Discuss the role of Helen of Troy in Doctor Faustus

8th January, 1998

Marcus Wischik

To adequately describe the role that Helen plays in Doctor Faustus, it is necessary not only to look at the scene in which she features, but also all the instances that Faustus takes some form of pleasure from physical and sensual things. We need to do this because this is what Helen is symbolic of; she represents the attractive nature of evil in addition to the depths of depravity that Faustus has fallen to.

It is fair to say that Faustus represents the quintessential renaissance man - it is his thirst for knowledge that drives him into his pact with Mephastophilis, indeed it is the Evil Angel that best summarises this:

Go forward, Faustus, in the famous art,
Wherein all nature's treasury is contained:
Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky,
Lord and commander of these elements.
Scene I, lines 74-77

It is the restless spirit of the renaissance that drives Faustus to seek knowledge. He has already attained what he can through more conventional means, his "bills (are) hung up as monuments", and his "common talk found aphorisms". Faustus compares himself to the most famous figures of the classical period; to Hippocrates, to Aristotle and to Galen. He sees himself as having come to the end of what he can learn through his human tools; he needs something that will allow him to move outside the realm of nature, something supernatural. This is the reason why he came into contact with Mephastophilis, as he sought to use the new power that would come to him to further his own knowledge. It has been said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely - this is what has happened to Faustus. He ceases to become the seeker of knowledge, but becomes a seeker of pleasure. One of the first things he wants is a wife:

… but leaving
off this, let me have a wife, the fairest maid in Germany, for I
am wanton and lascivious, and cannot live without a wife.
Scene 5, lines 139-141

This marks the descent of Faustus from the intellectual seeking pleasures of the mind, to the hedonist seeking more sensual pleasures.

The appearance of Helen not only represents the fall from high minded intellectualism, but also the seduction of the classical, pagan, world. Faustus' desire to return to the ancient world is represented by not only Helen, the most beautiful woman that the ancient world produced, but also by the presence of the scholars. Classical Greece is supposed to be a time of great thinkers, plays and writers, so Faustus desires to go to this time. Helen's arrival is attended by the scholars, people of learning, who, by their dumb-foundedness, show the beauty of Helen:

Since we have seen the pride of Nature's works,
And only paragon of excellence,
Let us depart; and for this glorious deed
Happy and lest be Faustus evermore.
Scene 12, lines 21-24

It is the somewhat tame verse that these scholars supply that shows that the beauty that Helen represents is beyond mortal comprehension - her beauty, and what that beauty represent, are far more serious than Faustus gives them credit for. Indeed, when the scholars ask to see Helen, Faustus treats it as if it were just another conjuring trick, as was summoning Alexander the Great. This is, however, no ordinary conjuring trick; it has the most dire consequences for Faustus - the loss of his soul.

When we look at the attractive nature that Helen has (or the Devil that has taken her form), we can see how seductive evil is. As proverb would have it, the road to hell is the straight and easy one. It is easier to give in to ones baser desires, to want to make love to Helen, than it is to uphold the principles of the Church. This is why Faustus' wants to retreat to the past, to a time where the church didn't exist. Faustus' speech is characterised by classical allusions, describing Helen in mythological terms:

O thou art fairer than the evening air,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars,
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appeared to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azured arms.
Scene 12, lines 94-99

The comparison to Semele is highly appropriate as Semele wanted to see Jupiter in all his glory, and was then consumed by this glory. This is very much the case that Faustus is in; he wants to see the most beautiful woman that the world has to offer, the Devil's secret weapon if you will, and he is consumed by it. This is contrasted with the Old Man who is immune to the full glory (fury) of the Devil because of the strength of his belief in God.

The Old Man, having endured the attacks of the Devils and remaining unscathed, curses Faustus for his unwillingness to seek God. To seek God, however, would require Faustus' to give up his pride and humbly ask for forgiveness. Faustus' treatment of the Pope and other clergy reveals his preferred method of dealing with the church. Faustus, at the cost of his soul, is unwilling to seek forgiveness, to reach for the blood streaming in the firmament. Had it not been for Helen, I believe that Faustus would have repented and sought forgiveness, as he starts to acknowledge the extent of his deeds:

What art thou Faustus? Wretch, what has thou done!
Damned art thou Faustus, damned; despair and die!
Scene 12, lines 38-39

The repeated long "D" sounds make this realisation of his guilt sound mournful, and like the sentence it is for the crime he has committed. The idea that Faustus is coming close to seeking forgiveness would seem to be vindicated by Mephastophilis' response:

Thou traitor, Faustus: I arrest thy soul
For disobedience to my sovereign lord.
Revolt, or I'll in piecemeal tear thy flesh.
Scene 12, lines 57-59

The phraseology used by Mephastophilis would suggest a legalistic punishment, much like Shylock demanding his pound of flesh. This idea is echoed in the use of capital punishment as the result of trying to break his end of the bargain. Faustus' rebellion against his deal (a repetition of his body's rebellion against his signing of the contract) is only short lived, and his downfall is assured when Helen arrives.

Helen, then, represents the dangerous beauty of evil, the seduction of the past, and the desire for things pleasurable. Faustus' desire for her, for the most beautiful woman who has ever lived, seems understandable (though not reasonable) to us, because we all have a little bit of Faustus in us. It is, however, unlikely that any of us have a sufficiently Faustian nature to sell our soul to the Devil.

1,147 words.
Copyright © Marcus Wischik 1998