Chory's Reviews > Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
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Jul 06, 09

bookshelves: read-for-school
Recommended for: Scholars, Werd Nerdz
Read in April, 2009

** spoiler alert ** Tragic Gretchen, Tragic Faust
Why “The Gretchen Tragedy” isn’t…and how Geothe’s Faust fails as a Faustian.
We are told that tragedy and tragic are not interchangeable words. Indeed, the New Oxford American Dictionary—after first listing the patent definition of “an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress[…:]”—indicates the definition of tragedy to be “a play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending[…:].” Its entries for tragic: one, “causing or characterized by extreme distress or sorrow;” two, “suffering extreme distress or sorrow;” and finally, three, “of or relating to tragedy in a literary work.” So the key difference between the two words is that the latter relates to daily life (being distressed, causing distress, and talking about the distressed characters of books and plays), and the former to something which has a defined end: namely, a play or story (also, arguably the life of an actual individual after his death, e.g., Christopher Reeve). It is therefore apparent that the whole of tragedy is encompassed in the denouement and close of a tale.
Watching Gretchen move through the pages of Faust, one can easily get the impression that hers is a tragic story; this supposition is compounded by the knowledge that hers is a Christian tale. But it is the very nature of the play’s Christianity which precludes Gretchen’s bit from being a true tragedy. It is the very fact that the familicidal Margarete “is saved!” (1812 L 4511) in the end which makes her “Christian Tragedy” very much not. This Faust (Geothe’s Faust) is the product of the reformation. Whereas Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus ends in damnation, the new Protestant God is more friendly, less torturous and spiteful; in-a-word, less Catholic. The concept of Veinal vs. Mortal Sin is out the window under Protestantism, and along with it the very idea of Christian tragedy. For if one can repent in the end of any and every transgression and be forgiven, one cannot meet a tragic Christian end in the least because one’s sole is saved. Marlowe’s Faustus does not have this luxury: under the old Catholic system, participation in certain sins (e.g., matricide, selling one’s soul to Satan) completely precludes the commissioner from any hope of salvation. Contingent upon this, Marlowe’s Faustus can come to a truly tragic end when he realizes his error, laments his decision, recognizes it as his fate from the beginning based upon his choices, and is then dragged to Hell by devils.
While Catholicism does purport the validity of confession and request for salvation up to the “momento mori,” the dogma of that church indicates that in certain events (Gretchen’s story being a good example of a few of them) these acts do no good and the soul is damned. Meanwhile, Protestants decry this spiritually nihilistic outlook on matricide, the killing of one’s child, or bargains with demonic forces in favour of a more humanistic God-loves-everyone-just-enough stance under which the sinner’s feeling about his sin overrides any sort of hierarchal dictate: God created you, therefore he loves you, therefore you are forgiven. Where Catholics plead for forgiveness and carry the shame of not knowing, Protestants “feel forgiven” and can be redeemed for anything truly up to the moment of their death; “if you die with Christ in your heart,” as the saying goes.
While Gretchen’s end might be tragic for Faust, it does not begin to be a tragedy. For Faust, the “suffering [of:] extreme distress or sorrow” is clear…Gretchen was the object of his desire and she is taken away by her own resignation to justice—“It is the judgment of God! I submit!” (1812 L 4504), a clearer confession could not be heard. However, it is this very resignation within her which immediately leads her to call for salvation, “In your hands, our Father! oh, save me!/Your angelical hosts stand about me,/Draw up in your ranks to protect me!” (1812 L 4506f), and that very call which leads God (presumably, the character is identified in the text merely as “Voice [from above:]”) to pronounce her “saved!” (1812 L 4511) While it is sad for Faust to loose the woman he purports to love (how genuine that love might be, considering the manipulative role of Mephisto in all of it—specifically his drugging Faust (1762 L 2396)—, is left to interpretation by the reader), sadness does not equal tragedy. Tragic situations do not instantly qualify as tragedies.
A seeming condition of the Faust Myth is a reveling in the rewards reaped through this dealing with the devil. Marlowe’s Faustus certainly does this for his predetermined twenty-five years. Goethe’s Faust, on the other hand, has no predetermined end to his deal, and also seems not to really enjoy much of what happens to him. Generally, the delight with which Faustus met Mephistopheles‘ machinations is paralleled in Faust with either disgust or distress. Upon being whisked to a witch’s kitchen and seeing apes walk about performing household tasks, Faust is not amazed, does not wish to learn, but instead exclaims “it’s revolting! All this crazy witchery! […:] this lunatic confusion! […:] the outlook’s black […:] makes me want to throw up.” (1755 L 2132f, 2139, 2181) It is almost as though every experience Faust has is forced on him by Mephisto, much unlike Faustus who orders Mephistopheles about as his minion—a condition of their contract. Even when Faust is given Gretchen through Mephisto’s manipulations, he is acutely aware and lamenting of his damnation:
And I, abhorred by God,/Was not content to batter/Rocks to bits, I had/To undermine her peace and overwhelm her!/This sacrifice you claimed, Hell, as your due!/The anxious time I must go through!/Let happen quick what has to happen!/Let her fate fall on me, too, crushingly,/and both together perish, her and me! (1781 L 1371f)
almost in a foresight of her downfall…as though he is tragically aware the impact his presence will have upon the poor simple Gretchen. It is because of this knowledge—how could you expect good things to come to your friends when you have a demon following you around? Gretchen caught onto that one pretty quickly, “That man you always have with you,/I loathe him, oh how much I do;/[…:] so horrid, hateful!” (1783 L 3289f)—that Faust is never really able to revel in Gretchen, and though he believes himself to love her and believes that she loves him, his awareness of his doom precludes his indulging in the fruits of his transgression against God.
Insomuch as Part One of the so-called tragedy ends tragically, our knowledge of Part Two—at the end of which we understand Faust himself is saved—indicates that the end of the whole play is anything but tragic. Given the “Christian” nature of the Faust myth, that the man who blasphemously commanded devil-spirits with “my triune light’s hot flash, […:] my most potent sorcery” (1732 L 1105f), and literally sold his soul to Beelzebub can reach salvation is about the most opposite thing to tragedy that anyone could conceive. In fact, Faust’s end is a salvation tale if Part Two ends the way we are told. He, like Gretchen before him, does not meet his tragically indicated end—as implied by the definition of tragedy above, “a play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending[…:]”—and instead comes to a tidy Christian salvation about which there is nothing “unhappy” at all. It is no wonder that Geothe had to addend his title to Faust with the declension of A Tragedy, otherwise the reader might wholly miss the intended lesson of the tale.
By Protestantizing the Faust Myth, Geothe has entirely eliminated its capacity for tragedy. While tragic events do befall Geothe’s Faust and his Frau, nether his end nor Gretchen’s can be categorized as a tragedy in the defined sense. And so we are left with the Faust Myth, and Geothe’s Faust, A Tragedy; never the twain shall meet. Perhaps the most tragic thing of all is that Geothe’s Faust contains all the elements of tragedy without managing to actually be one.

Cited
The New Oxford American Dictionary. Digital edition, version 1.0.2. Apple Computer. 2005

“Faust, A Tragedy.” Johann Wolfgang von Geothe. The Norton Anthology of Drama: Volume 1. Ed. J. Gainor, S. Garner Jr., M. Puchner. W. W. Norton and Co. New York. 2009

“The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.” Christopher Marlowe. The Norton Anthology of Drama: Volume 1. Ed. J. Gainor, S. Garner Jr., M. Puchner. W. W. Norton and Co. New York. 2009
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