The Search for Truth:
An Exploratory Essay on the Metaphysical and Mimetic Significance of Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus brings a very wide assortment of knowledge to the forefront of the story. This is due, in part, to the premise of the play—that being Faustus’ ambitious desire to acquire all forms of knowledge. This is also due to the nature of Renaissance drama…Stories were formulated to mirror and reflect that of other archetypes, tropes, and literature. This was a means to demonstrate how smart the playwright was. Shakespeare’s plays held formulaic storylines with predictable outcomes, as did Marlowe’s. It was a cultural indicator that showed their knowledge in the creative arts. Doctor Faustus pays particular attention to parallelisms between the protagonist, theological literature, and classic Greek mythography. Marlowe paid very special attention to the correlations of these stories. It becomes evident that Faustus’ fascination with Greek mythology, and his hubristic dismissal for the dogmas of Christianity were both stemmed by his desire to obtain knowledge. Despite his biases, both of these spiritual domains were irrefutably connected by Faustus’ curiosity. Marlowe boldly brought these allusions to light throughout the play’s progression, oftentimes in very literal forms. Noting their obvious importance, I couldn’t help but wonder how intricately the two belief systems correlated within the context of the story. My inquiry on the matter started out being a very broad question—vague, even. All I could conjecture was that there was a definitive link between Christian theology and Greek mythos. At first, I couldn’t quite articulate what specifically made it pertinent as a research topic. But the more material I investigated, the more I discovered just how prominent the comparisons of the two cultural belief systems were within the text. I consulted a myriad of scholarly sources in this endeavor. The ones I will be highlighting will be from essays written by scholars such as Michael Rudasill, T. McAlindon, and A.N. Okerland, among others. I also sought insights from a chapter discussion in Elias Shwartz’s novel on mimetic theory. By the time I’d exhausted my efforts in trying to discern my question, it finally dawned on me: The juxtaposition of these allusions were designed to reveal the truest extent of where Faustus went wrong in his quest for knowledge. The agreement in this was universal in my search. The parallelism of Christian theology and Classic mythology “melds myth so thoroughly and thrillingly into a diversity of structures: a Christian scheme, a medieval mystery, a Renaissance hunt for knowledge, and other pagan paradigms like the Icarus story” (Wessman, 413).
Michael Carlton Rudasill composed a scholarly thesis for Florida Atlantic University titled “A Study of the Significance of Marlowe’s use of the Unforgivable Sin as a Plot Device in ‘Dr. Faustus.'” In it, he explores the extent in which Faustus’ blasphemy holds him spiritually accountable and thereby destroys any hope for redemption. He also makes a commentary regarding how this demise parallels that of Greek tragedies. Rudasill concedes that “the many scriptural allusions and references alluded to overtly or subtly inserted into the play by Marlowe provide more opportunities for research than can be readily handled in any single thesis (Rudasill 1). And yet he managed to hone in on a very strong critical idea that supplemented my own exploration on the topic. There was one statement that rang particularly true in regards to my exploration: Rudasill highlights one of his sources, Judith Weil, who writes that “wisdom remains a strong presence in the world of Faustus; it is the grace that he repeatedly rejects, the intuitive love of God which, but for his folly, might have informed his learning and saved his soul” (qtd. in Rudasill 7). This agrees with the inevitability of Faustus’ fall from grace, and provides reasoning as to how his endeavor damned him. Rudasill takes this notion one step further and adds that Faustus’ casual dismissal of the discipline of divinity, a discipline and system of belief that was commonly treated as fact in Elizabethan England, shows the depth of his frivolous disrespect of a key part of his cultural heritage (27). Faustus does indeed remove himself from his own culture and cultural doctrine…He does so by immersing himself in the romanticized incarnation of classical philosophies. Rudasill draws a very apt conclusion in regards to the archaic structure and formulas of the Grecian classical era. He points out the necessity of the Chorus as a classical device, which then reinforces the association of Faustus’ tragedy with the tragedies of the classical tradition (26). Because his accumulation of knowledge is gratified in a very selfish and selective manner, Rudasill concludes that “the overreaching Faustus will not only know the torment of the knowledge that he deliberately cast aside paradise, he will also know the pain of another literal abode of eternal torment” (33). This led me to believe that Faustus’ fascination with the classical era was very deliberate on Marlowe’s part, as a means of further accentuating the nuances of Christian theology that Faustus neglected to accept. Furthermore, the correlation between the two faiths demonstrates an imitative foundation to further illustrate the nature of Faustus’ demise.
