"Resolve me of all ambiguities": Doctor Faustus and the Failure to Unify

Andrew Duxfield
Sheffield Hallam University

Andrew Duxfield. " 'Resolve me of all ambiguities': Doctor Faustus and the Failure to Unify". Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 16 (October, 2007) 7.1-21<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-16/duxfdrfs.htm>.


  1. It has long been suggested that Doctor Faustus does little to pursue the grand project which he sets for himself at the beginning of Marlowe's play. Great political and military ambitions fall by the wayside as Faustus takes trivial pleasure in his newfound and short-lived abilities. What tends to have been overlooked, however, is that there is an element of his initial plan to which Faustus stubbornly adheres: namely, the attainment of a unified understanding of things. This reductive goal, I will argue, is doomed to failure by the persistently ambivalent world in which he exists. Among the many reasons for the play's continued prominence is its problematic nature; as well as existing in two texts that differ to a perplexing extent, Doctor Faustus has continued to garner diametrically opposing critical readings since comment upon it began. This article will examine the ambiguity of the play which leads to its being interpreted as either a cautionary tale demonstrating the fate of those who abandon their faith in God, or as a celebration of the Renaissance humanist spirit. The Elizabethan audience is shown the story of a morally barren scholar who rejects divinity in favour of the seductive power of Lucifer, yet at the same time seems to be invited to identify, and at times even sympathise, with him. The play seems to be variously a medieval morality play and a Renaissance tragedy, and also infiltrates a patently Christian theme with abundant images of Classical mythology, placing alongside and within one another concepts and structures which are fundamentally incompatible.

  2. In marked contrast to this ambiguity, however, the play's protagonist is driven by an irrevocable desire to attain unequivocal knowledge and a unified understanding of the world. The play centres, I will argue, upon the utter failure of Faustus to achieve this unifying goal which he sets for himself, and upon the impossibility of him, or anyone, ever doing so; the contradictory world which Marlowe creates in the play is entirely resistant to unification. This atmosphere of ambiguity and incompatibility in the play is reflective of the social climate during the long 1590s, at the end of a century which had seen the nation change its official religion three times. The dual generic frameworks of the play, the morality play on the one hand and tragedy on the other, each of which promote an opposing view of the protagonist, exemplify the contemporary tension between a Medieval scholastic mindset, based upon religious faith, and the new Renaissance humanist ethos, based upon the pursuit of secular knowledge; the inevitability of Faustus's failure, I will suggest, provides a comment on the profound ideological and political fracture current in England and across Europe during the latter part of the sixteenth century. 
    Moral Ambiguity
  3. Perhaps the most fundamental ambiguity of Doctor Faustus is in the nature of its protagonist. Is Faustus a bad man, or simply foolish? If he is indeed bad or foolish, can he rightly be said to be a tragic hero? Is the audience meant to witness the demise of a man who has been overcome by the admirable Renaissance urge for human endeavour, or rather the fearful and just punishment of a faithless heretic? Critical discussion of the play over the last century has produced substantial support for both sides of the argument. One does not have to delve deeply to find an orthodox Christian moral in Doctor Faustus; here we have a play in which the protagonist, overflowing with boastful arrogance, sells his soul to Lucifer in return for twenty-four years of earthly indulgence, and ultimately pays the inevitable price of eternal damnation. As early as the prologue, we are given ample reason to anticipate a vehement propounding of Christian values:
    Excelling all whose sweet delight disputes
    In heavenly matters of theology;
    Till, swoll'n with cunning of a self conceit,
    His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
    And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow.
    For, falling to a devilish exercise,
    And glutted more with learning's golden gifts,
    He surfeits upon cursèd necromancy(Prologue.18-25)[1]
    Faustus's descent from the study of "heavenly matters of theology" to the gluttonous partaking of "a devilish exercise" seems calculated to excite the disapproval of a pious audience. Arieh Sachs, who interprets the play as an exploration of Protestant theology with an orthodox moral, asserts that
    In general, the scheme of values in which the action of Doctor Faustus takes place is the fundamental Christian outlook which prevailed in the western world from the decline of Roman secularism to the disintegration of the dogmatic tradition long after the play was written.[2]
    For Sachs, any interpretation of the play which considers Faustus as a figure to be admired by the audience simply overlooks the religio-historical context in which the play was produced:
    To suggest that because Faustus does not seem to commit an infraction of what the modern liberal and utilitarian mind sees as morality he is an admirable character and does not deserve his punishment is to put the play in a context entirely alien to it.[3]
    Robert Ornstein similarly dismisses the idea of Faustus as an admirable humanist:
    Marlowe's religious thought may be heterodox in some respects, but his ethics are sound. We are always aware that Faustus the aspiring Titan is also the self-deluded fool of Lucifer.[4]
    Faustus's folly is often the main justification for orthodox readings of the play; the audience, the argument goes, cannot possibly have identified with a character who is simultaneously immensely proud of his intellect and sufficiently ignorant to pursue such a hopeless endeavour as a pact with Lucifer. Joseph T. McCullen argues that Faustus's downfall comes about as a direct result of his "culpable ignorance",[5] and that the Elizabethan conception of wisdom, which emphasises the importance of self-knowledge and the application of ideas to practical causes (disputing alone is not only considered insufficient, but specious and pedantic), would leave little room for a contemporary audience to consider Faustus as anything other than a fool. As Mike Pincombe states, "For all Faustus's learning, he is still a dilettante when it comes to wisdom."[6] This argument is not without ammunition; Faustus knowingly signs away his soul, despite Mephistopheles's words of experience which warn him to "leave these frivolous demands, / which strike a terror to my fainting soul!"(I.3.83-4). As if this was not enough, he then takes his academic scepticism to an absurd degree, challenging the description of hell offered by Mephistopheles, himself visible proof of its existence, with the retort "Come, I think hell's a fable". (II.1.130). Indeed, despite the reputation he appears to wield in the academic world, we are given ample cause to question Faustus's abilities as a scholar; the syllogism that he constructs in the first soliloquy provides an example:
    Jerome's Bible, Faustus, view it well.
    [He reads] Stipendium peccati mors est. Ha!
    Stipendium, etc.
    The reward of sin is death. That's hard.
    [He reads] Si pecasse negamus, fallimur
    Et nulla est in nobis veritas

