Terrible Peril: The Hidden Dangers of Transcendence

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus is a sad tale wherein a learned man defies God and is mightily smited. The Faerie Queen, Book I chronicles the misadventures of the Red Crosse Knight, a noble knight errant seeking to avenge the fall of Eden. On the surface these two separate works would seem to share very little in common, yet upon closer examination the dramatic psychomachia present within the text suggests a kindred spirit. The epic battle for good and evil, played out within the theater of human spirituality. A cosmic campaign, whereby anthropomorphic entities metaphysically embody the conflicting forces of chaos and order, come to a cataclysmic conclusion, contained within the microcosm of personal convictions. These are compelling issues which have captivated audiences for hundreds of years. The individual must make choices everyday and consider and weigh the crushing bulk of society’s values against their own. These are critical decisions, with respect to the moral ambiguity of personal freedom. Hubris and greed could very well tear down the mighty towers of civilization.

The Red Crosse Knight epitomized the virtuous fool, the symbol of his divinity emblazoned upon his shield. The Knight is the very image of pious fealty. This image stands in contrast to the lecherous and greedy Dr. Faustus, a parody of intellectual corruption. While the villainous Dr. and virtuous knight errant make fascinating characters; it is important to understand their roles beyond the text and examine the larger social issues these characters represent. Elizabethans were sophisticated thinkers and had adopted the notion of a unified theory of God worship. The population of Europe was largely Christian; the choices in religion were quite limited on account of the painful death which accompanies heresy. The Christian world view divided the Universe into two separate and whole parts: The natural world and the order of grace. The natural world houses the man and beast and the order of grace houses immortal salvation. The natural world was responsible for much of the misery of the human condition and the order of Grace had the good stuff. Woodhouse describes the two chambers “To the Christian, of course, both orders were subject to the power and providence of God, but exercised in a manner sufficiently different to maintain a clear-cut distinction between the two” (Woodhouse,195). While it helps to understand the poets world it is not necessary to appreciate the significance of these works. The nature of the writing and quality of its prose set these two works above topical interest. There is something deeply enticing contained within the embellishment. There is poignancy in the presentation of the human condition.

The title for The First Booke of the Faerie Queene makes direct reference to holiness. As suggested by Lyle Glazier. “The Red Cross Knight is not simply a soul striving for holiness, he is the striving soul, a representation of the earnest Christian soul wherever it can be found, just as Everyman and Adam and Eve are representations of all men and women. The wandering wood represents not a specific temptation but temptation itself, wherever found and in whatever form”(Glazier,383). The temptations the Knight faces are numerous and subtle. It is these temptations which combined with a total lack of situational awareness compound the Knights problems. It is passion and defiance which lands the knight in the serpents den. “But full of fire and greedy hardiment/ The youthfull Knight could not for ought be staide”(Spencer, 836). His disposition towards insolence nearly see’s the Knight killed if not for the interference of Una. “Now now Sir knight, shew what ye bee/ Add faith unto your force, and be not faint/ Strangle her, else she sure will strangle thee”(Spencer,838). So the Knight is saved from his first trial and by a force of faith. While the majority of the Knights trials and challenges come from external sources Dr. Faustus seems to be the architect of his own demise.

Based on the popular legend of Dr. Faust, Marlowe’s manuscript achieved notoriety and was made infamous by a growing folklore which sprang up around the performance. These urban legends make for amusing anecdotal remarks but in no way overshadow the stirring emotional content of the play itself. The legend of Faust transcends the locality of its inception and its iterations. One could suggest that the mode in which the performance is presented has less to do with entertainment but strikes a chord deep within human psyche. Kenneth Golden expands upon the psychological significance of the Faustian mythos. “ Indeed, despite the medieval and Reformation atmosphere, Faustus’ dilemma is easy to see as parallel to that of modern man –especially from the twentieth-century standpoint of C.G. Jung’s psychology of archetypes”(Golden,202). It may appear as though few would be able to identify with the megalomaniac complex experienced by the Doctor. Yet much of Faustus’ history is spent in obtaining information.

