Renaissance elements in Doctor Faustus
Renaissance ideals vs. Medieval
Faustus's inner turmoil gives way to the dominant meaning within the play: Medieval morals versus Renaissance ideals. Marlowe's characterization of Faustus leads one to the predominant idea of duality in society of his era in which Medieval values conflict with those of the Renaissance. His refusal to see what is fact and what is fiction is a result of his pompous persona. In his quest to become omnipotent, Faustus fails to see that there is life after death and that his material possessions are of no consequence. Faustus is a combatant in his own internal war of knowledge or salvation.
In the opening of the play Marlowe uses the chorus to announce the time, place, and most importantly, to introduce Faustus. The chorus refers to the Greek myth of Icarus while characterizing Faustus - " Till swoll'n with cunning, of self conceit,/ His waxen wings did mount above his reach/ And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow!"(Prologue. 19-21.). " His waxen wings did mount above his reach" is an ironic comparison between Icarus and Faustus. It is ironic because Icarus directly disobeys his father, which ties into the idea of moral sin. However, in Faustus' case it is disobedient to become too learned. Also, the line " heavens conspired his overthrow" could be a reference to Lucifer's attempt to overpower God. Thus, the Chorus would ultimately be making reference to Faustus attempting to outwit God. This is the contrast between Medieval and Renaissance values; the medieval world shunned all that was not Christian while the Renaissance was a re-birth of learning in which people openly questioned divinity as with much more. The chorus makes it seem that Faustus is a 'bad' man because he seeks knowledge. In essence, it portrays Faustus as a "Renaissance man who pays the medieval price for being one."
Faustus's constant struggle to explore Renaissance principles is heightened by the Good Angel and Bad Angel. The Good Angel pulls Faustus towards Medieval values. He represents Faustus's Medieval instincts: "O Faustus, lay that damned book aside/ And gaze not on it lest it tempt thy soul/ And heap God's heavy wrath upon thy head!/ Read, read the Scriptures - that is blasphemy!" ( 1.1.67-69 ). The Angel is eluding to Medieval ideals by saying that books are 'damned' and will bring 'God's heavy wrath'. 'That is blasphemy' is yet another reference to books not being of God. The Good Angel is Faustus key to salvation. Again, Faustus's inner conflict gives way to the ultimate theme of redemption and sin. While the Good Angel represents the medieval era, the Bad Angel signifies the Renaissance : "Go forward Faustus, in that famous art/ Wherein all nature's treasure is contained./... / Lord and commander of these elements!"( 1.1.71-74 ). The Bad Angel feeds Faustus's thirst for knowledge by telling him that 'all nature's treasure is contained' in his books. Going even further, the Angel tells Faustus to be 'Lord' and 'commander' of these elements ultimately telling Faustus that he could be God if he so chose. Both angels are ultimately signify duality within society. Where half are pulled towards the righteous Medieval morals and the others toward liberated Renaissance ideals.
Faustus embraces his Renaissance persona by acknowledging his life choices. In his never ending quest to obtain knowledge, Faustus conjures Helen of Troy so that he may marvel at her beauty: "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/ And burnt the topless towers of Illium? / Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss./ Her kiss suck forth my soul. See where it flies!" ( 5.1.95-99 ). Helen is an apt person for Faustus to gawk at. She was considered to be the most beautiful women in all the world. However, Faustus lives in a time and place of sexual repression. Thus, Helen represents sin and sexual freedom - an end to Medieval morals. The word 'immortal' implies that Helen's kiss allows men to live forever and that Helen herself is 'immortal'. This ironical comparison demonstrates that Faustus is still in denial about death. However, with 'Her kiss suck forth my soul', Faustus suggests that Helen has taken his life. This is ironic on many levels, most noticeably being that many men died to rescue Helen from the Trojans. In addition, Faustus is the only one responsible for his lost soul. The conjuring of Helen of Troy represents Faustus's decision to accept what he has done with his life and follow his Renaissance persona. In calling on Helen, Faustus has yielded himself to immortal sins. First and foremost, Faustus has sinned by using black magic to call on Helen. Lastly, Faustus is openly sexual with Helen of Troy. His kissing of Helen is ultimately a symbol of accepting that which has already been done and preparing to face eternal damnation.
Faustus's epic battle between Medieval morals and Renaissance ideals results in his eternal damnation. Faustus has many chances to repent, yet not once does he decided to put an end to seeking knowledge and practicing magic. His decision is ultimately a signal for the end of Medieval beliefs in 'religion being the key' and the emergence of free thinking. Faustus has been said to be "a Renaissance man who paid the Medieval price for being one" ( R.M. Dawkins). He was an intellectual in a society of ignorance imposed upon by the clergy of the Catholic Church.
Though Faustus is the tragic hero of the play one must really consider if in fact Faustus's demise is tragic. Faustus makes his own decisions and knows where they will take him to in the end. He refuses to see that heaven and hell do exist and despite the many warnings given to him about the heinousness of hell, he still follows the path of damnation Faustus's harrowing demise results in eternal damnation is tragic. Though he is a man with the charisma and courage to follow his passions in life despite the duality within society and the constant pulling of morals and ideals. Faustus is told time after time that he can still repent and save himself from the wrath of God. Several times he does in fact repent, yet because of his inner conflict he 'takes it back'. Not till Faustus utters his last words is one completely sure that Faustus's story is tragic, at best. Ultimately, he dies unhappy and still a combatant in his own internal war.
At the end we can say that in spite of being a man of medieval period, Faustus was a Renaissance man. And by his activities we find the elements of Renaissance where medieval values are buried because of the emergence of Renaissance ideals.