    If we say that we have no sin,
    We deceive ourselves and there's no truth in us.
    Why then belike we must sin,
    And so consequently die.(I.1.38-48)
    From the evidence that Faustus provides, his assertion is logically sound, but, through either ineptitude or wilful negligence, the biblical quotations upon which it is built are taken entirely out of context, a fact observed by David Bevington:
    The first should read "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6.23); the second, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1.8). An Elizabethan audience, used to hearing disputations on Biblical texts, would presumably have been quicker than we to detect Faustus's fallacies.[7]
    Faustus's erroneous syllogism, from an orthodox viewpoint, could be seen as representative of his greater plight; it is a lack of understanding of Christian faith and the forgiveness of God that leads him to reject it.

  4. Further evidence of Faustus's idiocy can be derived from the profligate uses to which he puts his powers once he has rejected divinity. In stark contrast to the lofty promises he makes to himself to "wall all Germany in brass" and "chase the Prince of Parma from our land" (I. 1. 90, 95), Faustus fritters away his twenty-four years in idle horseplay; throughout the third and fourth acts he does little of more worth than to play practical jokes at the expense of the Pope and a lowly horse-courser, humiliate an injurious knight and perform magic tricks for the emperor, the Duke of Vanholt and his wife.[8] Indeed, such is the gulf between the evocative statements of intent articulated in the first two acts and the trivial eventuality that ensues in the third and fourth, that the play is often accused of being poorly structured and thematically inconsistent, and the less "serious" material attributed to the pen of an unnamed collaborator.[9] One can equally argue, however, that the middle section of the play simply illustrates the transience and ultimate irrelevance of earthly power, and highlights the degree to which Faustus has been duped.
  5. In response to the argument for Doctor Faustus as a document of Christian morality, however, one can ask just how bad Faustus actually is; besides a slap on the pate for the pope, a joke at the expense of the knight and the sale of some questionable merchandise to the horse-courser, Faustus does nothing to harm anybody other than himself. A critic such as Sachs might dismiss such a statement as born of a modern liberal judgement of an Elizabethan play, but it can equally be argued that, put in their historical context, some of Faustus's deeds are more likely to have brought the house down than to have excited censure; a protestant audience would be more than willing to forgive Faustus for his jesting at the expense of the Pope, and his promise to "chase the Prince of Parma from our land" (I.1.95) would have been met with unabashed admiration if the play was indeed performed in, or shortly after, the Armada year of 1588.[10]

  6. Furthermore, while Faustus's folly is undeniable, one can argue that it need not exclude him from our sympathies. Faustus's error is a repeat of that made by Adam, the progenitor of all humanity. Faustus and Adam both transgress after being overcome by curiosity, that most human of instincts. Indeed, the ubiquitous nature of curiosity is reflected upon by Marlowe at other points in the play. In the scene which is often described merely as Faustus "hoodwinking" or "gulling" the horse-courser, we are provided with a comic mirror of the sins of Faustus and Adam; upon agreeing to sell the "horse", Faustus offers the horse-courser some clear advice:
    Faustus: But I must tell you one thing before you have him: ride him not into the water, at any hand.
    Horse- Courser: Why, sir, will he not drink of all waters?
    Faustus: O, yes, he will drink of all waters, but ride him not into the water. Ride him over hedge, or ditch, or where thou wilt, but not into the water.(IV.1.122-9)
    Barely a moment seems to have passed when the horse-courser returns in a state of fury, and reflects on what has happened since he left:
    But yet, like an ass as I was, I would not be ruled by him, for he bade me  should ride me into no water. Now I, thinking my horse had had some rare quality that he would not have had me known of, I, like a venturous youth, rid him into the deep pond at the town's end. I was no sooner in the middle of the pond but my horse vanished away and I sat upon a bottle of hay, never so near drowning in my life.(IV.1.148-55)
    The horse-courser has been given sound and unequivocal advice; just like Adam and Faustus, he ignores it, or rather actively seeks to act contrary to it, under the assumption that some great knowledge is to be discovered. One might well argue that the sceptical curiosity displayed here, particularly in a Renaissance context of growing efforts in the humanist pursuit of secular wisdom, is something to be understood, and maybe even applauded.
    Ambiguity and Genre
  7. A further problem arises if we accept that Faustus is intended as a subject of derision; if we cannot identify with or admire its protagonist, can The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus be considered "tragical" at all? In his Poetics, Aristotle is concise in identifying the ingredients of a tragedy. He states that
    Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species [verse and song] separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.[11]
    The chief goal of tragedy is the therapeutic cleansing of residual feelings of pity and fear, achieved through a substantial but short-lived excitement of those emotions. This effect is not simply achieved by staging a spectacle of catastrophic misfortune, but is dependent upon careful and sensitive characterisation:
    So it is clear first of all that decent men should not be seen undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune - this does not evoke pity or fear, but disgust. Nor should depraved people be seen undergoing a change from bad fortune to good fortune - this is the least tragic of all: it has none of the right effects, since it is neither agreeable, nor does it evoke pity or fear. Nor again should a very wicked person fall from good fortune to bad fortune - that kind of structure would be agreeable, but would not excite pity or fear, since the one has to do with someone who is suffering undeservedly, the other with someone who is like ourselves (I mean, pity has to do with the undeserving sufferer, fear with the person like us); so what happens will evoke neither pity nor fear.[12]
    Nearly two thousand years later - in Marlowe's lifetime - echoes of Aristotle's definition of the genre can be heard in Philip Sidney's An Apology For Poetry:
    So that the right use of Comedy will (I think) by nobody be blamed, and much less of the high and excellent Tragedy, that openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue; that maketh kings fear to be tyrants, and tyrants manifest their tyrannical humours; that, with stirring the affects of admiration and commiseration, teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilden roofs are builded[13]
    Sidney here invests tragedy with a more didactic and utilitarian purpose than does Aristotle, perhaps not surprisingly given the nature of the work in which the quotation appears, but the means that bring about the end - the stirring of admiration and commiseration - are synonymous with those in the Aristotelian definition.