I came to learn that there is a theory that expounds on the protagonist’s mimicry of theological formulae: Mimetic theory. This theory originates as an Aristotelean thought, which states that art, by nature, imitates art. Meaning that what has been created, is then recreated by other means. This includes art of all forms, be it musical, lyrical, visual, etc. Elias Schwartz clarifies in his novel Forms of Feeling that, in the case of Faustus and literary theory, the prominence of theological allusions are meant to provide a comparison that Faustus himself is trying to imitate. He lacks authenticity, and that perhaps plays a key role in influencing his eventual demise. Noam Reisner further explores this theory in his comparative essay “The Paradox of Mimesis in Sidney’s Defence of Poesie and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.” Reisner summarizes his key claim as follows:
“Faustus’s magical art, like the hell from which it draws its power, is an instance to prove the truth of theological absolutes which otherwise exceed mimetic representation, but it is a truth Faustus can never see. Ironically, however, Faustus’s inability to see this truth in a sense also liberates him from it. [. . .] Marlowe has Faustus fight the implications of this [mimetic] paradox by gradually emptying his magical arts of any practical or ethical content” (343).
Faustus has depicted the realm of metaphysics in a very selective and self-prescriptive way. This severely limits the scope of reality in which the absolution of truth resides. Reisner articulates that “Faustus has no choice but to embrace the illusory yet entertaining nature of his power,” which thereby separates him from glory of God’s promise of eternal life (344). As much as Faustus scorns the Christian God and his heavenly conditions, he still has a desire to dwell within a realm that exceeds the limitations of man: “Faustus loses himself absolutely in Homer’s imagined world for its own sake” (345). Reisner concludes that “the fatalism of Faustus’s position is thus not theological, but mimetic. Indeed, mimesis is all that he can cling to. Faustus uses his magical art to fritter away what little time he has, as he indulges in low level trickery and pseudo-humanistic parlour games” (346). Upon decoding what role mimesis had in the role of literature and theater, it suddenly became clear to me as to why the correlation of Faustus’ religious fancies were so blatantly and repeatedly expressed. The two literatures align in virtually every respect. The key difference lies in which one bears the Truth that Faustus must believe in order to truly achieve otherworldly knowledge. One provides a truth that Faustus is unsatisfied with, while the other is laced with the lure of desire: “Marlowe latches on to the idea that it is the mimetic act of imaginative conjuration itself which secures the truth-value of that which it cannot contain” (342). In other words, just because Faustus is interested in one brand of faith, doesn’t mean it is the true faith. When it becomes evident within the play’s canon that Christianity is indeed the right faith, Faustus is limited with the illusionary magicks that Lucifer seduces him with. Every conjuration Faustus makes is in its imitative form. There is no truth or tangibility to what he produces. It’s an indicator of the falsehood he’s immersing himself in, thereby furthering his blasphemous demise. Professor T. McAlindon agrees with Reisner’s perception of Lucifer’s coercive influence: “In rejecting theology [. . .] he embraces the devil’s most seductive manifestations, magic and mythology. Heavenly has come to seem hellish (equivalent to envy, cruelty, and despair); and now the old gods and magic serve to make hellish seem heavenly, by providing new rites, gratifying self-esteem, and offering satisfactions which are readily perceptible to the senses” ( McAlindon 215). Reisner brings to light perhaps one of the more quintessential examples of this from within the text: “Faustus’s wish to play out the part of Paris for his conjured Helen later in Act V (‘I will be Paris, and for love of thee / Instead of Troy shall Wittenberg be sacked’, V. i. 98-9) is merely a literalisation of the same idea through a process of reverse mimesis which allows the conjured image to compete for a claim on truth with the merely shadowed reality of heaven and hell” (345).
