The Limitations of Human Knowledge Through the Ambitions of John Faustus in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, a Play by Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe‘s The Troyicol History of Doctor Faustus is a play that touches on the theme of the limitations of human knowledge through the ambitions of the play’s overreaching protagonist, John Faustus. Marlowe‘s play is derived from an older German story that tells the tale of Doctor Faustus selling his soul to the devil, but Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is significantly different than the German story. Marlowe‘s play is significant because the protagonist’s damnation is set in motion through his unsatisfied thirst for knowledge, a thirst that conventional scholarship does not quench. In order to cull his curiosity, Doctor Faustus turns to black magic and the devil Doctor Faustus sells his soul to Lucifer for knowledge.

In the context of 16‘“ century humanism and its effect on the curriculum to take a more secular approach, Marlowe’s play is a warning of the pitfalls of a humanistic pedagogy. Through analyzing certain characters’ relationship to each other and the ends they expect from knowledge, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus becomes a pejorative commentary on the aspirations of a humanistic erudition, as told from the lips of Wagner. The first thing to remember, “the end of [Elizabethan] learning was to prepare individuals for better service to both God and the state”. In this context, Dr. Faustus misses the mark from the very beginning of the play To demonstrate his misconception 0f learning‘s end, Faustus dismisses the significance of learning logic when he says, “Is to dispute well logic’s chiefest end? Affords this art no greater miracle?

Then read no more, thou hast attained the end”, Similarly, Faustus evinces the futility in learning medicine when he says, “Couldst thou make men to live eternally,  Or being dead, raise them to life again. Then this profession were to be esteemed” Furthermore, Faustus’ skewed line of reasoning leads him to discount the study of law when he says. “This study fits a mercenary drudge. Who aims at nothing but external trash— Too servile and illiberal for me”. To say nothing of his denunciations of conventional studies, Faustus finally articulates his frustration over divinity when he says, “Ay, we must die, an everlasting death. What doctrine call you this? Che saré, sara’, What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu!”.

In short, Faustus’ extreme sense of pride causes him to misconstrue the conventional ends of Elizabethan education, focusing selfishly on the personal ends of education. In this light, Faustus’ line of reasoning is an exaggerated portrayal of the humanistic idea of using reason to figure things out. In Doctor Faustus, Faustus (man) is the measure of all things, but Faustus’ ruler is easily augmented by pride, and his measurements on conventional education do not fit within the socially acceptable philosophic conceptions concerning Elizabethan education. With this in mind, the question remains as to what exactly Faustus wishes to achieve through education. The answer: everything. In his fantasy of magic, Faustus renounces the conventional curriculum as unfruitful, but he notes, “his dominion that exceeds in this.

Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man!”. Accordingly, Faustus realizes that “ sound magician is a mighty god[,]” and he resolves to “[h]ere tire, [his] brains, to get a deity!”, Here, it should be pointed out, Faustus acknowledges the limitations of magic as ending only at the boundaries of the human mind, a thought echoing the ideals of humanistic thought, and, in having no limits, Faustus conceives the end of education as becoming a god. Under those circumstances, Marlowe’s tragic protagonist becomes comic through exaggeration of the humanistic concept of learning. In the context of American literature, Marlowe’s character mirrors the anti-transcendentalist heroes of such authors as Poe, Melville, and Davis.

In the same fashion, Doctor Faustus is perhaps an anti-humanistic hero Different from my reading of Doctor Faustus, McCullen notes. “There is no evidence that [Faustus] is interested in truth, which, even though it was admittedly impossible of attainment, was the chief incentive behind humanistic quests for knowledge” (10) Although this may be true, McCullen’s observation only serves to bolster my characterization of Faustus as an antihero. That is to say, the insignificance of truth in Fausttls’ quest for knowledge is the result of his humanistic train of thought, the ends of reasoning fouled by the very process of reasoning. By the same token, the idea of free will, as it is a characteristic commonly associated with humanism, is evinced when Faustus says, “To God? He loves thee not; The god thou serv’st is thine own appetite” and “Is not thy soul thine own?”. For these reasons, Doctor Faustus is viewed as an extreme version of the humanistic concept of learning put into practice, contradictory to itself and harbinger of its own downfall.