  8. If Faustus is neither a great man nor worthy of our sympathy, but rather a wicked man experiencing a fall from good fortune to bad fortune, then he surely cannot fulfil the criteria required of a tragic hero. Indeed, one may question, given the cultural gulf between classical Greece or Rome and Elizabethan England, whether it is possible for there to be such a thing as a Christian tragedy at all. A characteristic traditionally displayed by tragic heroes, to give an example, is Hubris - excessive pride in the face of the gods. This, in the classical world of myriad jealous and interfering deities whose interests often conflict with one another's, can be seen as an admirable, if ill-advised, quality. Pride in a Christian context, however, is the cause behind the original sin, and to display it in the face of God is to commit outrageous blasphemy. The contradictions inherent in the idea of a Christian tragedy are indicative of a greater cultural tension between the established religious order, centred upon faith, and the newly flourishing humanism, largely defined by its revisiting of classical art and philosophy, centred upon knowledge.

  9. J. C. Maxwell is aware of the implications inherent in these questions when he says "Faustus is Everyman, and his sin is a re-enactment of the sin of Adam – pride".[14] Maxwell's comparison of Faustus with Everyman, that archetypal figure of the medieval morality tradition, offers a possible solution to the problem of the play's genre, and suggests some telling parallels between the two plays. At the beginning of Everyman, the arrival of Death at once seals the inevitability of Everyman's fate, and sets in motion his journey towards spiritual emancipation. Faustus's contractual bond with Lucifer, also conducted early in the piece, provides a similar sense of inevitability, and, in an inversion of the plight of Everyman, sends him into a spiralling moral decline which terminates in damnation. There is, moreover, a consistent presence of traditional morality features in Doctor Faustus; psychomachia is provided through the interjections of the good and bad angels, and the counterbalancing forces of good and evil represented on one side by the scholars and the old man, and on the other by Mephistopholes, Valdes and Cornelius. The pageant of the seven deadly sins employs the traditional Morality tool of casting abstract concepts as physical entities, while the episodic nature of the "middle" of the play is very much in the style of the morality. Indeed, with a certain sense of finality, Nicholas Brooke, whilst paraphrasing Leo Kirschbaum, states that "we must forget what we would like the play to be (a tragedy) and concentrate on what it is, a morality".[15]

  10. To say that Doctor Faustus is a Morality play, however, is to oversimplify the issue. It is worth remembering that Doctor Faustus could have been anyone, but was in fact someone; Marlowe's play is, of course, based on the historical Johan Faustus, as he is represented in the Faustbook that was its source. Furthermore, the Morality features in the play are amply offset by its tragic elements. While the case against Faustus as a suitable tragic figure has been argued above, the play's prologue – that same source which is often employed as evidence of the play's Christian orthodoxy – states that Faustus excels "all whose sweet delight disputes / In heavenly matters of theology" (Prologue, 18-9); in his field he is indeed a great man, and clearly admired by his students. In his arrogant pride we have hamartia, in his final rejection of divinity and embracement of worldly pleasure in the form of the succubus Helen we have peripeteia,[16] and in the agonised final soliloquy there seems to be a clear example of anagnorisis. Even the classical unities, which at first glance seem to have been ignored in the construction of the play, can be applied, in a sense; Faustus's diabolical contract covers a period of four and twenty years, conveniently corresponding to the number of hours in one day, the scenes involving Robin, Rafe and Wagner comprise satirical comment on the main action rather than actual subplots, and, although Faustus travels throughout Europe, if we accept Mephistopholes's assertion that
    Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
    In one self place, for where we are is hell,
    And where hell is must we ever be(II.1.124-6)
    it can also be said that all of the action occurs in one "place".