A quest for knowledge that may seem distant to the individual and yet as a society it is our advancement in technology and arts that measure our culture. The age of Renaissance was an awakening to classical thought, when reason and intellect began the slow revolutions to overthrow the political and intellectual oppression of the Catholic Church. Four hundred years later and not much has changed. The age of information is still encumbered by the domination of nation states and structured oligarchy. The feudal caste system has been replaced by corporate overlords and the modern man shares much in common with his ancestors. The plight of the citizen remains unchanged in nearly half a millennium.

The parables of Greek myth are as valid to the modern man as they were to the flip-flop toting, toga swathed thinkers of western civilization. The introduction to Dr. Faustus makes direct reference to the tale of Icarus, that venerable fable born of ancient Greece. Marlowe begins his play with an introduction by the chorus which recounts the exploits of Dr. Faustus and his scholarly accomplishments. “That shortly he was graced with Doctor’s name, In th’ heavenly matters of theology. Till swol’n with cunning of a self-conceit, His waxen wings did mount above his reach, And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow” (Marlowe, 19-22). Such a direct comparison may seem heavy handed or obtuse yet the title of the play leaves little to speculation.

If the alluring mystery of Faustian character is not present within his fall then perhaps it is in his meteoric rise through academia and attempts to achieve God’s Grace through unscrupulous means. His defiance of Gods laws and false understanding of the natural world only help to focalize the audiences understanding of his folly. There is a thrilling sense of complicity while witnessing the crimes Dr. Faustus commits. The blasphemous invocation of demons and the shabby bargain sealed with blood, binding Mephistopheles to the whims of Dr. Faustus, or so it would seem. The terms of the arrangement are never actually met.

Marlowe delivers a tale of broken promises, lust greed and vanity. The miracles performed by the devils amount to little more than grandiose illusions and Dr. Faustus never accomplishes the lofty tasks he had imagined. Faustus may very well represent the wasted potential found in the individual. He is prepared to exchange his immortal soul for instant gratification. The theology of Dr. Faustus describes the metaphysical status of Faustus’ soul. “At the beginning of Dr. Faustus the sublime charity of the Sacrifice is poised against Faustus' consuming egotism; at the close of the play it is poised against the unpitying wrath of God” (Ornstein, 1385). There is no redemption for the damned. The end of the tale offers no silken angel of redemption. A fiendish rending of flesh is too poor a reward for the promethean hero.

If Faustus represents the corruption of faith then the Red Crosse knight embodies the Christian ideal. The Red Cross Knight epitomizes the contemporary Christian morals. If Faustus was an Anti-Christ then the Red Cross Knight is the pseudo God. The themes of ethics and piety never diminish the archaic poetry employed by Spencer, they do however point to the authors preoccupation with matters of faith and the mastery of his classical discipline. Maurice Evans suggests the symbolic allegory used is appropriate. “The imagery of Book I is overwhelmingly Christian, from the Christian armour in the first stanza to the jaws of the dragon which gaped 'like the griesly mouth of Hell' at the end; and it is no accident that Temperance, the chief Aristotelian virtue, is described in terms of Odys-seus' journey home”(Evans, 132). The powerful platonic reasoning and use of Christian theology further compound the metaphysical challenges the Red Cross Knight faces. The steadfast warrior possessed of a boundless source of faith must still encounter Error and lies. These obstacles to truth and understanding entrap and exploit the weakness present in the Knight.

The Knight and the necromancer share more in common than the polar difference in spiritual disposition. There appears to be a mutable aspect to their persona. Faustus is not aware of the fallacious nature of his dialectics. Okerlund argues that Faustus’ reasoning amounts to sophistical fallacy. “Here is the consummate intellect willfully forfeiting the power to reason; here is rational man suborning his logical being in the quest for immortality”(Okerlund, 261). These observations further expand on the erroneous nature of sophistical philosophy. The misappropriated knowledge is used as leverage to achieve illicit dreams of base desires. This false faith is present within the Red Cross Knight as well. The various evils that plague the knight however are mostly external forces acting upon the stout beliefs of the Christian soldier.

The allegory acting as undercurrents in what could be otherwise read as an exciting Arthurian epic. Dallet suggests that there is more to the content of the poem than a first reading may reveal. “…Book I, in many respects the most unified section of the work, owes much of its coherence to an ordering of visual perceptions, and something of its uniqueness to an allegorical sight unseen which makes it true on the literal level that ‘more is meant than meets the ear”. (Dallett, 87) The allegorical context in which the Faerie Queene was conceived shares a mate with the duality of the Faustian text.

