Dr. Faustus as a Literary Tragic Hero
In Christopher Marlow’s play “Dr. Faustus”, the protagonist of the story, Dr. Faustus, would be best described as a ‘tragic hero’. Faustus displays many traits that embody the archetype of what defines a classic tragic hero. This is idea of a tragic hero is illustrated throughout the play in how Faustus possesses many heroic qualities, has flaws that lead to his eventual tragic fall from grace, and, in how the reader develops sympathy from this tragedy. Similar to many classic tragic heroes, Faustus begins as ‘heroic’ character that the audience admires and can root for, but his blindness to his flaws lead to his eventual fall and demise.
Dr. Faustus is a character that on the surface might not initially appear as the archetype of a stereotypical hero. However, on deeper analysis, Faustus does possess many heroic qualities that are defining characteristics of what constitutes a literary tragic hero. Dr. Faustus is described as being an incredibly wise man of stature that has risen to great heights in life. The Chorus reveals at the opening of the play that Faustus came from a family that was at the bottom of society, yet he has risen up to a high, and respected, position: “Now is he born of parents base of stock” (prologue, 11).” Faustus is further described as being a brilliant scholar who is well renowned among others of his kind, and is a true Renaissance man. At the beginning of the play, it’s clear that Faustus could be a master of many professions if he so desired to in life. However, what Faustus wants is something greater: true power and abilities that are beyond the limits of what a normal man can achieve. Faustus in a long soliloquy discusses these high ambitions and dreams he has – of obtaining riches, becoming infinitely knowledgeable and wise, and to even reshape the entire continent of Europe. His ambitions appear initially overly prideful, but, they are also shown as very grand and ambitious in scope. Therefore, these ambitions illustrate Faustus as someone who is heroic and admirable in character. The fact that Faustus decides to take part in the dark arts, is also, something to respect, as the prospect of pushing the limits of what humans can achieve is a quite brave and audacious concept. As the audience is well aware, Faustus could have become an expert among many highly respected professions, but instead, he decides to become involved in ‘magic’, taking a road less traveled that proves to be both a dangerous and a risky venture for his character. Faustus is ultimately shown as a tragic hero throughout the play in how he possesses many typical heroic qualities, from his wise and scholarly stature to someone trying to bravely push the limits of what a man can do. However, its Faustus’s dabbling into the dark arts that are the beginning of his degradation as a character, as many of these tragic flaws lead to his eventual demise.
From the very beginning it’s foreshadowed that Faustus is doomed for a tragic end: illustrated vividly in the allusion to the story of Icarus the Chorus discusses in the opening of the play. After Faustus becomes skilled in the dark arts, he summons the devil Mephist, and shortly afterwards, renounces his trust and allegiance to God completely. Faustus’s foray into the dark arts is the beginning of the fall for his character, but it’s ultimately his flaws that lead to this eventual tragedy. As a character Faustus suffers from a few fatal flaws – which can be seen in his vain self pride, a struggle of faith, and blindness to the truth that surrounds him. All three of these can be seen as his ‘hamartia’ and are vital in bringing about his ultimate tragedy and degradation as a character.
Throughout the story Faustus struggles profoundly with his faith and what he should believe in. He’s drawn to the dark arts and the powers and prestige it gives him, but at the same time he realizes that he’s ultimately living a life completely devoid of God. This struggle is further symbolized through the good angel and evil angel that give him advice many times throughout the story. As the good angel tells him, he can repent at any time and God will forgive him of his sins, saving him from the state and dammed fate he currently is in. However, through what appears to be lack of inner strength, he always denies this choice, thinking he has given himself up to a life of damnation and there’s no going back. There’s a great struggle throughout the play on Faustus’s part, as he finds he can never give up this power that he gains from magic completely. Faustus displays this inner struggle the few times he’s on the verge of repenting, in an effort begin life again in God’s presence. However, each time something tempts him and leads him astray: whether it be threats by Mephist or the enticement of the deadly sins from Lucifer himself. Therefore, this inner struggle of faith and lack of strength is one the key flaws in leading to his fall as a character.
Faustus’s other major harmatias are shown in his blindness to the truth and his vain nature. Throughout the play there is clear message made that hell is a place anywhere that is devoid of God’s presence. It could even be argued that the hell discussed in the story is more of a state of being rather than a physical location. Therefore, this ‘hell’ is state that Faustus is in throughout the play, but he’s completely blind to it. As a character we see his tragic fall from grace: as he become more enraptured in the dark arts, his life consists of becoming a shadow of his former self. This is shown in how a once brilliant scholar spends his days playing tricks on others and conjuring illusions to please royalty, rather than reaching the high ideals and goals that he set out to achieve at the beginning of the play. It appears that once he has all the power at his fingertips, he really has no idea what to do with it. This power ends up corrupting what was once a greatly wise man. His self pride also gets the best of him as he uses his gifts in a purely vain manner: to win the respect and prestige from the royal and powerful. His abilities can only conjure ‘illusions’, as the reader witnesses him present a perfect replica of Alexander the Great for the Emperor, but, it’s merely an illusion. None of his magic is based on any form of reality or the very real goals he desired to achieve. This blindness and detachment form reality is further shown when he asks his servant, Mephist, to change his appearance into a more attractive form. Faustus realizes Mephist is a demon, but some element of him is afraid of the true devilish nature of the magic that he possesses. This is also illustrated in how Faustus claims that hell is not real place, but merely just a myth and a wives tale: “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.”
