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Scene Summaries With Notes
The Chorus informs the audience that the dramatist in this play will not deal with the subject of war or present scenes of love or “the pomp of proud audacious deeds.” The play will deal instead with “Faustus’ fortunes, good or bad.” Faustus, the audience is told, was born in Germany. Though he was of low social origin, he was brought up in the city of Wittenberg. He blossomed into a great scholar who brought grace to the fruitful garden of scholarship. He acquired proficiency in theology. Because of his arrogance as a scholar, he tried to go beyond human limitations and so met with his downfall. He took to the study of “cursed necromancy,” or black magic. Magic and the power it promises became more precious to Faustus than the salvation of his soul.
During the Elizabethan age, the term “Chorus” was applied to a single person who spoke the prologue and epilogue to a play, and sometimes introduced each act as well. The Chorus also provides occasional passages of explanation or commentary at the beginning, middle, or end of the play. In the older versions of the Faust legend, the emphasis is on the doctor’s exploits and his exhibition of magical powers. These are relegated by Marlowe to the Chorus and to a few comparatively brief scenes. Marlowe is mainly interested in presenting Faustus, his dreams and aspirations, his initial resolve, his subsequent doubts and his tragic and untimely death. His play opens with a Chorus speech. It gives the necessary exposition to the play’s action. The prologue presents Faustus and the circumstances of his birth, his upbringing at Wittenberg, his blossoming into a brilliant scholar, his proficiency in theology, his pride in his own abilities, and his attempt to become godlike, which leads to his tragic downfall.
The Chorus underlines Faustus’ tragic flaws. Faustus’ “cunning” (misused knowledge) and “self-conceit” (pride in his own abilities) hold the keys to his tragedy. Words like “falling,” “glutted,” “surfeits” and “sweet” point to the sensual nature of Faustus’ pursuit of knowledge. Faustus prefers sweet magic to the knowledge of God, which brings supreme happiness.
The tragedy that awaits Faustus is compared by the Chorus to that of Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who contrived “waxen wings” for his son. Marlowe refers to the tragic death of Icarus, who ignored his father’s warning not to fly too near the sun: his “waxen wings” melted from his body, and he plummeted to death in the sea. In the sixteenth century, Icarus was a familiar emblem for self-will and destructive ambition ( Harry Levin, Christopher Marlowe : The Overreacher, pp. 191- 92).
The Chorus lays stress on Faustus’ falling a victim to “a devilish exercise,” namely, the practice of “cursed necromancy.” Right at the beginning of the play, the Chorus pinpoints the stupidity of Faustus’ pursuit of the black arts. Tempted by the devil, Faustus practices black magic, which is forbidden by God. Magic is practiced by those who are the followers of the devil. Wise people should merely wonder at what magic can do, but they should neither investigate into nor actually practice magic. The wise man is he who prefers “chief bliss” (hope of salvation) to bitter magic, or the “devilish exercise” of “cursed necromancy,” which leads to the hero’s tragic downfall. In this way the Chorus prepares the audience and readers for the tragic damnation of Faustus.