Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Doctor Faustus as a Tragic Hero

In Christopher Marlowe’s renowned tragedy, Doctor Faustus, the titular character embarks on a journey that ultimately leads to his tragic downfall. Dr. Faustus, an ambitious and knowledgeable scholar, makes a fateful decision to sell his soul to Lucifer in exchange for twenty-four years of unlimited knowledge.

The Tragic Hero: A Blend of Good and Bad

According to Aristotle, a tragic hero evokes both pity and terror in the audience because they possess a mixture of good and bad characteristics. They are not entirely virtuous, yet not wholly evil either. This creates a sense of relatability, as the audience recognizes the hero’s flaws and vulnerabilities. Dr. Faustus, despite his scholarly achievements, is not exempt from this definition of a tragic hero. He is neither inherently good nor utterly wicked, but rather a complex blend of both.

While Faustus may not meet Aristotle’s requirement of being of noble birth, his greatness lies in his intellectual prowess and ambition. Like Macbeth, another ambitious hero, Faustus aspires for greatness beyond human limits. He denounces God, blasphemes the Trinity, and makes a pact with Lucifer to gain supernatural powers and indulge in a life of pleasure and power. This decision seals his fate and sets the stage for his tragic journey.

The Power of Free Will and the Struggle Against Fate

Marlowe infuses the Renaissance spirit into the character of Dr. Faustus, highlighting his desire to be the master of his own destiny. Faustus yearns for knowledge and seeks to challenge the predetermined path set by fate. He believes that through his own decisions and actions, he can shape his future and transcend the limitations imposed upon him.

Driven by his thirst for knowledge, Faustus delves into the study of necromancy, responding to the temptations of the Evil Angel who promises him the position of a “Lord and Commander of the world.” He is determined to attain deity and commits a sinful act by selling his soul to acquire unlimited power and unlock the secrets of the universe. In his pursuit of ultimate control and free will, Faustus unwittingly sets in motion his own downfall.

The Inner Conflict and the Tragic Flaw

Similar to other great tragic heroes, Faustus experiences a profound inner conflict. The appearance of the Good and Evil Angel serves as a personification of his internal struggle between good and evil impulses. While his conventional heart opposes self-damnation, Faustus ignores the warnings and proceeds to complete the pact with Lucifer. As time passes, the disillusionment with the rewards of magic and the growing sense of loss begin to torment him.

The tragic flaw in Faustus’ character lies in his insatiable thirst for unlimited power, knowledge, and pleasure. He succumbs to the temptations of sensuality and submits himself to his darkest desires. As his desires escalate, the darkness of his actions intensifies, leading him further down the path of damnation. Eventually, he reaches a point of no return, where his tragic flaw brings about his doom.

Evoking Pity and Fear: Faustus’ Universal Appeal

According to the classical view, a tragic hero must evoke both pity and fear in the hearts of the audience. Dr. Faustus is no exception to this rule. His universal appeal for life, manifested in moments of vulnerability, touches the hearts of the audience. Even amidst his sinful actions, there is a sense of sympathy and a desire for Faustus to find redemption and salvation.

Also Read: How Doctor Faustus is a Morality Play in Literature?

In one of the most poignant scenes, Faustus pleads with God, expressing his fear and regret for the choices he has made. He cries out, “My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!” These words stir pity and sympathy in the audience, creating a connection between them and the tormented protagonist. Despite his flaws and wrongdoings, Faustus remains a tragic hero who evokes both pity and fear.

Faustus as a Scholar and the Renaissance Spirit

Faustus’ identity as a scholar is emphasized throughout the play, highlighting his intellectual prowess and the impact he has on those around him. His reputation as a respected professional is evident from the opening scenes, where he delivers speeches to students and servants, showcasing his knowledge in various fields of study.

The admiration and lamentation of his colleagues further exemplify Faustus’ status as a tragic hero. They mourn the loss of a scholar who had a profound influence on their lives and the education of many students. Despite the warnings of Mephistopheles, Faustus’ determination to pursue knowledge and power leads to his tragic end.

The Quest for Power and the Desire for Freedom

Faustus’ mistaken choice to exchange his soul for knowledge reflects his insatiable desire for power and freedom. His decision blinds him to the consequences and prevents him from making the right choices. The pursuit of power and honor drives him to reject repentance and remain in the clutches of the devil.

His ambitions are evident in his proclamation that he will become a ruler and conquer all. Faustus seeks to control his own destiny, defying the limitations imposed by fate. This desire for autonomy and the power of free will ultimately contribute to his downfall as a tragic hero.

Marlowe’s Unique Interpretation: A Blend of Tragedy and Renaissance Spirit

Marlowe’s interpretation of the tragic hero in Doctor Faustus deviates from Aristotle’s traditional definition in some aspects. While Faustus may not possess all the characteristics outlined by Aristotle, his character embodies the spirit of the Renaissance. He represents the human desire to challenge fate, seek knowledge, and assert individual agency.

Faustus’ tragic journey serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the consequences of unchecked ambition and the pursuit of power at any cost. Marlowe’s portrayal of Faustus as a tragic hero showcases the tension between the Renaissance spirit of intellectual curiosity and the moral implications of one’s choices.

Conclusion: The Tragic Hero’s Downfall

In conclusion, the character of Dr. Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus can be considered a tragic hero. Despite not fulfilling all of Aristotle’s criteria, Faustus possesses the essential qualities that evoke pity and fear in the audience. His internal conflict, tragic flaw, and relentless pursuit of power and knowledge ultimately lead to his tragic downfall.

Faustus’ universal appeal and his role as a respected scholar underscore his significance as a tragic hero. Marlowe’s interpretation of Faustus reflects the spirit of the Renaissance, emphasizing the human desire for autonomy and the consequences that accompany the misuse of free will.


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