Human and psychological themes

Human aspiration and the search for knowledge

The advent of humanism

Doctor Faustus was written and first performed at a time when the boundaries of knowledge were expanding at an extremely rapid rate. In natural science and technology, in biology and botany, in navigation and exploration, new ideas and discoveries abounded. It was also a time when some philosophers were putting forward ideas about a world that was centred not on God, but on humanity and its capacity for learning and invention. The new humanism was to a large extent viewed with suspicion by Christians of all persuasions, since it seemed to give humans the right to trespass on areas of knowledge and understanding that ought to be the sole preserve of God. (See also Context > Religious / philosophical context)

Exploring the bounds of knowledge

In many respects, Faustus is representative of this thirst for knowledge. His long monologues in Scene 1 (See Synopses and commentary > Scene 1) dramatise his command of - and impatience with - established branches of knowledge and his desire to move beyond them. On the one hand, this desire is admirable, representing the highest kind of human potential. However, the play also represents it as extremely dangerous, leading, in Faustus' case, to necromancy and the pact with Mephastophilis. Furthermore, when Faustus begins to question Mephastophilis about the secrets of the universe, he is disappointed because he is told very little that he does not already know. By the end of the play, he seems to have lost his hunger for knowledge.

So if the play is about human aspiration and potential, it is also about human limitations, both in terms of what knowledge is allowed to mortals and in terms of their weaknesses as individuals. Faustus' grand statements in the early scenes of the play descend to his playing practical jokes, performing conjuring tricks and indulging his sensual appetites.

Pride, vanity and lack of self-knowledge

If Faustus' monologue in Scene 1 demonstrates his knowledge and intelligence, it also begins to reveals the weaknesses in his character. His pride, arrogance, vanity and lack of self-knowledge will ultimately bring about his downfall. Pride and defiance of God was the sin that brought about the fall of Satan, but Faustus ignores Mephastophilis' references to these events and wilfully pursues his own wishes. The play contains images of falling, in particular of those who overreach themselves (See Imagery and symbolism > Flight and falling), but only gradually does Faustus realise that he has passed the point at which he could have prevented his own fall. Faustus' pride leads him to disregard the likely limitations on human power and knowledge and his transgression is appropriately punished at the end of the play.

The capacity for repentance and suffering

At several points in the play, Faustus is shown to be penitent about his pride and folly, but until the very end he allows himself to be persuaded by Mephastophilis that repentance is futile. This is a very important dimension of Doctor Faustus, where a personality trait supports the larger theme of the struggle between good and evil for possession of Faustus' soul.

Faustus' final speech dramatises his awareness of this struggle and the victory of evil, although his capacity to feel pain and fear about his punishment remains very strong. The play also suggests, through the person of Mephastophilis, that the capacity for regret and suffering due to the loss of God's grace persists, in spite of a being's commitment to serving Lucifer. (See Characterisation > Mephastophilis) To his final hour, Faustus retains his human qualities and, therefore, it is still possible for the audience or readers to have some empathy for his suffering.

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