Monday, February 9, 2009
V for villian
Dr. Faustus - Chistopher Marlowe...
So I'm reading this play for Renaissance Lit. I studied it already in tenth grade, and its funny to use my old book because I have comments in the margin such as one in a passage about waxen wings that very eruditely states "like the greek guy, Icarius [sic]", which I don't even know why I wrote that, because there is a note explaining that it is in fact referring to Icarus... maybe those were the days when I was resistant to foot notes. Who knows! Anyhow, my professor is driving me crazy because she is trying to force me to find some kind of subversive meaning to the play. Now, don't get me wrong, I love subversiveness and will be the first one to jump on it, and perhaps there is an element of it to be found in Christopher Marlowe. However, I think there is something more important going on here. This is a renaissance text, and supposedly a commentary on humanist thinking. R.M. Dawkins is famously quoted as saying that Dr.F is the story of a Renaissance man who payed the medieval price for being one. Sure this is a completely orthodox reading, but I think one cannot throw it out completely, even if you think there is some kind of subversiveness going on here.
So Faustus is basically after knowledge, and sells his soul to get it. Fast forward 24 yrs and Dr. F gets dragged off to hell. Poor S.O.B. that he is. But what if Faustus' downfall is not so much his yearning for knowledge as it is his intellectual dishonesty? What if Marlowe's play is not making a hero out of Faustus as the quintessential Renaissance man, but rather condemning him for not being a good enough Renaissance man? Herein lies the subversiveness as far as I can tell. I don't think that Marlowe is reduced to either writing an medieval end for Faust in order to hide his subversive ideas regarding knowledge and heroism, nor do I think that Marlowe's purpose is to merely tell the story of the Renaissance man who pays the medieval price. I like to give Marlowe more credit than that. I mean come on, the man is rumored to have been a spy among other things and the English father of blank verse; gotta give him extra credit, right? Well, I do anyhow.
So you might ask what else is there then for Marlowe to be doing here. Well, let me compare it to Utopia, by St. Thomas More, another Renaissance man. Now Utopia is one of those books that people read and think its some kind of early socialist manifesto or something. There are some, however, myself included, who believe it to be rather a picture of a dystopia. A place where humanist and renaissance thinking, taken to its logical and full extent can only end in an idealized place that discounts human frailty, human individuality and essentially human nature. It is the ideal of Aristotle -- if a man but know the good then he will choose the good. Herein lies the Humanist downfall -- intellectual dishonesty. If More's contemporaries take their theories to their inevitable end, they cannot help but fall into the pitfalls of Utopia, no matter how good it sounds on paper. I think the same thing is going on in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus.
Here we have Faustus, a learned man, and more, the most learned, and yet he lies to himself. He possesses all the knowledge worth possessing (the bounded knowledge of the classical texts was to the Renaissance man, the foundation for all other knowledge, scientific or otherwise), and yet he convinces himself that its not enough and that there is more... So again we have a renaissance man who is being intellectually dishonest. By placing knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge above wisdom, the renaissance man lies to himself. If Faust truly knows all there is to know, and thus, the good, should he not then be able to choose the good and to know that he possesses all the knowledge worth knowing, the foundation of all other knowledge?
Truth be told, I'm supposed to be writing a paper about this at the moment. So I suppose I ought to go do that. Boo.