Doctor Faustus is an anti-intellectual play; it preaches that curiosity is dangerous. How helpful is this comment on the play?

25 January, 1998

Marcus Wischik

I do not agree with the idea that Doctor Faustus is an anti-intellectualist play that preaches that curiosity is dangerous. It is all too easy to see Faustus as the scholar, seeking knowledge, and his desire for knowledge that leads to his downfall. To confine the play to something so narrow is to ignore the deeper meaning behind the play. I believe that this deeper meaning is more important than the superficial idea that curiosity is wrong. I believe that the deeper meaning behind the play is the idea that in loosing sight of the spiritual level of existence, we loos sight of God. In doing so, we can no longer see God's mercy and love, and so ignore it. In ignoring it, we deny it, and for this are we damned.

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, and therefore something evil. 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 be 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. It is not for being intellectual that we start to dislike Faustus, but for the numerous foolish and irrelevant displays of his power that he undertakes, and eventually his pride.

This is exemplified by the sharp contrast between Faustus' intentions at the beginning of the play, and the deeds he performs during the play:

I'll have them read me strange philosophy,
And tell the secrets of all foreign kings.
Scene 1, lines 86-8

Instead of doing things like this, he squanders his power. It is his decision to indulge in, as Bentham was later to call them, lower pleasures that illustrates the falsity of the claim that Doctor Faustus is anti-intellectual. If this play were meant to be anti-intellectualist, then the scenes toward the middle of the play that involve Faustus attacking the pope, or summoning Alexander are irrelevant. The kind of curiosity that Faustus exhibits; the curiosity that we start to think less of him for, is not that of the restless renaissance spirit, but that of the rather silly school boy:

POPE: How now, who's that which snatched the meat from me? Will no man look? My lord, this dish was sent from the cardinal of Florence.
FAUSTUS: You say true? I'll have't. [Snatch it]
POPE: What, again! My lord, I'll drink to your grace.
FAUSTUS: I'll pledge your grace. [Snatch the cup]
Scene VII, lines 65-70

It is frivolous displays such as this, culminating in boxing the pope around the ears, that show the level to which the once-learned and respected Faustus has now fallen.

The ultimate act of frivolity and childishness comes in his decision to summon Helen. She is supposedly the most beautiful woman that there has ever been, and so occupies the role of "ultimate fantasy pinup". Unfortunately for Faustus, the only way that he can have her is if her form is taken by a demon. This means that his having sex with her represents not only Faustus' nadir, but also his complete commitment to the devil.

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 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.

I believe that Faustus' crime, the deeper meaning behind the play, is that he started with good intentions, but was ultimately absolutely corrupted by the absolute power that came into his possession; indeed, proverb has it that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Had Faustus not become so preoccupied with the indulgent of his physical pleasures (which he did to so great an extent that his reasoning and judgement began to atrophy and cloud), that he was blinded to the infinite mercy of God, he could have been saved, even at the last moment. Faustus is damned because he was too concerned with the mortal material world, and this concern blinded him to the immortal and immaterial world. He chose to forgo the infinite happiness of Heaven, so that he could indulge in transient happiness here on earth. This concern for material beauty (Helen) damned him eternally.

1,161 words.
Copyright © Marcus Wischik 1998