Mephist, a devil himself, who had once even tasted the greatness of heaven, warns Faustus against selling his soul and making the pact, claiming that hell is very real place and more terrible than he can ever imagine. However, Faustus’s blindness to the truth, and vainness in himself, is what brings about his eventual demise as a character. For this leads to Faustus’s corruption as a character and to him becoming delusional to the reality of hell and the nature of the magic he possess. It can be argued that Faustus believes that hell is not ‘real’ or that he can repent and change his damned fate at any time he wishes. However, it’s not until Faustus’s very last day of existence that he comes to the realization of the truth of his actions, and tries to plead to God to give him a far less dammed fate in hell. At this point in time it’s far too late for Faustus to be saved, and despite his effort of repentance at his very last moments, he is damned to go to hell for eternity – as the reader witnesses the final scene of Faustus’s tragic demise as he is taken off into hell by Lucifer and his demons.
Faustus’ ultimate tragedy does strike sympathy in the audience. He was a character with high dreams and ambitions, and someone who the reader saw a giant struggle throughout the story: between his desire for power, and to almost be a ‘god’ himself, and also to live a life in God’s presence. Faustus might not exactly be a stereotypical hero, but he does possess many heroic qualities, that lead to respect and admiration from the reader. At the close of the play, Faustus does attempt to repent, and this further helps in resonating with pity on his character. He, in some sense, finally comes to realize the truth that he is the one who has brought upon his own demise by shutting off God completely from his life. In an attempt to save his own life, or make his fate a less damned one, he asks for forgiveness and that his time in hell is for a thousand years, instead of an eternity. Of course at this moment it’s far too late for a change to happen, as his soul is now in the hands of Lucifer. However, the fact that Faustus does want to do the ‘right thing’ causes us to sympathize with his plight through life. As many people have likely struggled with questioning their faith or been potentially blind to the reality or morals of their actions that surround them. In this way, Faustus’s character and journey is relatable and one that is clearly of a tragic hero. Faustus, himself, represents a brilliant and wise man that made bad choices and let his character flaws get this best of him, leading to his fall and demise. In this way he is a character that very much embodies the spirit of a tragic hero, which aids the audience to sympathize with his failed journey and own dammed fate and struggle throughout the play.
Faustus further represents a tragic hero because his ultimate fall, was not purely a loss: he does gain some wisdom and knowledge throughout his journey. While Faustus does seem to waste his talent and abilities throughout the majority of the play, doing mischievous tricks and illusions, he does, however, accomplish one thing of great importance that would not be possible without control over the dark arts. In Scene 6, the Chorus summarizes Faustus’s journey to discover the secrets of astronomy, as he rode a chariot reigned by dragons to the heavens:
“Learned Faustus, / To know the secrets of astronomy / Graven in the book of Jove’s high firmament, / Did mount himself to scale Olympus’ top, / Being seated in chariot burning bright, / Drawn by the strength of yoky dragons’ necks. / He now is gone to prove cosmology.”
This shows that Faustus does still have an appetite to learn this ‘higher’ knowledge that is unreachable for most men, and makes a great discovery with the aid of this magic. It can also be said that in the end Faustus does in fact recognize his flaws, realizing that he has been blind to the truth and the true devilish nature of both his magic and how it has condemned away from the presence of God. The moment his character gains this epiphany, is literally when he is on his death bed and moments away from being taken to hell. Therefore, it’s far too late for him to be freed from this self inflicted damnation.
While Faustus’s journey does cause sympathy from the audience, it’s also true that Faustus’s downfall invokes a degree of terror as well. As his 24 years lifespan goes by at a rapid pace, he does become increasingly ‘darker’ in his actions. However, at the same time, none of actions come across to the reader as being completely villainous or evil. It’s evident that Faustus does gain a reputation throughout his country, but it appears to be positive one overall. While Faustus does act in some very deceptive and questionable ways, he never fully commits harm or danger on anyone. The few people that do cross him, he ends up playing practical jokes with. This is seen when he gives horns to a soldier that he later removes on the emperor’s request, or sells a horseman an ‘illusionary’ horse, that turns to straw once going through water. The morals of his actions can be questioned, but his actions seem more deceptive, mischievous and potentially vain than purely one of ‘evil.’ However, this aids in emphasizing the corruption of this power and the tragedy it leads him to, as he almost appears to be on the verge of turning into a villain towards the end of the play before he comes to the realization of what he’s truly doing to himself. In this way, Faustus is a tragic hero, whose tragedy leads to him to taking part in questionable and corrupted actions. Faustus ultimately becomes more of a character that the audience pities, than gains a sense of fear or terror for. He displays many traits that model a tragic heroic figure, and therefore this causes more of a reaction of sympathy rather than terror in the audience.
The fall is not pure loss. There is some increase in awareness, some gain in self-knowledge, some discovery on the part of the tragic hero..
Sympathy? In the end we do pity Faustus’ death because he was man of high ambitions and heroic traits that ultimately got corrupted but his need for power and his lack of inner strength and blindness led to him never recovering, or fully believing in God again.
Does he gain knowledge – is only notable achievement since he gained his ability -the one great thing he does achieve, is he journeys in to the heavens astronomy/astrology? While he ultimately became a mediocre version of himself on a downward spiral he does learn some new and interesting things.
Does his downfall invoke terror?
“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.”
In this manner Faustus displays many traits of typical tragic hero, with his flaws leading to his eventual fall and demise as a character.