  11. What we have, it seems, is a play that, to a large degree, can be shown to satisfy the generic criteria of both the Morality and the Tragedy forms. It is often the interpretation of Faustus's character that leads to a preference for one form or another; it is disapproval of Faustus's "base physical desires" that leads some critics to interpret him as an example in the Morality tradition, and admiration of his "Promethean aspiration" that leads others to interpret him as an entirely tragic figure.[17] Marlowe seems to have actively encouraged this ambiguity by constructing Faustus in such a way that it can be argued as belonging to either of two different genres which each promote diametrically opposing views on its protagonist.
    The Goal of Unification
  12. The play's various levels of ambiguity become particularly significant when one considers what it is that Faustus tries to achieve in the play. Towards the end of the first scene of Doctor Faustus, we see the protagonist excitedly soliloquise on the various rewards that he imagines will befall him once he has solemnised his pact with Lucifer. The majority of these fantasies are concerned with material wealth and martial power; he will have his spirits "fly to India for gold, / Ransack the ocean for orient pearl" (I. 1. 82-3), and invent "stranger engines for the brunt of war / Than was the fiery keel at Antwerp bridge" (I. 1. 95-6). What is particularly noticeable in this passage is the far-reaching nature of Faustus's ambitions; he will "search all corners of the new-found world" (I. 1. 84), learn "the secrets of all foreign kings" (I. 1. 87), and ultimately "reign sole king of all our provinces" (I. 1. 94). This urge for a unified understanding of, and dominance over, the world is reflected later in Act 1, when, after having notified Mephostophilis of his intent to sell his soul, Faustus imagines himself unifying his provinces physically as well as politically:
    By him I'll be great emperor of the world,
    And make a bridge thorough the moving air
    To pass the ocean with a band of men;
    I'll join the hills that bind the Afric shore,
    And make that country continent to Spain,
    And both contributory to my crown.(I. 4. 104-9)
    Perhaps the most significant of Faustus's unifying ideas, however, is among the first that spring to his mind when he begins to muse on the power he is to wield; sandwiched between excited anticipations of limitless acquisition and potency is a more cerebral consideration:
    How am I glutted with the conceit of this!
    Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please,
    Resolve me of all ambiguities,
    Perform what desperate enterprise I will?(I. 1. 78-81)
    Much has been made of the disparity between Faustus's exclamations of intent and his eventual achievements as a servant of Lucifer.[18] As highlighted earlier, he does not engage in any of the forecast empire-building, does not seem to extend his travels any further than the boundaries of Europe, makes little further reference to the amassing of wealth, and, rather than learning all of their secrets, seems content to serve as a court performer for foreign kings. The one item on Faustus's diabolical agenda that he does pursue, however, is the resolution of all intellectual ambiguity. His eagerness to be granted all encompassing knowledge is exemplified by the swiftness of his progression from delivering the bond to appealing to Mephistopheles for forbidden wisdom:
    MEPHISTOPHELES: Speak, Faustus. Do you deliver this as your deed?
    FAUSTUS [giving the deed]: Ay. Take it, and the devil give thee good on't.
    MEPHISTOPHELES: Now, Faustus, ask what thou wilt.
    FAUSTUS: First will I question with thee about hell.
    Tell me, where is the place that men call hell?(II. 1. 112-7)
    Shortly afterwards, when Mephistopheles presents Faustus with a book that facilitates the manipulation of the weather and the raising of armies, he seems decidedly more keen on asking for books "wherein I might behold all spells and incantations", "where I might see all characters and planets of the heavens, that I might know their motions and dispositions" and "wherein I might see all plants, herbs and trees that grow upon the earth" (II. 1. 156-75. My italics). Faustus's conduct after having made his deal with Lucifer may show his prophesies of untold wealth and ubiquitous political power to have been little more than self glorifying hyperbole, but it also shows that the pursuit of complete knowledge – the resolution of ambiguities – is the one ambition voiced prior to the pact to which he actually devotes his newfound powers.
  13. That the achievement of complete and unified knowledge is foremost in Faustus's mind is not only borne out by his requests of Mephistopheles, but is also consistent with the disillusionment that initially leads him to consider the study of magic. In his opening soliloquy, Faustus translates Ramus's definitive statement "Bene disserere est finis logices" into the form of a question, asking "Is to dispute well logic's chiefest end?" (I. 1. 7-8). Logic, or "dialectic", was the prominent discipline in the Renaissance university arts course, with Marlowe's own Cambridge B.A. no exception. A good student of dialectic would be expected to have a sufficient mastery of language and logical thought to construct a convincing argument in support of any premise, however ludicrous it may seem, and similarly to dismantle an opponent's argument, however sound its reasoning may appear. What is true is not of concern, nor is it even ascertainable, as David Riggs writes:
    The dialecticians' all-out investment in probability testified to their belief that certainty is either trivial or unattainable: for "there is nothing which may not be disputed, and debated on all sides with great virtuosity. In all these matters, therefore, probabilities are examined, since necessities cannot be".[19]
    To dispute well, then, is logic's chiefest end, a dissatisfactory state of affairs for a man who wishes to be resolved of all ambiguities. Similarly frustrating for Faustus is that his knowledge in the various university disciplines is of no use outside of the confines of that discipline; Faustus may "level at the end of every art" (I. 1. 4), but this will only give him an understanding of discrete disciplines, and not an understanding of the world itself. There is an echo of this frustration later in the same speech, when he says
                                     Emperors and kings
    Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
    Nor can they raise the wind or rend the clouds;
    But his dominion that exceeds in this [magic]
    Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man.(1. 59-63)
    While this reference is political rather than academic, the implications are the same; to rule in several provinces, or to have a mastery of distinct academic disciplines, is to fall short of the human potential that can be unleashed by magic, a potential which Faustus tellingly describes in terms of "the mind of man". Through magic, Faustus believes he can transcend the fragmentariness of human thought and understand all.

