"Tis a Pretty Toy to Be a Poet": Marlowe's Faustus as a Renaissance Poet-Maker

Unhae Langis
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The tragedy of 'Doctor Faustus', embodying both "the heroic aspiration of 'Renaissance man'" and his ultimate "subversion through transgression" (Dollimore 122), is Christopher Marlowe's attempt paradoxically to explore 'beyond' while constrained 'within' the box of "severe Christian orthodoxy" (112). In this at once conventional and unorthodox work, Marlowe, through parody, manages ingeniously to trouble canonical truth within the rigid structure of a morality play. Doctor Faustus, according to the German tale, is a scholar and a voluptuary whose thirst for ultimate knowledge and sensual experience compels him to sell his soul — to him a mere trifle, a ticket to an illusory heaven. Both Faustus's empiricist doubt and sensual being question Christian piety as submission to God's will. Unable to ignore the promptings of the intellect and the lyre, Faustus abjures the submissive soul and subscribes instead to the dictates of the sensual soul. Even with a fearsome God rumbling in the background, Faustus follows a sovereign will of his 'own', which cannot be satisfied within the strictures of Christian experience, but rather, he thought, through the arts of necromancy and ultimately through poetry, through "that high flying liberty of conceit" (Sidney 505). He dares as a human artisan to emulate God, regarded as the ultimate Artist. He wants to attain the transcendent without recourse to God, but rather through human-derived magic, aided by devils — other imperfect, striving beings who sought an "ungodly" way to live. To this end, Marlowe's play aptly illustrates the Renaissance theory of the poet-maker, celebrating the human imagination. Using rhetorical powers to create worlds that transcend the foul media — the loathsome devils — by which he arrives there, Faustus, the poet-maker, indeed, "gain[s] a deity" (1.1.65).

Faustus defies this very ideology. Yet Faustus will be damned according to the Christian dogma, deemed as Truth. The ineluctable tragedy of Faustus derives from the constraints imposed at once by early modern religious and political ideology, and by the very nature of metaphysical desire. If the End-All is that there is no end — that we cannot know anything except through the lens of human perception and that there is nothing to satisfy endless, changing, complex desire — then Pleasure is all. Yet in the face of perceived despair, Faustus's very act of protest and his sense of wanton play become an end, or goal, of his life. Faustus's single response to both the Christian and metaphysical constraints is rapturous abandonment in pagan lore; his single hope for salvation is unity through nature, not God. Ultimately in both endeavors, Faustus, the aspiring Renaissance man, yearns to soar on the wings of Poesie.

Keywords: Poetic Prerogative, Authority, Poetic Imagination
Stream: Literature, Literary Studies
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: "Tis a Pretty Toy to Be a Poet"

Unhae Langis

Department of English, College of Letters, Arts and Science

Ref: H05P0024