The popularisation of morality plays as a genre dates back to fifteenth century England. In the dawning light of Renaissance, mystery plays gradually waned and were replaced by the kindred species of morality plays which had long been growing up beside them. As opposed to Biblical tradition which tried to re-enact the stretch of events from Creation to Judgement Day, morality plays were fictional works inspired by the ethical and doctrine value systems. In strict form, they were dramatic moral allegory. They appealed to a universal sensibility applicable to all mankind. And for this reason, its central character was not an individual, but representative of man, identified by names such as Mankind, Humanum Genus or Everyman. Typically, they followed a structure where the hero succumbs to temptation, lives a life driven by reckless sin, but finally in spite of his flippancy and folly is saved by repentance and God’s mercy and is assured salvation. The characters in morality plays were abstract allegorical figures such as Good and Evil, The Seven Deadly Sins, Raise-Slander, God and the Devil. In this manner, the plays became a way of enacting moral sensibilities of the age.
In this report, I shall attempt to evaluate how Christopher Marlowe (b. 1564), one of the leading dramatists of the Renaissance period made use of the Morality Play formula in the B Text version (1616) of his play ‘Doctor Faustus’.
Like other morality plays of its time, Doctor Faustus is the story of how a mortal yields to temptation and ultimately suffers the wrath of God for his sinful deeds. The play involves characters such as Good and Evil Angels, The Seven Deadly Sins, God and the Devil, typical of morality plays. Marlowe vividly draws up the protagonist Doctor Faustus, a learned man who, tragically seduced by the lure of supreme power, attempts to master necromancy – a skill greater than what he was mortally meant to have. Biblical teachings are evident in the way Faustus wishes to read books on black magic, books that seem to contain ‘forbidden knowledge’. It is a clear recollection of the story of the Garden of Eden where Eve reaches for the ‘forbidden fruit’ and ends up damning all of humanity. Faustus, driven by his ambition to gain superhuman knowledge and power, surrenders his soul to Lucifer the Devil.
He says to himself,
These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly.” (Act I, Scene i)
Thus, by adhering to the advice of the Evil Angel, he lives a blasphemous life filled with sin and sensual pleasures, thereby paving his way to eternal damnation. While Faustus signs the bond wherein he vows to sell his soul to Lucifer in exchange for twenty-four years of enjoying supreme power, his blood congeals, preventing him from signing the pact. Mephostophilis exits to fetch fire to dissolve it. It is a moment of dramatic suspense which allows the audience to dwell on the full extent of the violation about to be enacted.
In the beginning of the play, the chorus chants,
“His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting heavens conspired his overthrow.” (Prologue)
The monologue alludes to the ancient Greek myth of Icarus who attempted to escape from Crete with a pair of waxen wings, but flew too near the sun and plunged to his death when the sun melted the wax. Faustus, like Icarus becomes the symbol of an ‘overreacher’. The audience is given a moral lesson right at the start – if man tries to exceed his limitations, he will be punished. As the play progresses, Faustus also petitions for Helen of Greece to be his wife. His appeal, quite reasonably, is denied not because the Devil abominates sacramental union, but because what Faustus essentially asks for is a prostitute. Again, through the incident, the audience is warned to steer clear of Lust, one of the cardinal sins.
There is no scope for moral ambivalence in Faustus’ tragic story. His life behaves like a pendulum where the two extremes are God and the Devil, or more simply put, allegiance to either Good or Evil. Faustus is conscious of these two extremes. As stated by Miguel Martínez López in his dissertation, ‘The Philosophy of Death in Ch. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus,’ Marlowe teaches us the lesson that life is a straight line, not a circle; if one does not advance, one goes back. Faustus, with his pendular movement goes and returns in an endless move, without hope and direction. Suddenly, time stands still and the hands of the clock overlap at midnight -perfectly represented in the play as the time of spirits and ghosts and mental turmoil.
Finally, before the devils rip his body and snatch away his soul to burning hell, the excruciating pangs of a deeply agonised Faustus finds expression in his final soliloquy.
“My God, my God, look not so fierce to me!
Adders and serpents, let me breath a while!
Ugly hell, gape not: come not Lucifer:
I’ll burn my books: Ah, Mephistophilis!” (Act V, Scene ii)
The entire scene of blood-curdling cries and thunder ringing through the stage as the doctor is dragged off to his death by the devils suffices as a means of instilling the fear of God in the audience and depicts the destiny of those who deny God. Thus, we find Marlowe keeping with the tradition of morality plays in his time.
At the same time, Marlowe also digresses from the original structure and flow of a morality play in many cases, the first being the individualisation of Faustus’ character. Doctor Faustus is hardly seen as an ‘Everyman’, as opposed to regular protagonists of morality plays. He is told to be a scholar with above average intelligence who receives multiple academic accolades at Wittenberg, one of the greatest Renaissance centres of learning. He seems to have a complete understanding of philosophy, medicine, jurisprudence and theology, and yet yearns for more knowledge. Another point to be noted is that in morality plays, sin tended to involve blindness to the rightness of God’s law, while repentance and redemption involved a renewed apprehension of it. In Doctor Faustus however, sin is not the error of fallen judgement but a conscious act of immorality. The character of Faustus is reasoning and very aware of the moral (or immoral) status of what he is undertaking. The dialogue towards the end of the play is proof of his deliberate transgression of limit.
“Faustus: Why, Lucifer and Mephistophilis. O, gentlemen,
I gave them my soul for my cunning.
All: O, God forbid.
Faustus: God forbade it indeed but Faustus hath done it.
For the vain pleasure of four and twenty years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity.” (Act V, Scene ii)
Regular morality plays also followed a particular timeline of events – temptation, sin and suffering, redemption and finally salvation. However, in Faustus’ life we perceive a sense of petrifaction, the feeling of moral and intellectual stagnancy and a lack of progress. In simpler terms, there is no path to salvation. Despite numerous warnings in the form of the Old Man who begs Faustus to stop sinning, assuring him that his soul is still “amiable”, he is resolute in his vow to attain supremacy. Thus, in the end, Marlowe has taken him and shown him to be damned, to rot in hell with no hope of salvation.
In spite of its links with medieval miracles or moralities, Doctor Faustus can never be treated wholly as a morality play. I conclude in the words of a critic: Doctor Faustus is both the consummation of the English Morality tradition and the last and the finest of Marlowe’s heroic plays. As a Morality, it vindicates humility, faith and obedience to the law of God; as a heroic play it celebrates power, beauty, riches and knowledge, and seems a sequel to the plays of “Tamburlaine the great.”