  14. It is worth considering why somebody who wishes to achieve a complete and unified understanding of the world might want to turn to magic in an attempt to achieve it. One contemporary figure who is sometimes mentioned in relation to the character of Faustus is the eccentric Elizabethan magus, John Dee. Frances Yates, in particular, is forthright in asserting the association, stating that "Audiences would inevitably have recognised Faustus as an unfavourable reference to Dee",[20] and, having figured Dee as the leader of the Elizabethan Renaissance, goes on to claim that
    Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, with its obvious allusion to Dee as conjuror, tended to undermine the Elizabethan Renaissance[21]
    Yates's conception of Faustus as anti-Dee, or even anti-Renaissance, propaganda is, of course, dependent upon a reading of the play as a Morality rather than a Tragedy, as discussed earlier in the article; indeed, for evidence of her interpretation of the play as a damning indictment of its protagonist, Yates delves little deeper than a literal reading of the prologue and epilogue. Despite this, there is certainly merit in the association of Faustus with John Dee, or at least with the magical philosophy to which Dee subscribed. Faustus, for instance, promises to "be as cunning as Agrippa was" (I. 1. 119). Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, a German cabalist, astronomer and alchemist who produced his body of work in the early part of the sixteenth century, was regularly associated with the historical Johan Faust in an attempt to denigrate his reputation, so the allusion here is not surprising. Yates points out, however, that it is not only Faustus with whom a modern audience would associate Agrippa, as Dee "publicly proclaimed in his mathematical preface to Euclid that he was following Cornelius Agrippa"[22] Agrippa, then, provides a link between Faustus and Dee, or at least between Faustus and the type of alchemical practice that was best characterised in Elizabethan England by him. The connection alluded to by Yates is further established when Faustus, immediately after bidding divinity adieu, announces:
    These metaphysics of magicians
    And necromantic books are heavenly,
    Lines, circles, signs, letters and characters –
    Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.(I.1. 51-4)
    The geometrical references made by Faustus here call to mind the content of Euclid's Elements, a fundamental text in mathematics, a subject largely undistinguished from magic in Elizabethan England, to the first English translation of which John Dee added his Mathematical Preface. The first pages of the text itself are strewn with illustrations of geometric shapes accompanied by algebraic annotation (lines, circles, letters). Furthermore, Dee's interest in the cabala (Yates labels him a Christian Cabalist[23]), the occult practice which assigns mystical values to Hebrew letters and numbers, thus enabling esoteric biblical re-interpretations and the unlocking of powerful secrets by the re-arranging of text, is reflected in the conjuration scene, when Faustus commentates on the procedure for summoning diabolical spirits:
    Within this circle is Jehovah's name,
    Forward and backward anagrammatised(I. 3. 8-9)
    More generally, of course, Faustus' conjuring of Mephistopheles, and power gained through the manipulation of obedient spirits, could be seen as a direct reference to the most famous of Dee's activities, the summoning of angels. While Dee was insistent that his angelic conversations constituted white magic and did not involve contact with any sort of malignant spirit, they were generally the subject of great suspicion; while Yates's assertions lack full substantiation, it is certain that John Dee is the most well known practitioner of anything approximating to the magic of Faustus in Elizabethan England.[24]

  15. What is more important, or certainly more relevant to the current argument, than Faustus's specific association with John Dee, is his association with the philosophy behind the magic that Dee practised. The concept of unified understanding that I have argued forms Faustus's ultimate goal and motivation is also central to Hermeticism, the system of philosophy that underpinned occult activity in the Renaissance. Hermeticism derives from a corpus of writings attributed - until 1614, when they were proven by Isaac Casaubon to date from early Christian times - to Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice Great), a quasi-mythical figure who was believed to be a contemporary of Moses. The Hermetic corpus offered an alternative myth of creation, and was treated with grave seriousness upon its discovery by virtue of its supposed antiquity; not only were Hermes's revelations contemporary with those of Moses, but his philosophy predated that of Pythagorus (of whom he was thought to be an ancestor) and Plato. Indeed, when the Egyptian Hermetic texts were unearthed by agents of the Medici family in 1461, Marsilio Ficino was ordered to postpone his translation of Plato and devote his time to the exciting new discovery.[25]
  16. One of the key features of the Hermetic philosophy is its perception of the potential of man, and its contrast with Judaeo-Christian beliefs on this matter. Peter French states that
    though there are striking similarities between the Pimander [Hermetic text containing the creation myth] and Genesis, there is one fundamental difference: in the Hermetic treatise, man once was, and through his intellect can become again, like God. His original divine powers remain within him to be regenerated and used.[26]
    In Hermetic thought, man was invested with divinity at the time of creation. As in Judaeo-Christian tradition, that state of bliss is now lost, but, crucially, can be recovered through profound intellectual contemplation. Central to this concept is the oneness of everything; the entire universe is a product of God's intellect, and thus is essentially a part of God:
    all that is, he contains within himself like thoughts, the world, himself, the All. If in that event you do not make yourself equal to God, you cannot know God: because like is intelligible only to like.[27]
    One cannot experience oneness with God, then, unless one can achieve a godlike understanding of the oneness of the universe. The remarkable advice on how to come to this understanding is as follows:
    Consider yourself immortal and capable of understanding everything: all art, all science, the character of every living being. Mount to the highest heights; descend to the lowest depths. Assemble within yourself all the sensations of creation, and be fire and water, dryness and moisture. Imagine that you are everywhere at once – on earth, in the sea, in the sky – that you are not yet born, that you are young and old, that you are dead and beyond death. "If you embrace in thought all these things at once, time, place, substances, qualities, quantities, you will comprehend God."[28]
    It is difficult to read this passage without calling to mind Faustus's pride, his demands for books revealing all knowledge in different subjects, his frustrated attempt to learn who made the world, and his determination to be resolved of all ambiguity. Similarly, in a passage describing the ubiquity of the human soul, there is a remarkable consistency with the uses to which Faustus plans to put his spirits:
    Command your soul to take itself to India, and there, sooner than your order, it will be. Command it to pass over the ocean, and in an instant it will be there, not as if it had to voyage from one place to another , but as if it had always been there. Command it to fly to heaven, it has no need of wings: nothing can obstruct it, neither the fire of the sun, nor the air, nor the revolution of the heavens, nor the other celestial bodies.[29]
    Faustus's less spiritually motivated plans bear a notable resemblance: "I'll have them fly to India for gold / And ransack the ocean for orient pearl" (I. 1. 84-5). The latter part of the passage becomes pertinent when one considers the story of Icarus that is used in the prologue to represent the folly of Faustus's overreaching; the waxen wings which Icarus uses to fly to the heavens, and the fire of the sun which melts them and sends him plummeting to earth, are irrelevant to one who understands the universe, his oneness with God, and the freedom of his soul.[30]

