genesis in which God warns Adam and Eve against the tree of knowledge, and punishes their disobedience with sin. In spite that knowledge is good in the perspective of man, God who desires good for us forbids mankind to achieve knowledge or at least limitless knowledge. Perhaps it is because only God has the capacity to be omniscient. Yet if God loves us so much as to send His One and Only Son Jesus to die for our sins, it seems ironic that He set boundaries to knowledge that benefits humanity to a large extent. On the other hand, perhaps Marlowe presents an irony between not just salvation and knowledge itself, but more specifically between salvation and the greed for all knowledge. This recalls the Greek notion of hubris whereby “excessive pride towards or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis” (Oxford Dictionaries 2011) or someone’s downfall. In Doctor Faustus, the stronger the desire to acquire more, the more severe and faster the downfall towards having less. The striking contrast between Faustus’s first soliloquy and his final speech best reflects this idea: originally, Faustus proclaims wild ambitions to use magic to secure all knowledge, wealth and power and to render possible all the impossibilities known to man, like “ransack the ocean for orient pearl” (1.1, 82), “tell the secrets of all foreign kings” (1.1, 86), and “fill the public schools with silk” (1.1, 89). Later in actuality, however, he eventually applies his diabolical skills on pointless and sordid tricks on people, like grow horns on Benvolio’s head (4.2, 7), punch the pope (3.2, 86), and wreck a banquet (3.2, 75). The irony lies in that the magic that Faustus ultimately achieves contributes little to the world. In fact, his application of magical powers comes across as amateurish and frivolous. Marlowe ironically juxtaposes the scene of Faustus’ first encounter with Mephistopheles against the scene of the clowns to foreshadow Faustus’ degradation due to the practice of magic from a grand and respectable scholar to an ignoble and ridiculous fool like the clowns who seek mutton and who transform each other into mouse and rat. As Faustus constantly succumbs to the lures of the Bad Angel as opposed to the warnings of the Good Angel, his deterioration implies Faustus’ damnation in Hell as he drifts further away from God and salvation. What Faustus considers to be the highest field of discipline becomes subordinate and reckless. Magic no longer appears admirable nor appealing but plainly “impressive illusions” that are empty, non-existent and degrading to the soul because Faustus’ expectations and ambitions fall in standard the more he takes pleasure and gains satisfaction in playing immature and “petty” tricks on people. Even fools like Robin and Rafe can easily use magic to summon demons. Prior to the knowledge of magic, Faustus thinks that magic can help him achieve the impossible, but after the acquisition of magic, magic performs only frivolous tricks that appears to be a joke in the light of Faustus’ former ambitions, like “divert the River Rhine” and “reshape the map of Europe”. In the beginning he shows overconfidence of his abilities, seeks for ultimate knowledge in magic and boasts of ambitious dreams to be fulfilled through magic; in closing, he struggles like a trapped bird who lost its wings, confused of what to do and who to turn to. Faustus seems to be fighting against his divided nature in the last ten lines of scene 5.2: Curst be the parents that engendered me!/No, Faustus, curse thyself. Curse Lucifer,/….…Now, body, turn to air,/Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell./O soul, be changed into small waterdrops,/…O, mercy, heaven, look not so fierce on me!/…Come not, Lucifer!/I’ll burn my books. O, Mephistopheles! (5.2, 175-185) First, he seeks to accuse his parents who gave birth to him, but then decides he should take responsibility and accounts for his own wrongdoings. Almost immediately, he shifts the blame to Lucifer, returns to pity himself, begs Heaven and Hell for mercy, and then finally, for the first time, renounces his greed for ultimate knowledge by burning the books of magic. His last cry for Mephistopheles his agent and companion in his mission places Mephistopheles in the limelight as one who contributes to Faustus’ demise, one who understands a degree of regret and fear for Hell, one who advices Faustus to turn away from evil, as well as a guide like Virgil who indirectly and unintentionally teaches Faustus both the world of magic and a lesson in life, which is to stay in one’s own place and to avoid what the church forbids, as evident in the Epilogue: “Regard [Faustus’] hellish fall,/Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise/Only to wonder at unlawful things:/…To practice more than heavenly power permits” (Epilogue. 4-8). The title of the play itself represents an irony: Doctor Faustus who is initially regarded as a proficient intellect ends up unworthy of the honorific name as ‘Doctor’ because he does not seem to think ahead or evaluate his decisions when he first sells his soul to the devil; instead he follows his animalistic desires and impulses, hence he largely deserves his tragic end. Arguably, Faustus represents a possibility that breaks the rules of convention against the medieval God-centered tradition. Ironically, while magic is supposed to open a realm of impossibilities, Faustus’ acquisition of magic satiates human desire and diminishes the function and value of magic. However, the tragedy seems to suggest that although the Renaissance allows one to acquire anything including magic, there exists the irony that it remains impossible to escape death, God and Hell. Faustus may have mastered the diabolical arts but he cannot avoid Lucifer and punishment.