Every scene in which Faustus boldly provokes God is matched in kind by the comedic parody of Wagner and his Clown. Whereas Faustus exchanges his soul for deification, the clown mocks his action with mimicry and echoes his masters’ incapacity. Even when Faustus deliberates upon repentance the Devil appears to distract. These ironic twists within the manuscript are meant to entertain and inform the audience of the absurdity of Faustian ambition. The humor contained within the text serves a larger purpose to the overarching themes of damnation and greed. Robert Ornstein expands on the short attention span of Faustus. “Entranced by Lucifer’s vaudeville show he forgets salvation. Lucifer is also entertained but on a more intellectual plane. The consummate cynic, he diverts his victim with a picture gallery that suggests Faustus’ own futility”(Ornstein, 168). To Marlowe, it was important to create an element of artifice. It was necessary to fulfilling the spectacle of failure. If the audience could laugh at the Clown dreaming of wenches then they might weep as they witness Faustus waste his immortal soul for a tryst with a false beauty.

Marlowe’s grasp of irony was profound. The script speaks to the thinking mind on several different levels. The verse ascends to the dizzying heights of satire and descends to the deepest depths of despair. Faustus’ last words edge around repentance and salvation and yet he does not utter the apology that might save his very soul. He laments the terrible fate he forged himself. “Ugly hell, gape not, come not Lucifer! I’ll burn my books. Ah, Mephostophilis!”(Marlowe,1227). Faustus put off all thought of his inevitable damnation to the very end. His tone is of regret and not repentance.

Faustus is reduced to a self indulged flailing, a sign of the consummate sinner and coward. Marlowe ends his play with a whimper and a warning. “To wonder not at unlawful things, Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits, To practice more than heavenly power permits”(Marlowe, Act5). With the tragical scene delivered as promised, it must shock the audience to wonder in awe and somberly consider the measure of their own morality
Dr. Faustus had in himself the worst enemy; the same cannot be said of the Saint George. Within the complex allegory exist outside forces, exerting their control over the Red Cross Knight. The Knight benefits from having an arch enemy in Archimago. The sin present in the world is separate from it. The evil which dwells outside paradise will always tempt the weak. It is the curse of free will to face these conflicts. Even armored against the sin of moral platitudes, the Red Cross Knight is vulnerable to the psychological effects Archimago. The invisible filaments separating man from perfection can be found in the lies of the church with its printed words and the folly of our base urges.

These notions of moral functions help to illustrate the road to right reason. The tragical history of Dr. Faustus facilitates an understanding of the complexity of power and corruption. It may appear as though the much maligned Dr. Faustus is the author of his own destruction, however under scrutiny it appears as though he was a pawn in a cosmic battle for supremacy. The Red Cross Knight too served his duty and would have been consumed by his own passion and lies if not for Love and Mercy. The path to transcendence is limited by emotional capacity. Marlowe and Spencer have produced masterpieces on the state of salvation; they have built a ledge upon which we may lift ourselves up to gaze upon the wide horizon of glory.

Works Cited

Dallet, Joseph Ideas of Sight in the Faerie Queene, “ELH” Vol. 27 No. 2
Johns Hopkins University (1960) pp.87-121
Evans, Maurice Platonic Allegory in The Faerie Queene, “The Review of English Studies,
New Series”, Vol 12, No. 46 (May 1961) pp. 132-143
Golden, L. Kenneth Myth, Psychology, and Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” “College Literature”,
Vol. 12, No. 3 (fall 1985), pp. 202-210
Okerlund, N. A. The Intellectual Folly of Dr. Faustus, “Studies in Philosophy”,
Vol. 74, No. 3 University of North Carolina Press (Jul., 1977), pp. 258-278
Ornstein, Robert Marlowe and God: The Tragic Theology of Dr. Faustus
“PMLA”, Vol. 83 No. 5 (Oct., 1968), pp 1374-1385
The Comic Synthesis in Doctor Faustus, ELH, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Sep, 1955) pp. 165-172
Spencer, Edmund The First Booke of the Faerie Queene, “The Longman Anthology of British
Literature 3rd. Ed”. (2006) pp.832-979
Marlowe, Christopher The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, The Longman Anthology of British
Literature 3rd. Ed. (2006) pp.1177-1227