  17. While Hermeticism, as a philosophy, is esoteric in nature, and although John Dee was its only renowned practitioner in Elizabethan England, it was far from being exclusively the  interest of an eccentric minority. In fact, as demonstrated by the sixteen editions of Ficino's translation of Pimander in existence by the time the A-text of Faustus had appeared, Hermeticism was rather popular:
     Despite their magical basis, even the orthodox King Philip II had almost 200 Hermetic works – among them Dee's Monas Heiroglyphica – in his library at Escorial. In his History of the World, Sir Walter Ralegh repeatedly refers with admiration to Hermes and the Hermetica, and a theologian like Philippe Du Plessis-Mornay also found much in the texts to include in his A Woorke concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion. These are merely a few examples chosen from literally hundreds that reflect the dispersion and influence of these writings.[31]
    Hermetic ideas filtered heavily into Neo-Platonist thought, and even into theological doctrine. Hermeticism was taken very seriously by powerful Europeans; although he was never quite fully invited into the fold, John Dee's advice was often sought by the English court on matters of importance, and among the weighty tasks entrusted to him was the selection of an astrologically favourable date for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Occult thought was popular in intellectual Elizabethan society; Dee himself was a member of the circle surrounding Henry Percy, "the wizard earl", which boasted a number of the great minds of the day, including the mathematician Thomas Hariot and, French claims, John Donne, Walter Ralegh and Christopher Marlowe.[32] However seriously one takes the assertion of a direct association between Marlowe and Dee (there is little more evidence for it than Marlowe's own reputed association with Hariot), it is evident that Hermetic ideas, ideas that privilege unification above all else, carried significant cultural capital in the time Doctor Faustus was written.

  18. Despite the currency of Hermetic thought, however, one thing that is evident to any audience watching the play is that Faustus finds himself to be utterly misguided in his belief that he can achieve a unified understanding. Instead of being able to glean absolute knowledge from his conjuring, he soon discovers that there are questions that Mephistopheles cannot, or will not, answer. When Faustus asks about the nature of the movement of the heavens, he is less than happy with the response:
    FAUSTUS: But tell me, have they all one motion, both situ et tempore?
    MEPHISTOPHELES: All jointly move from east to west in four-and-twenty hours upon the poles of the world, but differ in their motion upon the poles of the zodiac.
    FAUSTUS: Tush, these slender trifles Wagner can decide.
    Hath Mephistopheles no greater skill?(II. 3. 44-9)
    Upon delving further into the issue, Faustus has more cause to be disappointed:
    FAUSTUS: Well, resolve me in this question: why have we not conjunctions, oppositions, aspects, eclipses all at one time, but in some years we have more, in some less?
    MEPHISTOPHELES: Per inequalem motum respectu totius.
    FAUSTUS: Well, I am answered. Tell me who made the world.
    MEPHISTOPHELES: I will not.(II. 3. 61-6)
    Faustus's initial question raises the major problem that scholars had with the Ptolemaic geocentric universe, and Mephistopheles's answer, which translates as "because of unequal movement with respect to the whole", is utterly unconvincing; the explanation is nothing other than the kind of fudge that Faustus would expect to hear in the ambiguous academic disputes he wishes to escape from (a point highlighted by Mephistopheles's decision to articulate it in Latin). His disillusionment is only compounded when he is flatly refused an answer to the most fundamental of philosophical questions: who made the world?  Perhaps we should not be surprised that it is after this disappointment that Faustus's ambitions seem to diminish to the extent that they are satiated by trivial pleasures.

