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Liturgical Drama in the beginning had three forms, Mystery, Miracle and Morality. The morality play
is really a fusion of allegory and the religious drama of the miracle plays (Which presents the
miracles of saints and the subjects depend upon Bible). It flourished in the middle ages, was at its
height in the first half of the 15 century, disappeared after the second half, but reappeared in
Elizabethan drama. In this play the characters were personified abstractions of vice or virtues such
as Good deeds, Faith, Mercy, Anger, Truth, Pride etc. The general theme of the moralities was
theological and the main one was the struggle between the good and evil powers for capturing the
man’s soul and good always won. The story of whole morality play centres round the single
towering figure. The seven deadly sins were found engaged in physical and verbal battle with
cardinal virtues. The antics of vices and devils etc offered a considerable opportunity for low
comedy or buffoonery. The morality play often ended with a solemn moral.
In the light of these points we may call Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” a belated morality play in spite of
its tragic ending. It has been mentioned that in morality plays the characters were personified
abstractions of vice or virtues. In “Dr.Faustus” also we find the Good and Evil angels, the former
stand for the path of virtue and the latter for sin and damnation, one for conscience and the other
for desires. Then we have the old man appearing, telling Faustus that he is there “To guide’ thy
steps unto the way of life”. He symbolizes the forces of righteousness and morality. The seven
deadly sins are also there in a grand spectacle to cheer up the despairing soul of Faustus.
If the, general theme of morality plays was theological dealing with the struggle of forces of good
and evil for man’s soul, then “Dr. Faustus” may be called a religious or morality play to a very great
extent. We find Marlowe’s hero, Faustus, abjuring the scriptures, the Trinity and Christ. He
surrenders his soul to the Devil out of his inordinate ambition to gain:
“-----a world of profit and delight’
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence.”
Through knowledge by mastering the unholy art of magic. About the books of magic, he declares:
“These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly.”
By selling his soul to the Devil he lives a blasphemous life full of vain and sensual pleasures just
for only twenty-four years. There is struggle between his overwhelming ambition and conscience
which are externalized by good angel and evil angel. But Faustus has already accepted the opinion
of Evil Angel, who says: “Be thou on earth as Jove in the sky.” Faustus is also fascinated by the
“A sound magician is a mighty god,
Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity.”
When the final hours approaches, Faustus find himself at the edge of eternal damnation and cries
with deep sorrow: “My God, my God, look not so fierce to me!”
Through this story Marlowe gives the lesson that the man, who desires to be God, is doomed to
eternal damnation.
The chief aim of morality play was didactic. It was a dramatized guide to Christian living and
Christian dying. Whosoever discards the path of virtue and faith in God and Christ is destined to
despair and eternal damnation--- this is also the message of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. And it has
found the most touching expression in the closing lines of the play:
“Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits,
To practice more than heavenly power permits.”
Hudson has rightly said: “No finer sermon than Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus ever came from the pulpit.”
The tradition of chorus is also maintained. We find the chorus introducing the story just before the
beginning of the first scene and subsequently filling in the gaps in the narrative and announcing
the end of the play with a very solemn moral. The appearance of seven deadly sins shows that
Marlowe in “Dr. Faustus” adopted some of the conventions of the old Morality plays. The seven
Deadly sins- pride, Covetousness, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth and Lechery of good old Morality
plays are also very much here in this play in a grand spectacle to cheer up the dejected soul of
Faustus. And the old favourite and familiar figure of the devil is also not missing. Mephistophilis, an
assistant to Lucifer, appears as a servile slave of Faustus in many scenes. The comic scenes of
“Dr. Faustus” also belong to the tradition of old Morality plays. The comic scenes were not integral
part of those plays but were introduced to entertain. In “Dr. Faustus” many comic scenes are
depicted especially his pranks on the Pope, the planting of a pair of horns on the head of a knight
and the cheating of a greedy horse-dealer. They throw light on the nature of the tragedy of Dr.
Faustus. The comic episodes underline the fact that Faustus has sunk to the low level of a sordid
fun-loving sorcerer. In “Dr. Faustus” there is only one towering figure all the action and incidents
centre round him. Then just like the earlier Morality plays, it also suffers from looseness of
construction especially in the middle part of the play.
Though to a great extent, “Dr. Faustus” is a morality play yet there are also some other elements
which make it different from morality play. The difference is that in morality plays, all characters are
abstractions, not concrete. But in “Dr. Faustus” the main character, Faustus is not an abstraction
but as person with desires and high ambitions He is a living person like other human beings. Then
the element of conflict is the fountain head of the entire action in the play and the movement of the
action defines the plot of the play. Faustus heart and soul is the greatest battle field for the internal
or spiritual conflict. Though Faustus has abjured God and has made his pact with the devil, yet
there is a conflict in his mind between good and evil, he feels the pricks of conscience. The growing
sense of loss and of the wages of “damnation” begins to sting him like a scorpion.
“When I behold the heaven, then I repent,
And curse thee, Wicked Mephistophilis,
Because thou hast deprived me of those joys”
This inner conflict in Faustus is the element of tragedy not of morality, on the basis of which we
some times think that it is not a morality play. In a morality play, the moral is always positive and
goodness always triumphs over evil, truth over lie and virtue over vice .Virtue is always rewarded.
But in “Dr. Faustus” we find evil spreading its powerful hands over goodness and then laying it
Faustus follows the path told by evil angel and ultimately is ruined. He cannot repent and devil is
successful in getting hold of his soul. This moral is negative which is not in accordance with
morality plays. Moreover, in this play, Faustus plays pranks with pope and knight and makes fun of
them. Unlike morality plays the butt of this low comedy is Pope instead of devil.
Faustus is a character ideal to be the hero of a tragedy where man alone is the maker of his fate,
good or bad. He falls not by the fickleness of fortune or the decree of fate, or because he has been
corrupted by Mephistophilis, the agent of Lucifer; the devil, but because of his own will. Faustus,
being a tragic hero was dominated by some uncontrollable passion or inordinate ambition. There is
a conflict in his mind between good and evil. He falls from high to low and this degradation is clear
in his soliloquy, when he says:
“O soul, be changed into little water drops,
And fall into ocean, never to be found!”
Such a tragic hero cannot be the hero of a morality play. Thus we see that in spite of its entire links
with medieval miracle plays or moralities, Dr. Faustus can never be treated wholly as a morality
play. It is the greatest heroic tragedy before Shakespeare with its enormous stress on
characterization and inner conflict in the soul of a towering personality. We may call this play the
last of the Morality plays and the beginning of tragedy that was developed by Shakespeare. We may
conclude in the words of a critic: “Dr. Faustus is both the consummation of the English Morality,
tradition and the last and the finest of Marlowe’s heroic plays.”
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