Dr. Faustus as a Renaissance man
Scholar R.M. Dawkins once called Faustus “a Renaissance man who had to pay the medieval price for being one.” Doctor Faustus has frequently been interpreted as depicting a clash between the values of the medieval world and the emerging spirit of the sixteenth-century Renaissance. In medieval Europe, Christianity and God lay at the center of intellectual life: scientific inquiry languished, and theology was known as “the queen of the sciences.” In art and literature, the emphasis was on the lives of the saints and the mighty rather than on those of ordinary people. With the advent of the Renaissance, however, there was a new celebration of the free individual and the scientific exploration of nature.
Marlowe sets the morality-play framework of Doctor Faustus within the wider context of Renaissance Christian humanism, in which intellectual and cultural currents greatly differ from the medieval period. He makes Doctor Faustus represent the new learning that highlights the importance of individual thought, expression, and worldly experience. The most important desire of the Renaissance man – thirst for knowledge - finds expression in Dr. Faustus. He has an unequalled thirst for knowledge and power to be acquired with the help of that knowledge. In the very beginning of the play Dr. Faustus is found considering the importance of various subjects which he may study. He has already studied various subjects at the universities and impressed scholars with his knowledge. After considering the relative importance of various subjects as - Logic, Metaphysics, Medicine, Law and Theology - he concludes that they can give knowledge but no power. He remarks, ‘Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man’. So he decided to study the "Metaphysics of Magician" and regarded “necromantic books as heavenly". With the help of this knowledge he wants to acquire power and become “as powerful as Jove in the sky”.
There was an intellectual curiosity during the Renaissance. The new discoveries in science and developments in technology went beyond mere material advances. It was a youthful age to which nothing seems impossible. Before the European, this period opened a new world of imagination. All these things stirred men’s imagination and led them to believe that the infinite was attainable. In Dr. Faustus, Marlowe has expressed such ideas, when Faustus says:
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command.
The Renaissance man desired wealth and worldly pleasures and loved the worldly beautiful. After his agreement with the Devil he would have spirits at his command to do whatever he liked. He would like them to bring gold from India, pearls from oceans and delicacies from every part of the world. In this way he would have a lot of power and wealth to enjoy worldly pleasures. Like the Renaissance man Dr. Faustus wanted to travel across the world. So with the help of Mephistopheles he traveled to distant countries. As he wanted to see the most beautiful woman in the world, he conjured the vision of Helen. He expressed his feeling of great delight in the following words:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?
And burnt the topless tower of Ilium.
The Reformation was a companion movement of the Renaissance. The Protestants challenged the authority of the Pope and disregarded him. Dr. Faustus not only disregarded the Pope and the Bishops, when he stayed in Pope's place, but gave him a box on the ear. He also made fun of bishops because he pointed that they were interested in only belly cheer.
While Marlowe’s Faustus is, admittedly, a magician and not a scientist, this distinction was not as clearly drawn in the sixteenth century as it is today. With his rejection of God’s authority and his thirst for knowledge and control over nature, Faustus embodies the more secular spirit of the dawning modern era. Yet, as the quote says, he “pay[s] the medieval price” for taking this new direction, since he still exists firmly within a Christian framework, and his transgressions ultimately condemn him to hell.
In the play’s final lines, the Chorus tells us to view Faustus’s fate as a warning and not follow his example. This admonition would seem to make Marlowe a defender of the established religious values, showing us the terrible fate that awaits a Renaissance man who rejects God. But by investing Faustus with such tragic grandeur, Marlowe may be suggesting a different lesson. Perhaps the price of rejecting God is worth it, or perhaps Faustus pays the price for all of western culture, allowing it to enter a new, more secular era.