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Doctor Faustus (Marlowe) Summary and Analysis

by Christopher Marlowe

Act IV, Scenes 5-7

Prologue and Act Four, Scenes 5-7:

Summary:

Scene 4.5. Faustus, reflecting to Mephostophilis that his years are nearly elapsed, decides to return to Wittenburg. A Horse-courser arrives, trying to buy Faustus' horse. Faustus agrees to the offer, and warns the man not to take the horse into water. The man asks Faustus if he would do the horse's urinalysis if the horse became ill, and Faustus tells the man to go. Faustus reflects on his quickly disappearing time, and falls asleep. The Hourse-courser return, wet, because he rode his horse into water and it turned into straw. Mephostophilis tells the man not to bother Faustus, but the man tugs at Faustus' leg, which comes off. Faustus screams, as if in pain, and Mephostophilis threatens to take the man to the constable. The boy promises he'll pay forty dollars more, if they let him go, and Mephostophilis tells him to go away. After the man is gone, Faustus seems to be fine. He has his leg again, and seems to have been playing a few tricks to swindle the boy out of money.

Wagner enters, to tell Faustus that the Duke of Vanholt desires Faustus' company. Faustus decides that he wouldn't mind serving the Duke, and off they go.

Scene 4.6. Enter Clown, Dick, Horse-courser, and a Carter. The Hostess enters. The Clown (Robin) voices to Dick his worry that the Hostess will remember that he owes money. She does remember, but doesn't seem to mind, and goes to fetch them so beer.

They talk about Faustus. The Carter complains that Faustus cheated him. When Faustus met the Carter while the latter was carting hay to Wittenburg, the former paid a pittance for as much hay as he could eat. Faustus ate all the Carter's hay. The Horse-courser tells them about how he was swindled, including a modified ending where he bravely went to his house and ripped his leg off. They think Faustus is legless, and so they decide to drink some more before going to find the good doctor.

Scene 4.7. Enter the Duke of Vanholt, his Duchess, Faustus, and Mephostophilis. The Duke thanks Faustus for his magic, which conjured the sight of a castle in the air. When Faustus asks the Duchess to request what she will, she asks for ripe grapes, although it be January. Faustus sends Mephostophilis to fetch them. The Duke wonders, and Faustus gives a lecture on how the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere. Robin, Dick the Horse-courser, and the Carter bang on the gates. They apparently want Faustus, and he tells the Duke to let them in.

They enter, all having various scores to settle with Faustus. Faustus toys with them a bit (since they think he's missing a leg). The Hostess enters, with drink, apparently hoping to get paid. Faustus uses magic to strike the Clown characters speechless, one at a time. They exit. The Hostess asks who'll pay, and Faustus strikes her speechless too. She goes. The Duke and his Lady are delighted.

Analysis:

Just when you think Faustus can't go any lower, lower he goes. The play has been criticized as a bad jumble of clownish scenes, and the B text in particular certainly has plenty of moments of uninspiring silliness. But Marlowe is making an incisive critique of power and wish fulfillment.

Faustus' opponents become more pathetic as the play progresses. Papal power, even when wielded by an ass, presents some kind of target. Knights at a court, when they threaten one's life, might seem like sport. But Faustus now has degenerated to swindling peasants out of money. These are the uses to which he puts his vast power.

Once Faustus has omnipotence, but a definite end to it, he has no incentive to grow as a human being, and he seems too lazy to look beyond his lifetime. Leaving behind an empire, or an improved world, just don't hold any interest for him, just as being a doctor, in his pre-Faustian bargain days held no interest for him. Magnified powers haven't magnified Faustus' capacity for care, or his love of humanity.

Faustus only reflects on his own diminishing time: "What are thou, Faustus, but a man condemned to die?" (4.5.41). Knowledge of a final end paralyzes him, and Faustus seems what modern people would call depressed. But his rhetorical question shows how poor his understanding is of the Christian God, and God's plan for mankind. He is more than a man condemned to die. He is a child of God, ransomed by Christ's blood, and invited to take part in eternal life.

Scholar RM Dawkins argues that Faustus is a "Renaissance man who had to pay the medieval price for being one." But the play itself would suggest that Faustus is not a true Renaissance man. He is someone incapable of living up to the standards of the medieval era, and he is equally incapable of living up the Greek-influenced standards of the Renaissance. He rejects the submissive morality of Christianity, cutting himself off from goodness, but he cannot live up to Renaissance greatness. Faustus fails to live up the standards of a tragic hero. He has amathia aplenty, a necessary ingredient in the constitution of a tragic hero. Amathia is a Greek word, meaning a man's failure to recognize his own nature. But Faustus lacks nobleness, and from the start his interest in selling his soul seems to come from boredom and restlessness. In Act One, he makes long-winded boasts about the uses to which he'll put his power. What we learn subsequently is that Faustus' amathia is a bit of a letdown. He fails to recognize that he's a lazy slob. He is all talk, and no action.

In his finest moments, Faustus speaks to the desire for freedom in us. He gives voice to the Greek desire to defy Necessity, and live as master of one's own fate, even for a short time, even if it means disaster. Like Prometheus, he accepts eternal torture as the ransom for a prized goal. But Prometheus sacrifices himself for the benefit of the human race. While Faustus initially pretends to have an interest in greatness, his actions undercut the fine speeches, and he spends his twenty-four years as a lascivious and pathetic loser.

The diminishment of Faustus' targets (pope to knights to peasants) also undercuts Faustus' status as an anti-hero. Some scholars label him as an anti-hero, but the pre-occupation of the play with silly pranks suggests otherwise. Even if Faustus rejects both Christian goodness and Renaissance/Greek excellence, to qualify as an anti-hero he still needs to make a good hellraiser. Tamburlaine, the Asian conqueror in the Marlowe play of the same name, is such an anti-hero. Tamburlaine's sacrilege and cruelty contribute perversely to his charisma. But Faustus, by wasting his time on unworthy opponents, undercuts the sympathy of a passionate audience. Even the Satan of the ultra-religious Milton is a more sympathetic character.

If Marlowe was in fact a fearless rebel and atheist, this temperament does not bar him from writing a cautionary tale for would-be rebels. Doctor Faustus suggests this: if you're going to reject authority and society's moral norms, be sure that you're man enough to replace those things with something better, or at least something striking. To rebel is not enough. To question authority is insufficient, if you can't forge a meaningful existence when free of authority.

The theme of seeking knowledge without gaining wisdom lurks behind Faustus' failings. Faustus' knowledge at the start of the play not only excludes the wisdom of religious tradition, but it has failed to deepen his understanding of himself. When he makes his fateful decision in Act One, he does not realize that he'll be spending his years of omnipotence swindling peasants.

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