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Critical Essays of Marlowe

The Faust Project: Summary of A Selection of Critical Essays of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus Edited by A E Dyson, The University Press, 1969
Henry Maitland

Maitland argues that Marlowe’s Dr Faustus is flawed and disproportioned. This is due to the middle section which trivialises the solemn, philosophical and weighty seriousness of the beginning and end. This critic is of the opinion that as the drama claims to have taken place over 24 years the actions and events are not sufficiently varied to match this time gap, also the punishment Lucifer inflicts upon Faustus in the conclusive section of the play is not presented as a wholly deserved one. This could undermine the Christian message of the play. However, on the other hand Maitland congratulates Marlowe for his deep exploration and understanding of human nature for not drawing any picture of Faustus’ repentance or guilt before his punishment in order to abolish all sympathy from an audience with his final sufferings and inevitable fate.

William Hazlitt

Hazlitt is of the opinion that Marlowe’s writing burns with passion and imagination none stop and maintains a critical energy that is naturally transferred onto the stage, resulting in his greatest work. Hazlitt argues that the character of Faustus can be considered as “a personification of the pride of will and eagerness of curiosity, sublimed beyond the reach of fear and remorse”, (Hazlitt, William, Lectures on the Age of Elizabeth, 1820) which is a straightforward explanation concerning why this character would act upon his emotion and not his reason considering the unusual and supernatural circumstances. Hazlitt stresses the importance of Faust’s extra-ordinary intellect in acting as the decider to ultimately sacrifice himself to gain knowledge and experience that will benefit mankind. Hazlitt consequently believes that Faust was not in fact acting to fulfil his own selfish desires but as a martyr to collect knowledge for all of us. This reclusive protagonist is therefore driven on by the restless inclination of the human mind to aspire to more than it can itself achieve by natural means so that if this results in sacrificing the hopes and comforts of an ordinary level then it must be done.

Charles Lamb

This critic is of the strong opinion that Goethe’s Faust does not embody the true ‘Spirit if Faustus’; curiosity. He questions why all of Faustus’ magic and devilish powers results in the simple seduction of a young, innocent girl when this could have been achieved without the aid of Mephistopheles. Lamb compares Marlowe’s superior action of centring his play on Faustus’ obsession with Helen, “When Marlowe gives his Faustus a mistress, he flies him at Helen, flower of Greece, to be sure, and not Miss Bessy or Miss Sally Thoughtless”. As Helen is the most beautiful woman in the world she seems a much nobler mistress for a play of such epic proportions as the legend of Faustus. However, one could argue with Lamb that the power of Goethe’s Faust lies in the very fact that Faust can choose to have either the most beautiful woman ever known to earth, or equally the most innocent and inexperienced girl of no title or fame. Both are a valid match and of equal importance when made attainable by devilish powers.   

James Broughton

This critic is full of praise for Marlowe’s Faust and draws specific attention to the poetic language of the soliloquy that illustrates Faustus’ impassioned despair of the image of Helen and is “surpassed by nothing in the whole circle of the English drama”, (Broughton, James, The History of English Dramatic Poetry, 1831). Broughton also points out the superstition of the Elizabethan audience in the scene where all the devils come out to rip apart Faustus’ soul, they feared for the one that played the role of the devil also believing that the devil himself entered the room in that scene.

Henry Hallam 

Hallam considers the main point to the tale, the poetic struggles of conscience of Faust, is destroyed by the trivial scenes that permeate the middle of the play. In this way he views Marlowe’s Dr Faustus as more of a collection of sketches than a masterpiece of drama. Hallam believes however that the awful melancholy of Marlowe’s Mephistopheles is more accurate, interesting and impressive than Goethe’s, because this character is more deeply afflicted by the fact he has fallen from heaven, as a fallen angel should be creating a more three dimensional, complex character to explore and empathise with than the black and white version of Mephistopheles Goethe created.

