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Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus as Aristotelian tragedy

Christopher Marlowe emulates much of the traits of Aristotelian tragedies in his tragic play Doctor Faustus. He portrays a tragic hero brings his own downfall by the end of the play. Doctor Faustus is a contradictory character due to his high ambitions and then his blindness and willingness to waste his power.

According to Aristotle, the tragic hero evokes both our pity and terror because he is neither good nor thoroughly bad but a mixture of both; this tragic effect will be stronger if the hero is better than we are. Such a hero, who is of noble birth, suffers from a change of happiness to misery because of his mistaken choice which is led by his hamartia (error of judgment). The tragic hero stands against his fate or the gods to demonstrate his power of free will. He wants to be the master of his own fate. He decides to make decisions but mostly the decision making would lead to weakness or his own downfall.

Marlow’s tragic heroes do not abide by all those conditions detailed out by Aristotle. They agree partially. For example, Faustus is of an ordinary German parent who goes to Wittenberg for higher studies mainly supported by his kinsmen. His is not noble birth. But he is great because of his scholarship. Like Macbeth, he is an ambitious hero. He denounces God, blasphemes the Trinity and Christian doctrines and sells his soul to the Devil to gain superhuman power and to live a life of voluptuousness for twenty four years. His fate is settled when he signs the contact. He utters such blasphemous words:

Had I as many souls as there be stars,
I’d give them all for Mephistophilis
By him I’ll be great emperor for the world.

Marlow achieves distinction by infusing the Renaissance spirit in his tragic hero. Dr. Faustus wanted to support his own plot to make his own decision. With his yearning for knowledge, he proceeds to study necromancy. He responds to the suggestions of the Evil Angel to attain the position of a “Lord and Commander of the world”. He tries his best to gain a deity and commits a sinful act. He sells his soul to acquire unlimited power to probe the secrets of the universe. Dr. Faustus wanted to take destiny in his own hands to demonstrate the power of free will against fate.

Like some other great tragic heroes, Faustus also suffers from conflict. Like Hamlet, his conflict is also inner. Faustus choice of necromancy is made after inner conflict. The appearance of the Good and Evil Angel side by side are the personifications of his good and evil impulses. His conventional heart is opposed to his self damnation but he ignores all the warning and completes the scroll. As the time rolls on, he becomes more and more disillusioned about the profits he expected from magic and the growing sense of loss and the wages of damnation begins to sting him like a scorpion:

When I behold the heaven, then I repent,
And curse thee, wicked Mephistophilis,
Because thou hast deprived me of these joys.

The basic thing about a tragic hero is his tragic flaw which brings about his doom and disaster. The tragic flaw in the character of Faustus is thirst for unlimited power knowledge, and pleasure. He submits himself to the appetites of sensuality. As his mounting desires bear him further and further, the horror of his career grows darker. At last he comes to the impassable point and meets his doom.

According to the classical view a tragic hero must arouse pity and fear in the heart of the audience. In this respect  Faustus does not go an exception. Faustus’ universal appeal for life, when he says;

My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hall gape not! Come not Lucifer!
I’ll burn my book! Ah, Mephistophilis.

touches the heart of the audience. Pity and sympathy for the Faustus are aroused in this scene. Thus, Doctor Faustus may be regarded as the tragedy since it conforms to the basic properties of an Aristotelian tragedy.

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