In his essay “‘I’ll Play Diana’: Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and the Actaeon Complex,” Christopher Wessman further explores Faustus’ mythical re-imaginings and the consequences that come of that. Specifically, he does so in a close reading of the scene where Faustus victimizes Benvolio in a reenactment of the myth featuring Actaeon and the goddess Diana. Wessman finds it “entirely appropriate that a myth involving the secrets of knowledge and self-consciousness […] should be used as a vehicle for self-examination” (Wessman 419). This ‘knowledge’ Wessman speaks of, is in relation to Actaeon’s unintentional knowledge—stumbling upon Diana in her naked and vulnerable state. Wessman says that “Marlowe connects Diana’s divine power (and Actaeon’s transgression) to necromantic and theatrical prowess, interrogating and ultimately problematizing divinity, magic, and theater” (401). Of the multiple interpretations of the myth, one of them deems Actaeon’s punishment as justifiable, due to Sartre’s ‘Actaeon complex,’ which is a loose interpretive meaning of: ‘to know is to devour with the eyes.’ Wessman explains that “Faustus’s goal at the outset is a visual penetration and consumption of divine secrets; his language expresses this voracious hunger,” not so unlike Actaeon himself (411). The irony here, is that Faustus casts himself in the divine role of Diana, but his fate aligns more similarly to that of Actaeon. Wessman points out that in Act Five of the play, “Faustus’s diction betrays the mythological trappings of his end” (411). This includes phrases such as ‘rend not my heart,’—a homophone to imply the ‘hart’ that Actaeon was transformed into, ‘brutish beast,’ etc. All of which serve as mimicries of Actaeon’s own fate. This suggests that even though Faustus eventually came to the final realization of God’s Truth, he still yearned for a romanticized and glorified death that imitated the classical tales he held in such high esteem. His lesson remained unlearned, and that is what inhibited him from true redemption.
In contrast to the mythical perspective, Jay Zysk focuses primarily on the Eucharistic embodiment of Faustus’ moral dilemma in his essay “The Last Temptation of Faustus.” He uncovers how Faustus’ disdain for the notion of God was due to his selfish compulsion to become his own God in a very literal and physiological way. Zysk says: “While Faustus does not reveal a desire for transubstantiation outright, his compulsion to effect substantial change through magic is related in part to such a priestly power [. . .] What he lacks in the capacity of priestly confection he locates in magical conjuration” (348). This shows that Faustus’ has a very agnostic perspective in that he withholds any belief in a God unless he himself can become one. God’s promise is of eternal life, not of eternal Godhood. Deified transformations, as it happens, are seen much more commonly in the mythography of the classical era, which Faustus then conceptualizes as his own brand of intellectual faith—one that suits his own ideals and motivations, as described by T. McAlindon: “Demons always seek to be worshipped as gods, and sometimes promise their follower that they too will be gods. The belief that magic is synonymous with idolatry and mythology is, in fact, clearly discernible” (McAlindon 216).
A.N Ockerland’s “Intellectual Folly of Doctor Faustus” agrees with Faustus’ selective faith, and highlights his delusion from an intellectual standpoint. As ‘scholarly’ as Faustus makes himself out to be, Okerland proves that Faustus is just as flippant with intellect as he is with divinity: “Faustus profanes the intellectual process by selecting only those data which substantiate conclusions predetermined by desire. Increasingly, his actions reflect a tendency to hear only what he wishes and to see only the evidence that confirms his preestablished vision” (Okerland 261). Even Faustus can’t deny it, as Okerland points out, that “his final cry, “I’le burne my bookes,” records all the anguish of that comprehension, of the knowledge so blithely ignored during the euphoria of his self-delusion” (277). In violating the principles of the intellectual dialectic, Faustus is left with no other form to turn to except the metaphysical, which expounds knowledge in a way that either provides the truth, or lies about it. Okerland states that the “angels present a classic problem of whom to believe-and what to believe when contradictory statements are uttered as fact” (267).
