Discuss Marlowe's 'Doctor Faustus' as an allegory

Though at the simplest level Marlowe's ‘Dr. Faustus' can be taken as a play about the damnation of a scholar who dares to go against the dictates of religion, the play is much more than this. Critics have pointed out that a large measure of the action takes place not so much between beings as within a single one of them. In other words, much of the action takes place in the mind of Faustus himself. Whether it is the Good or the Evil Angel, the Old Man, Helen, Mephistophilis or even Lucifer- all these are parts of Faustus. James Smith in his essay “Marlowe' Doctor Faustus” for the first time labels this famous play as an allegory. A cursory survey of the different characters in the play reveals, quite significantly their roles in serving a double purpose in the play- as symbols as well as real physical characters. Smith opines that it is because certain characters in the play have great allegorical significance, the play offers scope for a wide variety of interpretations.

doctor faustus as an allegory

This allegorical interpretation of ‘Dr. Faustus' calls for a multiple interpretation of the play. From one point of view, the characters with whom the protagonist is made to encounter in the play exist as independent identities but at the same time also becomes a symbol of the inner turmoil of the soul of Faustus. Thus realism and allegory coexist in this tragedy of a man destroyed by the conflicting values of the medievalism and modernity.

To demonstrate the amalgamation of allegory and realism in 'Doctor Faustus' we may take the characters of the Good and the Evil Angels. These characters have their independent existence and represent an inflexible and permanent aspect of a cosmic order. But at the allegorical level, however, they symbolise aspects within the character of Faustus himself. They symbolize the innate Good and Evil in the mind of a man. Therefore, the good and the evil nature of Faustus' character become synonymous with the order of good and the order of evil witch the two Angels represent. They are significant as symbols by virtue of what they symbolise but noteworthy by themselves by virtue of what they are. These characters in the play perform this dual function continuously and simultaneously. It must be remembered that Faustus was never independent of the cosmic order that is symbolized by the two Angels. On the other hand, this order can also never be altered by the protagonist's choice. It is Faustus who must undergo the consequences of his choice either in earthly bliss or in eternal damnations.

While focusing on the allegorical elements in the play, we may consider the character of Helen too. This character can also be defined in terms of two simultaneous suggestions. At the physical, independent level, Helen represents the pinnacle of physical beauty. However, at an allegorical level she symbolises Faustus’ hedonistic passion which he seeks to gratify in his quest for that complete, but elusive experience. The character of Helen seems to be a product of the personification Faustus' physical desires.

In his persistent fall from grace Faustus only succeeds in distancing himself from God. Allegorically, Faustus initiates his "Fall’ from the moment he goes against the accepted rules of religion by signing the bond with the Devil. Again here it would be wrong to interpret that Lucifer bludgeons Faustus into submission. It is Faustus himself who binds him to Lucifer, The stern words of Lucifer and the protagonist's meek surrender at moments in the play is indicative of Faustus' own weakness in accepting reality. Even Lucifer here, like the Good Angels, can be interpreted both as an individual character as well as an integral part of Faustus. Similarly, Mephistophilis, the Old Man who asks Faustus to repent, the Seven Deadly Sins, Helen etc. exist both as individuals and as parts of the protagonist's mind.

To illustrate further, the character of the Old Man is suggestive of the omnipotence of God but at the same time can be interpreted as an allegorical figure that represents all the good that is still left in Faustus, which can eventually fetch him salvation. All Faustus needs to do is to repent and submit himself to God. But this becomes impossible because Faustus' mind has fully invaded by the devil and in spite of his best efforts, Faustus is unable to repent. He declares: My heart's so bardene'd I cannot repenl'.

It is worth mentioning that Faustus’ lack of emotion at the sight of the Seven Deadly Sins is surprising. The best explanation for this is that this show of the Deadly Sins is, after all, Faustus' realization of the evil lurking his mind. It is Faustus’ pride that makes him feel better qualified to tease Pope, oblige the Duchess and entertain Emperors. Critics feel that Faustus’ rejection of the Seven Deadly Sins is nothing but the rejection of the theological order that morally justifies Faustus’ tragedy at the end.

Finally, an allegorical interpretation can also be extended to include certain other events in the play, such as the time period of twenty-four years that separate the signing of the bond with the Devil and the protagonist's death. Faustus' death is surely significant as a physical occurrence, but it is already symbolically present in the moment Faustus signs the deed. Faustus’ signing of the bond symbolizes his spiritual depth. Further, the allegories not only provide substance for the body of the play but shape it too. The play has a symmetrical structure- it has the form of a closed circle. It ends where it begins leaving Faustus where the reader had first found um all alone in his study. The allegorical interpretation of the play thus succeeds in enhancing the deeper nuances of meaning in Doctor Faustus.

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