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Dr Faustus: the Battle Between Good and Evil

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‘Dr Faustus’ is introduced as a very intelligent man who as a scholar appears at first glance to know everything. However, he is bored with the acknowledged boundaries of learning in terms of medicine, law and religion, and he wants to know more, in particular leading to him looking into the sinister world of magic. First of all he engages in the black arts, through his friends Valdes and Cornelius. Then he becomes involved with speaking to Mephastophilis, a devil. Faustus offers his soul to his master – Lucifer – in exchange for twenty-four years of service from Mephastophilis.

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I agree with the statement, ‘The battle between good and evil is regularly dramatized in medieval and early modern drama.’ The themes of good and evil are depicted throughout ‘Dr Faustus’ through the characters of the good and evil angels. The good theme is expressed through God and heaven and the evil is expressed through Lucifer and hell. Dr Faustus has a very long battle, right up to the end scene, between the influences of good and evil, and which he should pick.

Marlowe writes ‘Dr Faustus’ as a ‘Morality play’ – which was designed to inform people of the differences between and ultimately the choice for them of right or wrong. However, Marlowe reworks and develops the concept, and reinvents the way in which it is delivered, varying from more traditional morality plays or previous religious plays of that and previous eras. Most of the audience of this era would have had limited formal education, in particular few could read or write. They only had the ‘church’ and theatrical plays from which to gain information; in particular to gain insight into what could or should be their moral compass. At the time there were also religious plays, however, these would have been more simplistic and told the audience basic approaches to what was right and wrong, for example in terms of honesty, generosity and loyalty. In this play Dr Faustus begins a journey of making choices, not knowing what is right or wrong, and leading the audience through those choices rather than dictating this to them.

In other words, watching morality plays took things a step further and would have equipped the audience to make the decision for themselves around what was right or wrong, rather than simply being told. Morality plays were viewed as being more instructive rather than dogmatic. ‘They formed a bridge between the Medieval religious plays and the secular dramas of the Renaissance.’ Marlowe’s decision to have a figure of Satan in the play would have been extremely controversial with the censorship laws in place in the 1590’s in Elizabethan England. There was also a lot of anxiety about conjuring up the devil on stage at the time as people were worried the ‘devil’ would not know it was just a play; and would therefore remain in the atmosphere around them once called up. This was due to people’s perception of God in the 1590’s, and in particular their undeveloped concept of the devil. ‘Historians have recorded that in a performance at the Theatre in London a cracking sound on the stage resulted in panic in the audience and equally at a performance of the play in Exeter the players were afraid when they thought there was an additional devil on stage.’

The play also touches on one of the seven deadly sins, pride. ‘The Seven Deadly Sins are those transgressions which are fatal to spiritual progress.’ ‘They were well known by the common person, originating in the late sixth century when Pope Gregory the Great reduced the worst sins man can make to seven; others were greed, sloth, wrath, gluttony, lust and envy.’ Dr Faustus is seen as a typical tragic hero as we see his fatal fall – hamartia – which is his pride – hubris – and desire to have more knowledge. Pride is at the centre of the decision-making made by Dr Faustus, despite his great scholarly knowledge, and as a result the victory of evil over good, rather than good prevailing.

The good and evil angels provide the choices for Dr Faustus. The first thing the good angel says is, ‘O Faustus, lay that damned book aside,’, presenting their opinion on magic and how it was seen as wrong in the 1590s. The evil angel then tries to persuade Dr Faustus, ‘Go forward Faustus in that famous art’, Marlow uses alliteration to emphasise the impact that the evil angel can have on Dr Faustus. This helped to portray Dr Faustus’s battle between good and evil, and why he struggled with it.

The theme of religion is used in ‘Dr Faustus’, ‘And heap God’s heavy wrath upon thy head:’, the good angel’s alliteration of ‘h’ emphasises their plea for Dr Faustus to turn to God and away from the devil. Marlowe uses the theme of religion as it would help the Elizabethan audience understand the play better, linking to their common knowledge base.

Faustus dabbles in some questions which would have shocked the audience, who were steeped in traditional thinking on good and evil, heaven and hell. When he asks Mephastophillis where he is and the devil replies that he is in hell, Faustus is sceptical and replies ‘How comes it then that thou art out of hell?’ The professor proclaims, ‘I think hell’s a fable’; this would have shocked the audience as religion was the basis of people’s lives in the Elizabethan era, and the existence of hell (as based on the Bible) was accepted.

The play was also stark in its use of props; again highlighting the battle between good and evil. ‘The Elizabethan businessman, Philip Henslowe, wrote in his diary that there were few props for the play; they included one rock, one cage, one tomb and one hell mouth; this last item being the perfect prop to receive a sinner such as Faustus at the end of Act 5.’ All of this would have very visually shown the audience what happens in the battle between good and evil; if evil is the choice.

We continue to see Dr Faustus struggle with the battle between good and evil, ‘Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please, Resolve me of all ambiguities, Perform what desperate enterprise I will’, Marlowe uses an almost sarcastic tone to emphasise Dr Faustus almost giving up with the battle at this point.

The battle between good and evil was regularly dramatized in other medieval and early modern drama, for example it was used in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. Some of the good characters being King Duncan, Macduff and Lady Macduff, with the bad characters being depicted by the three witches, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’, indicates in the opening Act of Macbeth that good people can be evil, whilst evil people can show some characteristics of good; in short, appearances can be deceiving and often murky like the ‘fog and filthy air’. Shakespeare also presents the theme of good versus evil in King Lear. Edgar notes ‘The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman’, referring to how the devil or Lucifer often disguises himself in charm and reassurance, but whose only goal is the person’s downfall.

One of Dr Faustus’s main battles is whether to repent to God and go to heaven or to continue talking with the devil and go to hell. In the final scene, we see Dr Faustus continue his battle with making the ‘right’ decision. In the end he decides he wants to repent, ‘O I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?’, this rhetorical question emphasises Dr Faustus’s struggle and shows both sides working – the good and the evil.

One of Faustus’s final lines shows his moment of anagnorisis – recognition, ‘Adders and serpents, let me breathe awhile! Ugly Hell, gape not! Come not Lucifer! Ill burn my books! – O Mephostophilis!’ Marlowe uses animalistic imagery of a snake, a common comparison made with the devil. Faustus has finally realised his sin and begins to panic and ask for forgiveness; very typical in a tragedy for the final situation to bring about catharsis – pity and fear. However, he is too late, and the stage directions, ‘[Enter Devils]’, and ‘[Exeunt with him]’, portraying Faustus being taken away by the devil – also creating an anxiety for the audience but showing them the consequences of picking the evil side.

In conclusion, I do agree that the battle between good and evil is regularly dramatized in medieval and early modern drama. However, in this more developed approach by Marlowe it shows the audience that good does not always win over evil and portrays a more complicated picture. In this case, Dr Faustus was presented with both good and evil spirits or devils, yet chose evil, knowing from an early stage in the play that his end would be damnation. 

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