With this in mind, Wagner becomes an interesting character To emphasize the significance of the character, the actor that plays Wagner also plays the part of the Chorus, making Wagner and the Chorus one in the same. This fact is evinced in the stage directions that precede the third act: “(Enter the Chorus [Wagner].)”. As Matalene points out, “Such a reading makes it somewhat more difficult than is often supposed to interpret the religious attitudes of the opening Chorus as conventionally applicable, in the manner of the old morality plays, to the protagonist’s actions in the play itself”.On the other hand, if we are to view Doctor Faustus in terms of morality plays, the relationship of the Wagner/Chorus character to the protagonist’s actions in the play is perhaps illuminated.

As Matalene astutely observes, “ the Chorus makes it clear that Faustus has already taken magic up, and that when the doctor begins to speak we are witnessing something else”. Matalan bases this observation on Marlowe’s use of the word “is” when the Chorus says, “[Faustus] surfeits upon cursed necromancy; Nothing so sweet as magic is to him”. In view of Matalene‘s observation, Doctor Faustus opens with a temporal qualifier, hinting that Faustus’ fate has already been decided. Correspondingly, Wagner‘s unusual position as character and Chorus, added to his uncanny knowledge of Faustus’ actions in the play, knowledge Wagner possesses even when he himself is not a participant in the action, leads to a reading of the play with Wagner as the narrator. In other words, Doctor Faustus is not only viewed as a morality play but also a memory play, told through the perspective of Wagner via the Chorus. Certainly, this reading clears up any confusion that Wagner‘s liminality as a character and Chorus evokes, and it explains how Wagner can “speak for Faustus in his infancy”.

As shown above, Wagner can be two characters and all-knowing because the story of Doctor Faustus is Wagner‘s tale to tell. All things considered, the relationship between Faustus and Wagner is crucial to interpreting a theme in the play. Wagner is a student and servant to Faustus, as is evinced when the First Scholar asks Wagner, “How now sirrah, where’s thy master?” As an illustration of his servitude, Wagner fetches Valdes and Cornelius when Faustus commands, “Wagner, commend me to my dearest friends” (Marlowe 1,1,65). At the same time, Wagner is notably aloof from Faustus for the majority of the play. After fetching Valdes and Cornelius, Wagner does not interact with Faustus until near the end of the play when he tells Faustus, “Sir, the Duke of Vanholt doth earnestly / entreat your company”. Interestingly, as Faustus’s servant, Wagner only interacts with Faustus before the doctor conjures Mephastophilis and right before Faustus dies. With this in mind, it is important to realize that Wagner‘s aloofness from Faustus stretches the p of twenty-four years, as per Faustus‘s agreement with the devil “[to] spare him four and twenty years” .

Certainly, this is a considerable amount of time for one’s servant, and student, to be absent Additionally, the Liming of Wagner‘s departure, right as Faustus falls into black magic, hints at Wagner’s silent protest. To begin with, Wagner is a devoted servant and student to Faustus. Wagner’s devotion to Faustus is portrayed in his reaction to the scholars’ inquiry of Faustus’ whereabouts: “Yes sir, I will tell you; yet if you were not / dunces you would never ask me such a question, for is / not he corpus naturals, and is not that mobile?”.  At once, Wagner‘s answer shows faithfulness to Faustus while also indicating Wagner’s changing opinion to his master, Indeed, by calling the scholars “dunces,” Wagner is showing his humanist roots by using a pejorative term often attributed to Renaissance humanists when they want to deride overly complex logic. Undoubtedly, as a student and servant to Faustus, Wagner would have picked up this bit of humanist jargon from his master.

