Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: Reflection of Social Reality

                          by Chanchal Chauhan

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus reflects the spirit of fearless adventure, exploration and thirst for new knowledge of the people of an age that is known as the Renaissance. With the emergence of mercantile capitalism in Europe human society changed radically in all the countries that reaped the fruits of new wealth from international trade. New areas were discovered and ships were taking up new journeys to the east and the west. New knowledge and advancement of learning led to ambitions of possessing more and more powers to rule the world wherever possible. L.G. Salingar, in his essay on the social setting of the Elizabethan period, rightly pointed out this change:

Though most of Elizabeth’s five million subjects were country-dwellers, their prosperity depended on foreign trade and all the main events of the reign were connected with the rise of merchant capital - the long duel with Spain, ranging from Ireland to the Indies; the raids on Spanish treasure; the sudden expansion of English trade to touch all four of the known continents.

                                                                                   (Age of Shakespeare, Ed. Boris Ford, p.17) 

Capitalism gives birth to a nation state and thus creates a new consciousness of nationalism. Nationalism as a progressive concept helps in promoting some changes in thought. The idea of national church as against the Catholic church was such an idea that could be promoted on the basis of nationalism. That is how the Reformation of the Church during the reign of Henry VIII (1520-1539) resulted in the end of conservatism of the middle ages.
The new concept of nationalism was further strengthened by Elizabeth with her patronage to the Puritan ideology of the national church. That is why the Catholics tried to annihilate her by a plot against her. Nationalism also helped in the growth of the spirit of the Renaissance, its humanism, and also the thirst for acquiring more and more knowledge. This spirit led to the establishment of the printing press and translations of books from classical antiquity. The ruling ideology of the Protestants also re-created for itself the classical ideology of slave society  that preached the precept that human beings cannot transcend their limitations. The mercantile capitalism had double-edged weapon of its ideology, one edge was doing away with Catholic conservatism, while the other was used to protect and strengthen the classical ideology of helplessness of individuals in the face of the Original Sin to contain the exploited masses under its fold. This was the contradiction of that age itself under the new conditions created by the emergence of merchant capital. L.G. Salingar comments: ‘The new conditions favoured pragmatic outlook and ideal of self-development through action. But the sixteenth century was restless, in the atmosphere created by the new discoveries and new wealth, by political upheavals and religious wars; and there was no fresh intellectual synthesis.’ (ibid, p.18)  
Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus as a text embodies these contradictions of its age. Ultimately, it is the ruling ideology that prevails and tries to impose its own order on the individuals so that they may not attempt to transcend their limitations. This ‘order’ is given the form of ‘divine order’ that manifests itself in Nature. The philosophical treatises written by Elyot and by Hooker during the sixteenth century itself underline the same ideology. Hooker writes that the law of Nature is ‘an infallible knowledge imprinted’ in the mind; the need to maintain a regulated order, then, is dictated by man’s place in the universe. This theory of ‘man’s place in the universe’ was in essence the classical ideology of slave society reformulated as the Christian theory of the ‘Chain of Being’. It was preached, whosoever tried to transcend the ladder fell. Myths of Icarus, Prometheus, Oedipus et al were invoked from classical antiquity and the fall of Satan, the arch-angel and also of Adam and Eve always brought to focus the same ideology of the ruling classes to discipline the ruled. It is not accidental that Marlowe, in the Prologue of Doctor Faustus, invokes the myth of Icarus who with his ‘waxen wings’ tried to transcend his limitations, so fell:

        So much he profits in divinity,
        That shortly he was grac’d with Doctor’s name
        Excelling all and sweetly can dispute
        In th’ heavenly matters of theology;
        Till swoll’n with cunning, of a self-conceit,
        His waxen wings did mount above his reach
        And, melting, heavens conspir’d his over-throw

Faustus attempts to acquire all powers that are denied to other human beings and thus tries to transcend his limitations. He dares to possess those powers even at the risk of damnation of his soul. He is shown seven deadly sins that include greed and pride, yet he ignores all that mythical fear. He ignores all warnings of ‘good angel’ and the ‘old’ man representing old conservative wisdom that obstructs mankind’s endeavour for new knowledge and logical powers with the development of new tools and new inventions
Puritanism propagated one new element in Christian theology, that of the theory of the ‘chosen few’. Mankind after the ‘Original Sin’ of Adam and Eve inherited that sin and stands ‘damned’. Only a few ‘elects’ like Jesus will get redemption. This new theory encouraged people to take up adventures and eat the forbidden fruit of more and more knowledge. This theory supportive of mercantile capitalism aroused among Europeans a new desire to possess and acquire new colonies without caring for the damnation of their souls, since their souls already stood damned and nothing worse could happen to them. There was no authority to inform people who was the lucky ‘elect’ to get the grace of God. That is the new consciousness that leads Faustus also to do all adventures as his soul might be among those that stood damned already without any hope for salvation. That is how he does not care for the soul and prefers to enjoy all worldly pleasures that were not enjoyed even by kings and monarchs. He knows by his study that ‘Hell’ is nothing but a state of mind. If he feels joy in mastering magical powers, he is not in hell. He enjoys himself with those powers during the prime of his life. The old age of every human being is devoid of all pleasures of life. If he dies in that condition, he is already in Hell. Ironically his death in old age like King Lear’s death is his redemption. The Elizabethan intellectual had already begun to doubt the existence of life after death. William M. Hamlin, associate professor of English at Idaho State University in his paper delivered at Cambridge University in June 1998 at the Fourth International Conference on Christopher Marlowe has elaborated at length this element of doubt in this play.
Thus the play is a reflection of all that was happening in the social and intellectual life of Elizabethan age.