  19. The failure of Faustus's main ambition is not entirely owing to Mephistopheles's inability or unwillingness to cooperate, however. As has been discussed, a prominent factor in Faustus's discontent with the academic world is the ambiguous nature of dialectic; he turns to magic because he believes it can resolve him of these ambiguities. Notwithstanding having performed his symbolic rejection of logic and the other University disciplines by the casting aside of books in the opening soliloquy, though, Faustus continues to bear the hallmark of a trained dialectician throughout; immediately after signing the bond, his response to Mephistopheles's first hand account of hell is noteworthy:
    FAUSTUS: Come, I think hell's a fable.
    MEPHISTOPHELES: Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind.
    FAUSTUS: Why, think'st thou then that Faustus shall be damned?
    MEPHISTOPHELES: Ay, of necessity, for here's the scroll
    Wherein thou hast given thy soul to Lucifer.
    FAUSTUS: Ay, and body too. But what of that?
    Think'st thou that Faustus is so fond
    To imagine that after this life there is any pain?
    Tush, these are trifles and mere old wives' tales.
    MEPHISTOPHELES: But, Faustus, I am an instance to the contrary,
    For I am damnèd and am now in hell.
    FAUSTUS: How? Now in hell? Nay, an this be hell, I'll willingly be damned here. What? Walking, disputing, etc.? (II. 1. 127-139)
    Faustus's audacious challenging of Mephistopheles's understanding of hell may seem to be simply a symptom of his pugnacious character, but he has in fact been trained to take an oppositional stance to any proposition, however absolute it may seem. Despite having bemoaned the incapacity of logic to accommodate a unified understanding of the world, he finds himself slipping into an indulgence of an old university pastime of disputation precisely when Mephistopheles is offering him knowledge that is inaccessible to the rest of humankind; the practise of dialectic is so deeply ingrained in him that he casually comments that hell might not be so bad, provided he can spend his time there walking and disputing. One might wonder, if he were granted access to universal knowledge, whether Faustus could find it within himself to accept it without questioning; without masking it once more in ambiguity.

  20. Beyond Mephistopheles's inability to offer, and Faustus's inability to perceive, universal truth, however, Doctor Faustus questions the existence of any such concept. As much as Faustus's own shortcomings, the ambiguous structure of the play seems to obviate the achievement of anything universal within it. Throughout the play devices are used that remind us of conflicting forces within the world. Faustus states that "All things that move between the quiet poles / Shall be at my command" (I. 1. 58-9); he believes he can control everything in the world, but he cannot change its dichotomous structure. When nightfall brings about the ideal time for Faustus's conjuration, he utters the following words:
    Now that the gloomy shadow of the earth,
    Longing to view Orion's drizzling look,
    Leaps from th'Antarctic world unto the sky
    And dims the welkin with her pitchy breath,
    Faustus, begin thine incantations(I. 3. 1-5)
    This evocative description of the arrival of darkness, as well as marking the occasion for the conjuration, again highlights the dual nature of the world; night has not simply descended, but has leapt from the Antarctic. When it is dark here, it is light elsewhere. The motif of bifurcation is sustained throughout the play; in direct contrast to his will for unification, Faustus's mental turmoil is represented by the regular visitations of angels representing good and evil, and his agonising final soliloquy plays out his anguished dilemma between up and down:  "O, I'll leap up to my God, who pulls me down?" (V. 2. 69) In the words of Dollimore, Faustus "is located on the axes which cripple and finally destroy him."[33]

  21. Faustus's Hermetic project meets with failure because in the world in which he operates it is impossible for it to succeed. Hermeticism, although widespread, is, like any other ideology of the time, far from unanimous. Furthermore, while Hermetic thought, by virtue of its emphasis on the potential of man, is concurrent with the ethos of Renaissance humanism, it also shares many of the difficulties of the revival of pagan wisdom in a Christian age; the Hermetic texts may display a remarkable correlation with Christian thought, but they also contain a number of fundamental ideological differences. Thus, eirenicists (campaigners for a unified church) who saw a Christianised version of Hermeticism as a solution to religious strife as it "contained doctrines common to both Protestants and Catholics, and therefore offered a unifying bond",[34] not only faced the reality that in the aftermath of the Armada religious hostilities showed no sign of cessation, but also the fact that the very idea of a Christian Hermeticism is simply a contradiction. Similarly, competing protestant theologies combined with residual Catholic practices meant that the English populace in the late sixteenth century were exposed to a complex variety of conceptions of predestination and the afterlife.[35]  In a contemporary context of ideological fracture, not only in evidence through conflict between a Protestant England and European Catholic enemies, but also through the confused identity of a nation that had changed its religion three times in a century, a sceptical mind might find any suggestion of the possibility of unification, whether political, ideological or spiritual, ridiculous. Faustus may not represent, as Yates suggests, "the reaction against the Renaissance",[36] but it does display a sceptical awareness of the incompatibility of different ideologies that co-existed in this period, an awareness reflected in the play's ambivalent structure; it can be a medieval Morality, or it can be a Renaissance Tragedy, but it cannot be both at the same time.

[1] This quotation, and all subsequent quotations from the play, are taken from Doctor Faustus: A- and B- Texts (The Revels Plays), Edited by David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, (Manchester: MUP, 1993), and come from the A- Text version of the play.

[2] A. Sachs, "The Religious Despair of Doctor Faustus", Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 63 (1964), 625-647, 627.

[3] Ibid., 633.

[4] R. Ornstein, "The Comic Synthesis in Doctor Faustus", ELH, XXII, iii (1955), 165-72, p. 172.

[5] J. T. McCullen, "Dr. Faustus and Renaissance Learning", MLR, 51, (1956), 6-16, p. 9.

[6] M. Pincombe, Elizabethan Humanism: Literature and Learning in the later Sixteenth Century, (London: Longman, 2001), 169.