George Henry Lewes

Lewes agrees with Hallam in the way that Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, while containing some passages of great meaning, significance and interest, the majority is weighed down with inconsequential humour that is not in keeping with its dignified tone and the vital moral ideas explored within the story. Lewes agrees that the character of Mephistopheles has certain grandeur, yet his words would scare Faust rather than tempt him, so the presentation is flawed. Lewes believes Marlowe’s Dr Faustus won its fame not from the treatment of excellent philosophy or extraordinary exploration of human nature, but merely from the exciting theatrical management of this popular legend. The critic supposes that Marlowe, rather than do justice to this universal legend, has simply reduced it to the attention and acceptance of a wider audience. This cannot be blamed on Marlowe; rather it is the result of his age where one could not create a higher intellectually stimulating play that would have been accepted by the mostly uneducated audience.

Wilhelm Wagner

Wagner is of the opinion that Marlowe uses the trivial and comic scenes where Faust uses Mephistopheles’ magic, to instil us with the thought that in the wider sense, the devil and our lives on earth can give us no greater satisfaction than God. Therefore if we turn to the devil, as Faust did, it is already a pointless endeavour because there is nothing we can gain from this. Wagner believes however that this struggle between passion and reason, God and Satan is not fully presented and only occasionally referred to by Faustus where Mephistopheles quickly silences his subconscious debate.  Wagner even makes up his own better ending where Faustus final decision to turn from the devil is brought about by his pursuit of the pure beauty of Helen, and now repelled by the ugliness of Mephistopheles in comparison.

Quotes from the Critics

•    “Faustus is a vulgar sorcerer, tempted to sell his soul to the devil for the ordinary price of sensual pleasure, and earthly power and glory- and who shrinks and shudders in agony when the forfeit comes to be exacted.”  (Jeffery, Francis, Edinburgh Review, 1817).

•    “Faustus, in his impatience to fulfil at once and for a moment, for a few short years, all the desires and conceptions of his soul, is willing to give in exchange his soul and body to the great enemy of mankind”. (Hazlitt, William, Lectures on the Age of Elizabeth, 1820).

•    “Faustus was intended to establish the use of blank verse on stage. Here the poet, wishing to astonish, and to delight by astonishing, has called in the aid of magic and supernatural agency, and has wrought from his materials, a drama full of power, novelty, interest and variety. All the serious scenes of Faustus eminently excite both pity and terror”. (Collier, John Payne, The History of English Dramatic Poetry, 1831). 

•    “To have saved him at last would have been to violate the legend, and to outrage their moral sense. For, why should the black arts be unpunished? Why should not the sorcerer be damned? The legend was understood in its literal sense, in perfect accordance with the credulity of the audience. The symbolic significance of the legend is an entirely modern creation.” (Lewes, George Henry, The Life and Works of Goethe, 1855).

•    “Marlowe’s Faustus is the living, struggling, natural, personal man, not the philosophic type which Goethe has created, but a primitive and genuine man, hot-headed, fiery, the slave of his passions, the sport of his dreams, wholly engrossed in the present, moulded by his lusts, contradictions, and follies, who amidst noise and starts, cries of pleasure and anguish, rolls, knowing it and willing it, down the slope and crags of his precipice”. (Taine, H.A., History of English Literature, 1863). 

•    “Marlowe’s Faustus is anything but a hero. He gives up heaven and sells his soul to the devil; but he does not derive the slightest benefit from his agreement, as he never becomes the master of the spirit who has sworn to serve him, and employs his agency for mere frivolous uses”. (Wagner, Wilhelm, Christopher Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dr Faustus, 1877).

•    “Marlowe concentrated his energies on the delineation of the proud life and terrible death of a man in revolt against the eternal laws of his own nature and the world, defiant and desperate, plagued with remorse, alternating between the gratification of his appetites and the dread of a God whom he rejects without denying.” (Symonds, John Addington, Shakespeare’s Predecessors in English Drama, 1884).