Rereading Faustus

Faustus, the protagonist in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and a character who sells his soul to the devil, may not seem a prime representative of humankind. However, through Faustus's supernatural encounter with Helen of Troy, Marlowe emphasizes that Faustus, like all men, gravitates toward the supremely beautiful, desires control and perfection, and grapples with questions of faith and morality. While Faustus possesses extreme ambition and intelligence, he, too, pursues unearthly, unattainable beauty, of which Helen is the perfect embodiment. He desires to dominate his surroundings, whether through the conquest of property, objects, or knowledge. Finally, what is supremely human about Faustus is his constant struggle with issues of morality and religion.

Faustus desires to see Helen because he, like the emperor and scholars, naturally yearns for the beautiful. Not simply earthly beauty, but beauty that seems unattainable, celestial. Despite Mephastophilis' eminent threats to "piecemeal tear [Faustus's] flesh"(12.59), Faustus begs to see the "heavenly Helen"(12.75). Upon beholding Helen, Faustus compares her to bright, lofty, celestial objects. She is "clad in the beauty of a thousand stars"(12.95), "brighter . . . than flaming Jupiter"(12.96), and "more lovely than the monarch of the sky"(12.98). Earlier in the play Faustus already expresses his love for the beautiful. When he first encounters Mephastophilis, he turns him away, telling him: "Thou art too ugly to attend on me"(3.24). He asks Mephastophilis for a wife, "the fairest maid in Germany"(5.140). Furthermore, Faustus embarks upon a tour of the world to visit beautiful monuments and structures: the "buildings fair and gorgeous to the eye"(7.10), the "sumptuous temples"(7.17), and "bright-splendent Rome"(7.47). Despite all of Faustus's powers, beauty remains the one essence he cannot conjure. For instance, when the emperor requests to see Alexander the Great and his wife, Faustus cannot present their "true substantial bodies"(9.40) but only "such spirits as can lively resemble"(9.44) them. His loyalty toward Lucifer faltering, he needs this proof that Lucifer can indeed invoke the beautiful: "[Helen's] sweet embracings may extinguish clean / These thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow"(12.77). Lucifer's Helen becomes tangible, kissable, unlike Faustus's Helen that only briefly passes through the stage. Therefore Faustus longs for true beauty, something mankind cannot create, as do most human beings who long for perfection in their imperfect lives.

It is this desire to achieve perfection in one's life and reach beyond the physical and mental limits of human capacity--what "heavenly power permits"(Epilogue.8)--that motivates Faustus and others to adopt a rebellious, belligerent nature. Faustus's inclination becomes evident in his choice of Helen as the Greek demigod that he longs to meet. He does not wish for Aphrodite, Athena, or Venus, but Helen, "the face that launched a thousand ships"(12.82), the woman who brought about the downfall of two cities and the death of thousands. Subconsciously, Faustus has the need to conquer and dominate; thus, he chooses the woman who has traditionally meant war, as if symbolically establishing his intent to conquer Helen and all that she is associated with as well. He speaks of sacking Wittenberg, fighting "weak Menelaus"(12.90) and killing Achilles. He has already mastered Wittenberg academically; now he needs to overcome it physically. His speech to Helen is full of warlike imagery such as "burnt"(12.83) and "plumed crest"(12.91). Faustus's desire to conquer his obstructions and strive for the extraordinary becomes evident early in the play during his soliloquy: "O what a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honor, of omnipotence / Is promised to the studious artisan"(1.53). Among his aims are overreaching knowledge, bountiful riches, supreme domination, and even immortality. The chorus thus compares Faustus to an Icarus when it states: "His waxen wings did mount above his reach"(Prologue.21). Faustus, unable to reach this level as an ordinary physician, turns to magic and spirits. Hence, Faustus's subconscious desire to conquer Helen and the bastions of ancient Troy can be interpreted as part of his rebellious desire to control his destiny and in addition, supersede limits to his existence.

Because of these desires, Faustus finds himself in moral and religious predicaments. His constant wavering between good and evil, God and Lucifer becomes evident in his speech to Helen. "Her lips sucks forth my soul"(12.84) implies devilish trickery, that Faustus's soul has been enticed by the devil. Not one line further, Faustus immediately entreats Helen: "Come, give me my soul again"(12.85) and he associates the image of heaven with Helen's lips. This struggle with indecision occurs throughout the play. During one moment of fear, Faustus cries out: "Ah Christ my savior! seek to save / Distressed Faustus's soul"(5.258); Lucifer appears, terrifying Faustus, and Faustus immediately forswears the God he had not long ago appealed to: "And Faustus vows never to look to heaven, / Never to name God, or to pray to him"(5.270). Throughout the play Faustus constantly shifts allegiances between Christ and Lucifer; he yearns for God's mercy and longs to repent, yet his "heart's so hardened [he] cannot repent"(5.196). This internal struggle is externalized by Marlowe with the appearances of the good and evil angels, traditional symbols of man's dichotomous conscience. Faustus speaks of immoral acts such as offering "lukewarm blood of newborn babes"(5.13), yet he commits more practical jokes than hideous murders. Faustus's inner conflicts between his tame self and his devilish scheming, his pact with Lucifer and his covenant with God thus become representations of every man's struggle with ideal and reality, good angel and bad angel.

Marlowe ostensibly intends the play as a morality lesson, as the angels tell the readers in the epilogue: "Regard [Faustus's] hellish fall, / Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise / Only to wonder at unlawful things"(Epilogue.4). However, with scenes such as Faustus's encounter with Helen, Marlowe paints Faustus as a sympathetic man with common weaknesses. He seeks the unearthly beauty of Helen, gravitates toward this beauty as all men gravitate toward unattainable beauty. As he strives for this beauty, Faustus continues his quest to test the conventional boundaries of human capability. Not only does he long for beauty, wealth, pleasure, power, honor, and respect, he urges himself to learn magic, become "a mighty god"(1.62), "make men to live eternally"(1.23). Thus Faustus embodies every man's subconscious desires to advance beyond traditionally imposed physical and spiritual limits. Finally, what is most real and familiar about Faustus are his struggles during his short life on Earth. He harbors constant internal battles between his good and bad angels; he questions God's omnipotence and wonders about the devil's powers. Do not all men entertain Faustus's doubts and ambitions, stumble through his debacles? By constructing a sympathetic, familiarly human Faustus, Marlowe gives the otherwise traditional morality play a twist: Faustus is not merely a lesson to be learned from, but a truthful reflection of humanity. And he asks for forgiveness.