Marlowe's Faustus, dating from the early 1600s, is a play that taps into the very modern themes of man's seeking after knowledge and power, or power through knowledge. At the beginning of the play Faustus is a learned man, a success in his own right, and a celebrated graduate of Wittenburg University in Germany. There, he has achieved all that he can. He has earned the plaudits of his peers, and discovered, after all, that it is not enough. In a series of abrupt mental leaps in the first scene of the first act, he reviews the options ahead of him, resolving on action that will shape his destiny and rationalizing the decision that is to trigger the tragic denouement of the play.
Marlowe toys with various fields of knowledge as potential areas for his ambition. Philosophy lasts only long enough to refute its basic principle: "Is, to dispute well, logic's chiefest end?/ Affords this art no greater miracle? / Then read no more, thou has attained the end;/ A greater subject fitteth Faustus' wit" (I, i, 8-11). Medicine offers no greater prospect for the dissatisfied Faustus: "The end of physic [medicine] is our body's health" he argues, (I, i, 17). But he goes on to say that his successes in this field are now common knowledge "whereby whole cities have escaped the plague,/ And thousand desperate maladies been eased" (I, i, 21-22). He can do all that a good doctor can do, he decides, but nothing more. He can perform no wonders, do nothing, in fact, beyond the ordinary, neither "make men to live eternally,/ Or being dead, raise them to life again" (I, i, 24-25). Faustus' objections to the limitations of medicine are an early indication of his interests, but there's still more. "Physic farewell!" he announces and in the same breath speculates on the discipline of Law (I, i, 27).
Law receives short shrift at the hands of Faustus, "This study fits a mercenary drudge/ Who aims at nothing but external trash./ Too servile and illiberal for me" (I, i, 34-36), he decides quickly, dismissing it in turn. Finally he turns to divinity, but it is reduced to a mere syllogism, "The reward of sin is death?" (I, i, 40), which is followed by the knowledge "If we say that we have no sin,/ We deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us/ Why then belike we must sin,/ And so consequently die./ Ay, we must die an everlasting death" (I, i, 42-46).
The logic is brutal, a little arrogant, and very seductive. In the intellectual void that Faustus regards ahead of him, Alchemy, offers itself in all its potent mystery and splendor, "these are those that Faustus most desires./ O what a world of profit and delight,/ Of power, of honour, of omnipotence/ Is promised to the studious artisan/ . . . . A sound magician is a mighty god./ Here Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity" (I, i, 52-63).
The conflict of the drama follows swiftly with the entrance of the good and evil angels who counsel Faustus to respectively "lay that damned book aside,/ And gaze not on it, lest it tempt thy soul" (I, i, 70-71), and "Go forward, Faustus, in that famous art,/Wherein all nature's treasury is contained" (I, i, 74-75). The problem for the modern reader is one of degree. We accept that man should enquire, should learn, should progress, to a certain degree. Fiction, and folk tales (such as those, the Faustus myth is based upon), tell us that there are limits to learning, to knowledge, and to power. Transgress those limits and punishment will follow. The words from the Chorus at the beginning of Act I, encapsulate Faustus' folly by comparing him to Icarus: "swollen with cunning, of a self conceit,/ His waxen wings did mount above his reach,/ And melting heavens conspired his overthrow" (I, i, 20-22). But how we should view Faustus finally is perhaps not clear-cut as the Icarus analogy suggests. Here, after all, is a man who dared to extend his reach, to dream, to fly. Should he be despised for his weakness, or acclaimed for his imagination?
Surely one of the measurements for judging Faustus, is determining how he attains his new found powers and another is what he does with them. Still another is to consider how aware he is of the decision facing him. Marlowe's own ambivalence is there in those first few lines of the chorus when he suggests that the "melting heavens conspired his overthrow." Perhaps one of the issues we, as the audience, are left with, is how free was Faustus to choose? Was his path determined already by a higher power, and is he merely condemned to play out the damnation judgement as an object lesson to others?