Doctor Faustus is a short play written by Christopher Marlowe that follows the character of Faustus and his thirst for power and knowledge. In the beginning, Faustus is consumed with the question of what is the profession that will gain the most knowledge. After analyzing logic, law, medicine, and religion he decides that none of these are capable enough of granting the enlightenment that he longs for. Therefore, he turns to magic and decides that this is the only profession that will answer his inquires. After he makes this vital decision, he agrees to sell his soul to Lucifer for twenty-four years of service from his demon Mephastophilis. Yet, even with all of this power at his finger tips, Dr. Faustus never once uses the powers given to him to gain the knowledge he earned for in the beginning. Instead, he uses the powers for petty reasons and allows his ambitions to take over his ability to make rational decisions. Dr. Faustus could be considered a tragic hero because he allows his lust for power and greed to prevent himself from seeing the destructiveness of his actions. This tragic flaw, or hamartia, is what eventually leads to his downfall, peripeteia, at the end of the show when his soul is carried off to hell with nothing gained in Faustus’ favor.
Before a person can express Faustus as a tragic hero, it must be clear what defines this in a character. Historians look to Aristotle when it concerns the subject of tragedy and tragic heroes. In his book, The Poetics, he states the characteristics that make up a tragic hero. According to Aristotle a tragic hero must be of a higher status, he must have a character flaw, this flaw is what eventually leads to their own downfall, and this downfall leads to some kind of knowledge gained by the hero. With that being said, let’s examine each of these characteristics and how they apply to the character of Dr. Faustus.
As stated above, the first characteristic defined by Aristotle is that the hero must be of a higher status. That is to say, the character must be of noble birth or in a position of higher authority than most people in society. As a doctor, Faustus already stands in a higher position than others. A doctor is someone who is to be well respected within a society and a person that people are led by. Individuals go to doctors for advice and counseling which make them very prevalent in a civilization.
Faustus is also a man of higher of status because of the degree of education that he has received in his life. In Act I Scene I, Faustus states that he has learned the ways of logic, law, education, and religion. This shows that Faustus is a man of a much higher education than most people even hope for. During this time period, only people who have money or are a part of the wealthy class were able to gain this degree of education. Obviously, Faustus is a man of higher status because of the level of education he was able to receive during his lifetime thus far. Therefore, Dr. Faustus fits the first criteria for a tragic hero according to Aristotle.
The second definition that Aristotle points out is the fact that the main character must have a hamartia or a characteristic flaw. Faustus actually has quite a few flaws that make up his character, but two that stand out the most is his ambition and greed. From the beginning of the play, Faustus’s ambition was to gain knowledge through a noble art. Although, it is human nature to want to know more about the world, Faustus allows this ambition to directly affect the outcome of his life. Faustus has already skilled himself in law, medicine, logic, and religion but he has a thirst to know more about every aspect of the natural world. He decides that magic is the one area that he wants to know more about. To quote from the text,
“Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan”(Lines 52-55).
It is clear from the text that Faustus fancies the idea of having ultimate power at his finger tips. He allows his ambitions for power and profit to cloud his better judgments and this in return, directly leads to his next decision.
In Act I scene III he calls upon the service of the demon Mephastophilis who tells him that he is a servant of Lucifer and therefore cannot help Faustus without his leave. At this point, Faustus allows his ambitions to learn magic to make a deal with Mephastophilis and Lucifer. To refer to the text,
“Go bear these tidings to great Lucifer:
Seeing Faustus hath incurred eternal death
By desperate thoughts against Jove’s deity,
Say he surrenders up to him his soul,
So he will spare him four and twenty years,
Letting him live in all voluptuousness;
Having thee ever to attend on me” (Lines 91-97).
In today’s English, Faustus is willing to sell his own soul to Lucifer in order to gain twenty-four years of service from Mephastophilis. Within these years, he hopes to live a life in luxury and profit. His greed and ambition blinds Faustus from realizing the seriousness of this decision. He is blinded by his greed and at this point has no sense of what is right and what is wrong. Dr. Faustus’s character flaw, or hamartia, is ambition and greed. His choice to sell his soul to Lucifer in order to feed this ambition and greed is what directly leads to Faustus’s eventual downfall. Accordingly, Faustus fits Aristotle’s second characteristic of a tragic hero.
Faustus’s ambitions and greed also keep him turning back and repenting to God for the sins that he has made. Throughout the play, Faustus has warnings that his decision could prove to be fatal; not only to his life, but also his eternal soul. Within the play there is the recurring theme of the Good Angel and the Evil Angel who serve as the physical embodiment of Faustus’s conscience. The Good Angel states,
“O, Faustus! lay that damned book aside,
And gaze not upon it, lest it tempt thy soul,
And heap God’s heavy wrath upon thy head!
Read, read the Scriptures:—that is blasphemy” (Lines 71-74).
Yet, Faustus puts aside the Good Angel’s warning in favor of the Evil Angels encouragement to go fourth and be as Jove, the Roman God Jupiter, on this Earth as he is in the sky. Again, Faustus decides that his ambitions and greed are far more important than saving his soul from eternal hell. All through the rest of the play, the Good Angel and the Evil Angel continue to make their appearance and offer their advice when Faustus begins to waver in his conviction and possibly repent. Be that as it may, Faustus continues to take the advice of the Evil Angel who reminds Faustus of the wealth and power he will gain. Even when Faustus sets aside his greed and ambition, he believes that he cannot repent because God does not love him. The Evil Angel instigates this thought in scene VI by stating, “Thou art a spirit; God cannot pity thee” (Line 14). Even though Faustus feels that he should repent, he decides that he either cannot or will not change his decision to sell his soul. His greed consumes him and his ambitions prevent him from understanding just how destructive it was to sell his soul to Lucifer. Hence, Faustus proves to be a tragic hero according to Aristotle’s definition.
However, Faustus does learn a vital lesson of life by the end of the show. Once the twenty four years of service come to an end, Faustus begins to realize the seriousness of the sins he has committed. In scene XIII he reaches his final hour and begins to turn back his previous convictions. It is only when he reaches the final few moments and facing the gates of Hell that he comes to terms of the repercussions of his actions. At first, he is quick to blame everyone but himself. He begs God for mercy or to have his sentence lessened somehow. He curses his parents for giving birth to him. Yet, he comes to the conclusion that there is nobody to blame but himself for what is about to happen. As Faustus states,
“God forbade it indeed but Faustus hath done
it: for vain pleasure of twenty-four years hath Faustus
lost eternal joy and felicity” (Lines 39-41).
Dr. Faustus now fits the final criteria according to Aristotle because he final learns a lesson in humility. He now knows that selling your soul for forbidden knowledge is a sin and that he must take responsibility for that decision.
Dr. Faustus is a tragic hero because he fits all of the criteria according to Aristotle’s definition. As stated, a tragic hero must be of a higher status, he must have a character flaw, this flaw is what eventually leads to their own downfall, and this downfall leads to some kind of knowledge gained by the hero. Faustus is a man of higher status because of his degree in medicine and his education. His character flaw is that of ambition and greed. This hamartia causes Faustus to sell his soul to Lucifer and eventually go to Hell. However, he learns that it is a grave sin to sell your soul in order to learn knowledge that is so expressly forbidden.