[7] D. Bevington, "Marlowe and God", Explorations in Renaissance Culture, 17, (1991), 1-38, p. 4.

[8] The B text gives Faustus a task of some import by having him manufacture the escape of Bruno, the Imperial candidate for the papacy (III, 1–2). This more weighty endeavour is offset in this text, however, by the considerably greater attention paid to whimsical clownery that he engages in through Acts 3 and 4.

[9] The title page of Bevington and Rasmussen's dual text Revels edition attributes the play to "Christopher Marlowe and his collaborator and revisers".

[10] The date of Doctor Faustus has been a controversial issue throughout its critical history, with scholars favouring either a date of 1588/9 or 1592/3. For the most significant recent development in the debate, see R. J. Fehrenbach's 2001 essay "A Pre-1592 English Faust Book and the Date of Doctor Faustus", Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, 2:4 (2001, Dec), 327-35.

[11] Aristotle, Poetics, Translated by Michael Heath, (London: Penguin, 1996), 10.

[12] Ibid, 20-1.

[13] P. Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, Ed. Geoffrey Shepherd, (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1965), 117-8.

[14] J. C. Maxwell, "The Sin of Faustus", in John Jump (ed.), Doctor Faustus: Casebook Series, 90.

[15] N. Brooke, "The Moral Tragedy of Doctor Faustus", The Cambridge Journal, 5 (1952), 662-88, p. 665.

[16] See Maxwell's "The Sin of Faustus" and W. W. Greg, "The Damnation of Faustus", in Marlowe: A Collection of Critical Essays, Ed. Clifford Leech, (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964), 92-107. Locating a specific moment of peripeteia in the play is somewhat hazardous. If one agrees with Greg and Maxwell that Faustus's irrevocable damnation is finally confirmed at the kiss with Helen, then there is little difficulty. However, if one agrees with critics such as Sachs, whose argument is that the play exhibits Calvinist tendencies, and that Faustus, as a despairing reprobate, is damned from the start, then peripeteia disappears from the play.

[17] D. Bevington, From Mankind to Marlowe, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1962), 254-5.

[18] See, for example, R. Ornstien, "The Comic Synthesis in Doctor Faustus", ELH, XXII, iii (1955), 165-72, and W. French, "Double View in Doctor Faustus", West Virginia University Philological Papers, 17 (1970), 3-15.

[19] D. Riggs, The World of Christopher Marlowe, (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), p. 82. Riggs here quotes Lisa Jardine's translation of a passage in Lorenzo Valla's Dialecticae disputationes, taken from her "Lorenzo Valla: Academic Skepticism and the New Humanist Dialectic" in M. Burnyeat, Ed., The Skeptical Tradition, (Berkeley: U of California P, 1983), 253-86, p. 272.

[20] F. A. Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, (London: Routledge & Kegan, 1979), 120.

[21] Ibid., 120.

[22] Ibid., 120. For an analysis of the relationship between the magic of Agrippa and Marlowe's play, see G. Roberts, "Necromantic Books: Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus and Agrippa of Nettesheim", in Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance Culture, Edited by Darryl Grantley and Peter Roberts, (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996), 148-71.

[23] F. A. Yates, The Occult Philosophy, 79-93.

[24] For a biography of Dee which focuses primarily on his ongoing attempts at angelic communication, see Benjamin Woolley's The Queen's Conjurer: The Life and Magic of Dr Dee, (London: Flamingo, 2002).

[25] For a brief introduction to Hermeticism, see P. French, John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), 62-88.

[26] P. French, John Dee, 74.

[27] Ibid., p. 75. This, and the following two quotations, are from a passage in French's chapter on Hermeticism in which he quotes and paraphrases in English from A. D. Nock and A. J. Festugiere's French translation of the Hermetic corpus, La Révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste, 4 Vols., Paris (1950-4), Tract XI, 147-57. The Hermetic Corpus was not available in English until the publication of Everard's translation in 1650, but Latin versions were in plentiful supply during Marlowe's lifetime. Ficino's Latin translation of 1470 reached 16 editions before 1600, and John Dee certainly owned a copy. (see P. French, John Dee, pp. 55, 68-9).

[28] Ibid., 75-6.

[29] Ibid., 75.

[30] The emphasis on unity in Hermetic philosophy is evinced in some of John Dee's work; his Monas Heiroglyphica (one symbol) centres around a symbol which he names 'the London seal of Hermes' and also refers to as the 'monad', and through the contemplation of which he claims one can gain universal understanding and thus a regeneration to divine status. Similarly, much of his angelic summoning focused on an attempt to rediscover and decipher the enochean language, the tongue in which God communicated with Adam, in the belief that understanding the language of paradise would be the key to conceiving of the universal truth. See B. Woolley, The Queen's Conjurer, 176-7, 198, 201 & 238.

[31] P. French, John Dee, 69.

[32] Ibid., 171.

[33] J. Dollimore, "Doctor Faustus: Subversion through Transgression", in Christopher Marlowe, Ed. Richard Wilson, (London: Longman, 1999), 235-45, p. 238.

[34] P. French, John Dee, 156.

[35] For a discussion of the variety of eschatological concepts current in the period, and the reflection of the confusion this variety brings in the play, see K. Poole, "Dr. Faustus and Reformation Theology", in Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion, Eds. Garrett A. Sullivan Jr., Patrick Cheney and Andrew Hadfield, (Oxford: OUP, 2006), 96-107.

[36] F. Yates, The Occult Philosophy, p. 119.

Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).