- McAlindon’s essay “Classical Mythology and Christian Tradition in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus” was one of the first scholarly articles that I found in doing my research, but it was one that I felt needed to be reread with the most care, since the title suggested just how important it was in relation to my topic. The relevance imparted in the essay was very eye-opening, and it tied all my other sources together quite nicely as a whole. So due to that, I felt it necessary to discuss McAlindon’s findings last before transitioning to my own conclusions. McAlindon expresses his central claim right off the bat, stating that “basically, mythology and magic are conceived in Dr. Faustus as pseudo-divinity” (McAlindon 214). Meaning that Faustus’ acceptance of “theological attitudes to the classical gods and their fables [. . .] serves to emphasize a spiritual evaluation of the ambitions and passions which destroy the erring theologian of Wittenberg” (214). McAlindon agrees with Okerland’s stance on the “intellectual” influence of the inner angels, as well as Wessman’s claim on Faustus’ God complex. McAlindon says the fact that “[Faustus] is confronted with a choice between theology and mythology is nicely demonstrated by the persuasions of the Good and the Evil Angel, one urging him to read the scriptures and avoid blasphemy, the other pressing upon him ‘the damned book’ which would allow him to be ‘on earth as Jove is in the sky, / Lord and commander of these elements’ (i.75-76)” (216). McAlindon’s key argument is that classical mythology and Christian traditions aren’t meant to coincide, so much as they are meant to oppose each other. He concludes that “there is never any fusion of classical ornament and Christian doctrine; when confusion arises it has a dramatic significance, and in reality they are as opposed as the Evil and the Good Angel” (223). McAlindon states that once he “rejects” the ideals of Christian divinity, “the old gods invade [Faustus’] mind with (in the theological view) complete inevitability” (216). Hedonists of the 16th century, contemporary to both Faustus and Marlowe, were executed by means of fire. It is most fitting then, says McAlindon, that “the very last image in the play is one of fire, and it marks, most poignantly, the simultaneous end of the old gods and of one who aspired to be like them” (222).
Based on my research, I came to the conclusion that Faustus made two crucial mistakes on his quest as the play progressed. His first mistake was in formulating his own brand of faith…Faustus selected parts that he liked about anything he sought to learn and believed only what he fancied. He elected only to know what he wanted to know rather than what there is to know. This course of action blasphemed against heaven, which is deemed as the “unforgivable sin” in Elizabethan times. Faustus’ second mistake was not recognizing his accountability once he had accumulated all knowledge—It’s been long debated among scholars that Faustus never acquired the knowledge he sold his soul for…But I am of the mind that he did come to know all things, regardless of whether or not he accepted them as truths. One of the key reasons Faustus didn’t obtain the rewards of heavenly immortality because he disregarded certain truths. Faustus didn’t want to be held accountable for anything…but that’s the consequence of knowledge, as seen in the Fall of Man depicted in the book of Genesis. This dismissal of responsibility is what made him incapable of redemption. He didn’t accept the Truth until his descent had already begun. All of this not only mirrors Christian theology but it also parallels Lucifer’s own fall from grace, which is alluded in the Icarus myth that makes appearances throughout the play. The endless parallels between these archetypal themes demonstrate how Faustus represents a dire consequence for being selective with what you choose to believe in. Faustus has a superficial designer faith in mind—one where God doesn’t exist, yet God’s enemy does. Where a higher power is deemed ridiculous, but magic and myths can be made true. His beliefs all run contrary to each other. And his persistence and hubris on the matter are what ultimately turn the tide against him. He reimagines and reenacts the stories he revels in, at the cost of blighting others. He glorifies himself and his prestige for attempting to outsmart those that gifted him in the first place. He asks to know of God, Heaven, Hell, and the cosmos; yet he scoffs at what he disagrees with—or feigns ignorance at what he wishes not to be true. All of these traits are hyperbolic representations of what we as human beings possess at our own internalized levels. And Faustus’ demise cautions us against falling prey to our own inner demons—which can instill pain and pleasure in equal fervor. For me, coming to this conclusion awakened a deeper appreciation for the definition of Truth. As stated in the book of John, the truth, while it may be ugly at times, will ultimately “set you free” (John 8:32).
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