Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version
Faustus is the central character of the play. The attention of the audience is certainly focused upon him. Faustus was born of poor parents in Rhode in Germany. Like so many outstanding men who were humbly born, it was through learning that he was able to rise above his lowly beginnings. He was brought up by relatives who sent him to the university at Wittenberg. There he excelled in the study of divinity and was awarded his doctorate. He was so outstanding in scholarship and in learned argument that he grew proud of himself and his powers.
At the beginning of the play, he is no longer content with the pursuit of knowledge. He has studied all the main branches of learning of his time and is satisfied by none of them. He demands more from logic than the ability it gives one in debate. Medicine has brought him fame and riches but confers upon him only human powers. The study of law is for slaves and leads to nothing significant. Divinity is preferable to all of these but cannot get beyond sin and death. It is magic that promises to open up new worlds of power and to make man into a god.
Aristotle stated that the tragic hero is a predominantly good man, whose undoing is brought about by some error of human frailty, “the stamp of one defect.” The audience sees three such defects in Faustus that lead to his ultimate domination by Mephistophilis: his pride, his restless intellect and his desire to be more than man (to possess the power and the insight of a god.) Any one of these three defects would have been sufficient to ensure his downfall in terms of the theory of tragedy. In his pride, he is guilty of hubris, a quality which in Greek tragedy was certain to arouse the wrath of the gods. His desire to be equated with God is a sin in Christian terms as well. His restless intellect and deep dissatisfaction with the normal life inevitably lead to misfortune. Step by step, Faustus falls into damnation.
This is the key to much of the duality of Faustus’ thoughts and attitudes. He looks sometimes backwards to the medieval world, and sometimes forward to the modern world. Above all, he is a Renaissance figure, adventurously surveying a world whose horizons were widening every day as a result of voyages and exploration. Faustus is full of excitement for geographical discovery. The Renaissance men were in love with life and its possibilities. They lived dangerously but wholeheartedly. In other words, they were secular. Fundamentally, Faustus’ choice is that of a Renaissance man, not a medieval man. He sacrifices eternity for twenty-four years of full life in the here and now. That is the basic conflict in the mind of Faustus, a man caught between two worlds.