Doctor Faustus | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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Doctor Faustus | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Alone in his study, Faustus contemplates what line of scholarship he will pursue. He has earned a higher degree in theology but suspects his interests may have changed. He first considers the study of logic, or reasoning, whose foundation is Greek philosopher Aristotle's Analytics. Yet the main goal of logic seems to be the art of debating well. Having mastered the skill already, Faustus impatiently rejects this line of study.

Next he looks to medicine, noting a quotation from Aristotle: "Where philosophy ends, medicine begins." Faustus mentions Galen, a physician of ancient Rome, considered the most prominent of famous doctors. Faustus knows there is good money in practicing medicine and fame to be acquired for discovering some wondrous cure. Yet he is already an accomplished physician and finds no satisfaction in his success—he is still simply Faustus.

Turning to the field of law, the doctor turns to Roman Emperor Justinian, whose works form the basis for the study of law during the Renaissance. But Faustus dismisses this, as well. He decides law is a profession too tedious and narrow in scope, with only trivial aims. Rejecting it, he arrives full circle, judging that the formal study of religion best fits his ambitions. Picking up St. Jerome's translation of the Bible, he reads a line of verse: "The reward of sin is death." It occurs to him that humankind is fated to sin and so fated to die an everlasting death. In light of this the study of theology also seems pointless and unable to satisfy his yearnings.

Having eliminated the three main subjects studied at a Renaissance university, Faustus turns to the "metaphysics of magicians" (the study of what is considered beyond the known world) and necromancy. This unorthodox line of scholarship promises money, pleasure, power, respect, and influence. Faustus notes that an accomplished magician "is a mighty god," and he dreams he will become omnipotent, or all-powerful, greater than emperors or kings. Faustus decides in favor of magic and promptly sends his servant, Wagner, to invite two friends, Valdes and Cornelius, to visit. They can help him in his studies.

Alone once again, Faustus is confronted by the Good Angel and the Evil Angel. The Good Angel begs Faustus to put aside his blasphemous book of magic and read the Bible instead. The Evil Angel urges Faustus on his ambitious course of study. Once they leave, Faustus argues aloud for all the benefits of pursuing magic, all the splendid things he will accomplish with its power.

When Valdes and Cornelius arrive, Faustus tells them he has become possessed with the idea of practicing magic. Valdes assures Faustus that his intelligence guided by their experience and books will bring them all fame and privilege. Cornelius adds that once Faustus sees what magic can do, he will want to study nothing else. The two agree to help Faustus learn the rudiments of the art, expecting that he soon will outshine them. Though anxious to begin that night, Faustus asks his friends to dine with him first.

Analysis

The knowledge and wisdom of the past inherited by the Renaissance flowed from men such as Aristotle (philosophy), Galen (medicine), and Justinian (law) and from the Bible (theology). Faustus has been "ravished" by the works of Aristotle but is certain there is more to know. The ancient authorities on medicine and law seem to him equally limited. Faustus uses faulty logic, based on an incomplete reading of a Bible verse, to reject continued study of theology.

Romans 6:23 reads, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Faustus concentrates only on "the wages of sin is death," leaving out the rest of the sentence, which focuses on the "gift" of eternal life through Christ. Instead, Faustus looks only at "everlasting death." This is a most pessimistic interpretation, devoid of hope. As a master of the subject of theology, Faustus should have known better. However, he is bent on studying magic and is willing to engage in self-deception to do so, such as basing his decision on half of a Bible verse.

This conveniently allows Faustus to discard religious studies as easily as philosophy, medicine, and law. He treats the idea of sin lightly, observing, "We must sin, and so consequently die." It's a rather clinical view of the process, a view detached from the damning nature of sin. He coolly continues, "Ay, we must die an everlasting death," as if this has no meaning for him personally. This foreshadows Faustus's fall, when he will give in to sin and marginalize its spiritual consequences.

The doctor's longing to study magic appears potentially admirable. He yearns to expand the frontiers of human knowledge and to do great things with his power. His list of goals is impressive and lends his character an idealistic grandeur. However, he also fantasizes about the vast wealth and fame he will acquire; the worldly delights he will explore. These less worthy desires will undermine his more noble goals. In time he will use his knowledge and power only for self-serving pleasure and profit, amusing tricks, and petty revenge. For all his scholarship, Faustus has failed to assimilate the wisdom—a gift he could glean from many works in the past—that greed for power never ends well. If he had considered this, he might have recognized and guarded against the corrupting influence of unlimited power. Faustus turns to Valdes and Cornelius to help him in his studies. Anxious to get started, he is impatient with the idea of self-conducted study. This indicates that, for Faustus, the pursuit of knowledge is secondary to the objective of power and wealth. He is willing to take a shortcut to possess them, just as he is willing to delude himself with his flawed interpretation of the biblical verse.

The Good Angel and Evil Angel are also introduced in this scene. They appear to be physical embodiments of true spirits as well as representatives of Faustus's conflicted conscience. Within the play they establish the universal conflict between good and evil. They then proceed to work consistently as a pair, speaking in a call-response pattern. In the beginning the Good Angel is first to speak. However, when they appear a last time near the end of Act 2, Scene 3, the Evil Angel speaks first, suggesting Faustus has crossed a line, slipping closer to damnation and further from redemption. Even so, as in this first scene, the Good Angel stubbornly insists that Faustus may yet be saved if he rejects magic and repents by expressing his sorrow and remorse for his sins.

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