Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus

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Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus

2.1.2 Faustus's first speech

The Chorus now introduces Faustus, who delivers his first speech of the play. The way the speech is staged and written serves to emphasise Faustus's position as an eminent scholar. It is set in his study, and he is surrounded by books, from which he reads in Latin. The works he consults, written by such great thinkers of classical antiquity as the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the Greek medical authority Galen, and the Roman emperor Justinian, were central texts in the sixteenth-century university curriculum. The first impression the speech gives us, then, is of the breadth of Faustus's learning.

There is no one on stage with Faustus as he delivers these lines, which means that it is a soliloquy, a speech in which a dramatic character, alone on stage, expresses his or her thoughts, feelings and motives. The soliloquy is an ideal device for establishing a strong relationship between a character and an audience, for it seems to give us access to that character's mind at work. In Faustus's opening soliloquy, we notice right away that he is addressing himself in the third person – ‘Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin’ (l. 1) – which creates the impression that he is talking to himself. We listen as he tries to make up his mind, now that he has been awarded a doctorate in theology, what subject he wants to specialise in. He declares that he will be a ‘divine’ only in appearance (‘in show’), while aiming to achieve expertise in every academic discipline. Immediately, then, we hear a note of dissatisfaction and restlessness in Faustus's voice; despite his dazzling academic success, he is impatient for more knowledge.

Yet as he runs through the four main academic disciplines he has studied – philosophy, medicine, law and theology – he dismisses each of them as an intellectual dead-end. Faustus feels that he has already achieved everything that the study of philosophy and medicine has to offer. He then rejects the law as suitable only for a ‘mercenary drudge’ (l. 34). For a moment, he returns to divinity as the most worthy profession, but then rejects that as well, as the passages he reads from Jerome's Bible stress only human sinfulness and the damnation that awaits it.

So what is it that Faustus wants that these traditional fields of study fail to supply? When contemplating his own remarkable achievements in medicine, he laments that although he can cure illness, he is unable either to give his patients eternal life or to raise them from the dead: ‘Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man’ (l. 23). What he wants, then, is to transcend his human limitations, to break through the boundaries that place what he sees as artificial restrictions on human potential. He has gone as far as his human condition will allow him to go, but wants to go further still, which means transforming himself into a ‘mighty god’, ‘a deity’ (ll. 64, 65), a goal he feels only magic will enable him to realise.

When Faustus declares that he wants to achieve something that ‘[s]tretcheth as far as doth the mind of man’ (l. 63), he expresses an intense optimism about human ability that has often been seen as characteristic of the Renaissance, and as the quality that most distinguishes it from the more religious Middle Ages. Historical periods are too complex to be boiled down to a single, defining essence; nor are there clear breaks between them. Nevertheless, there were developments in Europe from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century that, broadly speaking, encouraged a newly secular view of the world: the growth of scientific investigation into the structure of the universe and the laws of the physical world; the voyages of exploration, expansion of trade routes and colonisation of the Americas; the new technology of printing, which allowed for the rapid dissemination of new ideas and discoveries; and the development of a humanist educational programme, based on the study of ancient Greek and Latin authors, and dedicated to the restoration of classical ideals of civic virtue and public service. When Faustus fantasises that ‘All things that move between the quiet poles / Shall be at my command’ (ll. 58–9), his speech is inflected with the scientist's and coloniser's desire for control over the natural world (Hopkins, 2000, p. 62). When he tells Mephistopheles that he is not afraid of damnation because he believes instead in the classical Greek afterlife (see 1.3.60–1), he voices a humanist reverence for classical culture.

It is highly unlikely, though, that any sixteenth-century humanist would have countenanced this kind of explicit challenge to Christian doctrine, so if Faustus represents the secular aspirations of the Renaissance, he does so in an extreme or exaggerated form. Moreover, the fact that Doctor Faustus is set in a Christian universe and affirms the reality of hell and damnation should warn us not to overstate the secular values of Renaissance England. Indeed, what the play explores – its principal theme – is the conflict between the confidence and ambition its protagonist embodies, and the Christian faith, which remained a powerful cultural force when Marlowe was writing and required humility and submission to God's will. The play's two opening speeches set up an opposition between the Prologue's view of boundless ambition as sinful presumption and Faustus's implicit claim that the Christian universe places unjust restrictions on human potential.

Which side in this conflict do you think the play encourages us to take? We saw earlier that the Prologue seeks to discredit Faustus's interest in necromancy by portraying it in terms of an intemperate appetite. Is there more evidence in the opening scene to support its claim?

Activity

Have another look at Faustus's speech on page 4, lines 80–101, in which he imagines the power that magic will bring him. What is it he wants to achieve with this power? What kinds of motives or desires do you think he expresses in these lines?

Discussion

The Good and Evil Angels have just made their first appearance, and in response to the Evil Angel's promise that magic will allow him to be ‘on earth as Jove is in the sky’ (l. 78), Faustus exclaims ‘How am I glutted with conceit of this!’ (l. 80). Right away, then, he echoes the language of the Prologue and so identifies his own longing for godlike power with a gluttonous craving. A few lines later he thinks of the gold and precious jewels the magical spirits will bring him, along with ‘pleasant fruits and princely delicates’, or delicacies (l. 87). You may have noticed as well how often Faustus repeats the phrase ‘I'll have’, which makes him sound like a greedy child in a sweet shop. Yet alongside these acquisitive and hedonistic impulses he expresses a genuine thirst for knowledge, for example, when he says he wants the spirits to ‘resolve’ him ‘of all ambiguities’, or to answer all his questions (l. 82), and to read him ‘strange philosophy’ (l. 88). His desire to overturn the university dress code by filling the universities with silk ‘Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad’ (l. 93) strikes me as a harmless, even appealing, expression of social rebellion.

Faustus's motives in this speech seem to be mixed, neither all good nor all bad, rather like the Chorus's initial portrait of him. I'd like to say a bit more at this point about Faustus's desire to levy soldiers to ‘chase the Prince of Parma from our land’ (l. 95). In this line he is voicing antipathy to an Elizabethan hate-figure. Doctor Faustus was written during a protracted period of military conflict with Catholic Spain. The Prince of Parma was the Spanish governor of the Netherlands, and in the 1580s he was closely involved both in Spain's plans to invade England and in the suppression of a Protestant rebellion in the Netherlands which England supported. It's true that the pro-Protestant force of Faustus's statement is somewhat weakened by the fact that he seems to want rid of the Prince of Parma so that he himself might ‘reign sole king of all our provinces’ (l. 96); still, the play's original audience is likely to have warmed to the picture of this representative of Spanish Catholic military might being ignominiously chased out of northern Europe.

This is a good example of the way in which reading literary texts with their historical context in mind can help to shed light on their meaning. The mention of the Prince of Parma in this speech strongly suggests that Marlowe was, at least to some extent, seeking to arouse audience support for Faustus.

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