In scene 1, Marlowe presents Faustus as a model of the ‘renaissance man’ ideal, defined as ‘an individual who is proficient in many fields and endeavours of knowledge’. We are introduced to Faustus as ‘born of parents base of stock’, this background information is used by Marlowe to stress that the character of Faustus originated from parents of low social rank, confronting the audience with what appears to be an ordinary man. Marlowe then juxtaposes this initial characterisation of Faustus through the use of gothic opposition: “That shortly he was graced with Doctors name, excelling all…
” This contrast implies that Faustus’s intellectual endowment raises him to the status of a great hero with a genuine passion for infinite knowledge, a ‘renaissance man’. Here Marlowe also presents the protagonist as a humanist as he is seeking fulfilment in life through reason and science rather than religious devotion and faith. The growing humanist movement represented a shift from the “contemplative life” to the “active life” during the renaissance period, by creating a protagonist who is an ideal of humanism but is destined to be damned nonetheless, Marlowe is satirising the ideals of Renaissance Humanism.
Marlowe also parodies the traditional ‘morality play’ through the creation of the allegorical characters of the Good and Evil angels as they serve to personify moral qualities, thus aligning them with the concerns of a renaissance humanist. These model characters are manifestations of Faustus’ conflicted conscience, the values which the ‘good’ angel represents align with humanism and its focus on individual conscience and human excellence through logic, which Faustus fatally rejects. The traditions of a morality play continue as Faustus only hears what the last of the allegorical characters says to him, which in this case is the ‘evil’ angel who tempts Faustus to usurp God in order to reach the omnipotence he desires, indicating that Faustus is in fact a tragic hero. Marlowe also presents Faustus as a ‘tragic hero’, ascribing to him many traits that embody the archetype of what defines a classic tragic hero, in particular his hamartia. A tragic hero is defined as ‘a literary character who makes a judgment error that inevitably leads to his/her own destruction’, this definition is ironically from Aristotle who Faustus rejects as part of his own ‘judgement error’.
Faustus’ hamartia is made clear by his tragic grandeur and desire for ambition in scene 1, using flawed logic to reject religion despite his intellect. He wishes divinity ‘adieu’ after reading section’s from Jerome’s bible, fundamentally dismissing the passages about repentance and mercy and instead focusing on ones which declare that ‘the reward of sin is death’, fatally misinterpreting church doctrine as this fatalistic approach is more convenient for him in justifying his newfound interest in black magic. The proverbial saying ‘Che sera sera: what shall be shall be!’ is quoted, implying that life is a matter of chance and destiny; a concept regarded as pagan and foreign to the traditional Christian framework that God controls how and when events happen. Faustus’ rejection of Christian tradition and doctrines implies that he arguably serves as a mouthpiece for peoples doubts about certain areas of Christianity which was emerging during the renaissance, or in fact as a mouthpiece for Marlowe who is thought to have been an atheist.
This causes some commentators to believe that ‘Faustus’ is actually a piece of anti-Catholic propaganda by Marlowe. This is arguably evident from the blasphemy in scene 1 as Faustus challenges traditional Catholic teaching, ‘Why then, be like we must sin, and so consequently die’ which in the Elizabethan period would have been seen as a radical and audacious rejection of the beliefs many of them possessed. Faustus’ willingness to usurp God or at least become equal to him as a ‘demi-God’ is equally blasphemous.
This reveals Faustus’ hamartia, an unchecked hubris that makes him ‘swell with self-conceit’, feeding his desire to usurp God and thus disrupt the ‘great chain of being’. Despite his rejection of divinity to allow him to seek omnipotence of his own, he contradictorily frames his desires with religious language hence the oxymoron ‘necromantic books are heavenly’. This demonstrates that despite Faustus’s scholarly intellect, he possesses a blind ignorance which will result in his downfall, perhaps a warning from Marlowe of the results of challenging human boundaries and “flying to high”. This is highlighted by the allusion to the Greek tragedy ‘Icarus’ whose ‘waxen wings’ melt when he flies too close to the sun, foreboding Faustus’ downfall and further underlining that he is a tragic hero.
The desire that destroyed both Icarus and Faustus aligns with Jacque Lacan’s psychoanalytic criticisms, who theorised that there is a relationship between identity, language and desire. Faustus arguably proves this theory in scene 1 as he constitutes himself as a desiring subject, listing all his achievements but he is unsatisfied as they fail to fill the emptiness which makes up his identity. Faustus is thus a victim of a tragic clash between the increased search for wisdom, moral discipline and knowledge emerging in the renaissance and the traditional Christian ideas that came before it, a destructive equation which causes his identity to become fundamentally displaced.