At the same time, Wagner also uses Latin to describe Faustus as a natural body that is subject to change Correspondingly, Wagner‘s realization of Faustus’ malleable nature comes right before Wagner’s twenty—four-year absence from Faustus, perhaps indicating a schism between the two characters, one evinced in the interaction between Wagner and the Clown, In contrast to Faustus’ perceived ends of education, Wagner’s view on the ends of education is shown in his treatment of the Clown. In the first place, there is the symbolism of the Clown character. It is important to realize that the Clown character is not a balloons-and-buzzer clown; rather, as Joseph Black notes, Marlowe’s clown is “[a] [b]oorish rustic, a fool”. In other words, the Clown symbolizes the uneducated rural population. In this light, Wagner views the end of education as a weapon against ignorance, as he says, “Villain, call me Master Wagner, and see that / you walk attentively, and let your right eye be always diametrally fixed upon my left heel, that thou mayest / quasi vestigial nostrils insitere”.

Therefore, in calling the Clown a “villain,” Wagner identifies the enemy as ignorance. Moreover, in his overly elaborate dialogue, Wagner is speaking the language of the scholars he formerly derided as dunces, adding an emotional distance to the spatial distance between him, Faustus, and Faustus’s humanistic beliefs. In short, unlike Faustus, Wagner does not View the end of conventional education as futile rather, Wagner sees conventional education as a useful weapon in the never» ending battle against ignorance i. with certain limitations.  The most compelling evidence that Doctor Faustus is a warning from Wagner of the pitfalls of a humanistic pedagogy comes from the play‘s epilogue. In the epilogue, Wagner, playing his part as the Chorus, solely addresses the audience: Faustus is gone, regard his hellish fall, Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise.

Only to wonder at unlawful things, Whose deepness cloth entices such forward wits To practice more than heavenly power permits. Certainly, Wagner’s epilogue takes on the tone of someone giving a bit of warning advice, as “[Faustus] fiendful fortune may exhort the wise” makes abundantly clear. However, what Wagner is warning against is what must be remembered. As Reynolds points out, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is a play that can be Viewed ” both as a morality—a warning against seeking knowledge and power fitting only for God—and as an epitome of Renaissance man’s attempts to expand his knowledge and power beyond the limits imposed by medieval religious authority”. In my opinion, the play is both Through Faustus, the play presents a character overreaching for knowledge, denouncing God in the process, and losing his soul as a result.

On the other hand, Wagner provides the warning against seeking unlawful knowledge while not entirely breaking away from Faustus’ more secular erudition, Wagner takes on the Clown as his student; presumably, the Clown does not aspire to be a member of the clergy. Therefore, Wagner seems to be a conglomeration of the Elizabethan idea of education and Faustus’s more open-ended humanistic idea of education. With this in mind, Marlowe seems to be symbolically passing the torch when Wagner says, “I think my master means to die shortly. For he hath given to me all his goods“ ‘ Painting Wagner as a liminal figure walking the line between religion and humanism seems a fitting portrayal of a character created by the author that Matalene describes as “ the old, fascinating Marlowe—the kindred soul of the Baines note, the spirit-possessed, knifed by Ingram Frizar and then ratted-on by Kyd”

Moreover, this reading of the text falls in line with McCullen‘s observation that “Marlowe’s dualism seems to be a distrust of extremes, whether in conventional ethics or empirical revolt“ Given these points, Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus establishes a piece of middle ground between the Elizabethan idea of education and the concept held by Renaissance humanists. In conclusion, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus posits the question as to what is acceptable through education, and Marlowe frames this question in Renaissance humanism, through the anti-humanistic hero Doctor Faustus and the liminal-tempered Wagner. In fact, Marlowe’s entire play is seemingly liminal: a morality-play or a memory»play, a warning against conventional ethics or empirical revolt, a German folk-tale or contemporary play, Faustus’s story or Wagner’s tale.

In reality, the play is all of the above by riding the margin between extremes. In essence, Marlowe has taken a story from German antiquity and “[he] recast[s] his source to serve his dramatic intent. He thus shifted the thematic core from a moral tale of a character whose flaw is simply an innate evil to the tragedy of a man who generates his own flaw through his faulty perception of the uses of the human mind“. Correspondingly, taking the old and making it new is a fitting metaphor for Doctor Fuustus, as Marlowe seemingly tries to blend the conventional and humanistic concepts of education into a new direction in his play.

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