Quick Thoughts on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus
Doctor Faustus is perhaps, first and foremost, a tragedy of the individual. From the very beginning, Faustus asserts himself as an individual, striving to set himself apart from other men. This is the drive behind his inquiry into the “metaphysics of magicians” (i.49) in the first place: to explore the unexplored, to go where other men have not, and, perhaps most crucially, to escape the organized control of established disciplines. In rejecting logic, medicine, and law, Faustus is rejecting established systems of organized control, choosing instead a realm in which there are no rules and no restrictions: a realm in which his own will can be sovereign (or so he thinks). This impulse towards the freedom to express his own will without restriction is what drives Faustus to make his pact with Mephistopheles as well. He hopes to “reign sole king over all our provinces” (i.94) and “be great emperor of the world” (iii.104) with the power he will gain from his magic and Mephistopheles’ service, expressing an absolutism logically extended from his preoccupation with the sovereignty of his own will.
Yet, Faustus’ individualism is not allowed the room to exert itself that he desires, at least not in reality, and so, rather than relinquish it and submit himself to the mechanisms of either society or the Devil and Mephistopheles, he turns further inward, taking individualism to its furthest extension: solipsism. This is perhaps best evidenced by Faustus’ rejection of reality in favor of, as he himself puts it, “mine own fantasy” which will “receive no object for my head” (i.103-104), which the notes tell us indicates that Faustus intends to “pay no attention to physical reality.” This is exactly his problem in a nutshell: when physical reality isn’t going his way, Faustus opts simply not to acknowledge it and, rather, turns inwards to the solipsistic reality of his own head. When Mephistopheles first appears on stage, he is in his true form, presumably a terrible one to behold. This reality, though, is not at all to Faustus’ liking and he bids Mephistopheles to “return an old Franciscan Friar” (iii.25), so that Faustus will not face the truth of Mephistopheles’ nature. Similarly, Faustus ignores obvious warning signs leading up to his signing of the contract. When “Homo fuge” appears written in his own blood on his arm, Faustus decides not to heed the warning, but rather ignores it, retreating into solipsism and choosing to create his own reality rather than accept the true one.
And yet this solipsistic project of interiority is doomed to fail. Faustus is a tragedy of individualism and of the individual. Here, individualism is not triumphant—it can never be so in a universe with God. Faustus, no matter how much he strives, no matter the extent to which he rejects reality in favor of the creations of his own mind, cannot attain the true individuality and agency he seeks. Even as Faustus tries to save himself by repenting, he cannot do so, he is stopped by himself. “I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?” (xiii.69) he cries in his final monologue. He gets no answer, but he doesn’t really need one: Faustus pulls himself down. For to truly repent would be to relinquish his individuality and emerge from his solipsism, acknowledging external reality for what it has been all along. To repent would be to submit to God, to submit to Christ, to submit to religion and society. (Which of course he has already done in making a pact with Satan, submitting himself to him, but as usual his solipsism allowed him to ignore that reality).
The Devil is the ultimate individualist and yet God is the ultimate individual. For Satan is nothing but an imitator of the grandest scale. In seeking the free expression of their individuality, these characters (Satan, Faustus) seek the absolute, and yet they can only fall short in the face of God, the ultimate individual and the only true absolute. In pursuing his project of individualism, Faustus is doomed to fail because he is in imitation not only of God, but of Satan, who attempted to achieve the ultimate individuality.
Yet, Marlowe’s play does not appear to be an outright condemnation of the individual. Faustus’ project may be doomed from the outset, but he had the guts and the ambition to pursue it: does that not set him apart in and of itself? It is not for nothing that Marlowe labels this work “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.” The title itself references the individual: this is not “the Tragical History of a Man with Ambition” or anything of the sort, but the tragical history of a specific individual. And it is tragical. We are not to rejoice over Faustus’ downfall, nor are we to be surprised by it. We, unlike he, saw it coming from a long way off. And yet we were made to experience it with him, to watch as his ambition and his will towards individuality pushed him into the creation of a complex interiority. Perhaps, in the end, we are to condemn Faustus for his shortcomings, his blindness, and self-delusion, but we must (perhaps begrudgingly) admire their product, that is, his interiority. Though the project of individuality is doomed to fail, it is the very ineluctability of this failure which gives birth to a new region (in Faustus, in man): interiority. If Faustus were allowed the free expression of his will in reality, he would have no cause to retreat into himself and cultivate his interiority to the extent that he does. So then, Faustus is a tragedy of the individual and a chastening of the human ambition to stand fully apart, but in that tragedy, there is a glimmer of hope, a glimmer locked in the head of man: his interiority.