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Proud Faustus is the most uneasy of men, the frailest conqueror, the most sorrowful of atheists, uncertain of his uncertainties. Here indeed is the weak man, terror-stricken by his own audacity, irresolute at the very moment when he boasts of his inflexibility, hurling defiance at God and Devil, but immediately mad with terror, choosing now the soul, now matter; incapable of grasping the unity of the world, of making a synthesis between this soul which he cannot repudiate and this matter which imposes on him its laws. He hopes, then renounces; summons, then rejects; brags and trembles.
Henri Fluchere, Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, 1967
If pity mixed with condemnation were the only feeling that Marlowe's audience can have for Faustus, then he would still be a poor sort of figure, tragic perhaps but only in a rather weak, pathetic sort of way; an Edward II in fact. But again the experience of reading and seeing the play tells us quite plainly that he is not that. There are also a kind of strength and a kind of attractiveness. Both reside in the quality of his imagination. "Megalo-manical fantasy" is [the critic] Kirschbaum's phrase for this imagination, and it is a fair objective analysis of the "diseased ego," a "case" in the psychologist's notebook: but it is also remarkably deaf or blind to the beauty of the lines in which the "case" expresses himself. Let us take the most famous speech of all, Faustus' address to the spirit-Helen of Troy.... What is in the foreground is poetry of exceptional radiance and beauty: moreover, a fervour of spirit and responsiveness to the presence of beauty that are powerful and infectious.
J. B. Steane, "Introduction" to Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays, 1969
ON FAUSTUS AND MEPHISTOPHILIS
After the scholars have left, the mockery of Mephistophilis administers a last turn of the screw: "'Twas I, that when thou wert i' the way to heaven, Damned up thy passage; when thou tookst the book To view the scriptures, then I turned the leaves And led thine eye." Faustus weeps. It is a terrifying speech, recoiling on our whole experience of the play. But without it the exploration of the mystery of evil would not be complete; it is the dramatic equivalent of the gospel's equally disturbing, "Then entered Satan into Judas." From one point of view the play's devils are only symbols of "aspiring pride and insolence," and it is simply Faustus's wilful pride that turned the leaves and led his eye.
J. P. Brockbank, Marlowe: Dr. Faustus, 1962
Faustus has in Mephistophilis an alter ego who is both a demon and a Damon. The man has an extraordinary affection for the spirit, the spirit a mysterious attraction to the man. Mephistophilis should not be confused with Goethe's sardonic nay-sayer; neither is he an operatic villain nor a Satanic tempter. He proffers no tempting speeches and dangles no enticements; Faustus tempts himself and succumbs to temptations which he alone has conjured up. What Mephistophilis really approximates, with his subtle insight and his profound sympathy, is the characterization of Porfiry, the examining magistrate in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.
The dialogues between Faustus and Mephistophilis resemble those cat-and-mouse interrogations in which Porfiry teaches the would-be criminal, Raskolnikov, to accuse and convict himself.
Harry Levin, The Overreacher, 1964
ON THE MESSAGE OF THE PLAY
If he had lived longer, perhaps Marlowe might have written a play of true Christian affirmation, but he did not do so in Doctor Faustus... though in that play, he seemed to be moving closer than ever to traditional Christianity.
Ronald Ribner, "Marlowe's 'Tragicke Glasse,'" 1961
No doubt, he (Marlowe) yearns all the more avidly with Faustus, but with Faustus he condemns himself; the Good Angel and the Old Man are at liberty, while Mephistophilis is in perpetual fetter. Yet, it is just at this point that Marlowe abandons his preoccupation with unfettered soaring, and seems to submit himself to ideas of durance, torment, and constraint. If he is imaginatively identified with any character, it is no longer Faustus; it is Mephistophilis, who suffers with Faustus like a second self yet also plays the cosmic ironist, wise in his guilty knowledge and powerful in his defeated rebellion.
Harry Levin, The Overreacher, 1964
We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.
Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts