I am somewhat persuaded by the reading of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus that suggests Marlowe is providing an anti-Calvinist play rather than a morality play (but please don’t take that to mean I don’t want you all to argue otherwise in your essays if you wish!). In short, the play can be read as criticizing Calvinism insofar as it presents a character who, even though he may try to repent, cannot do so because his heart is too “hardened” (118 (sorry, don’t have the book with me at the moment, so Act, Scene, or line numbers!)). That a religious view would make it impossible for those who wish to repent to be able to do so, the thought goes, suggests that it’s a problematic view. As soon as the lecture on this play for Arts One is posted (keep a watch here: http://artsone-digital.arts.ubc.ca/christopher-marlowe-doctor-faustus/) those who couldn’t be there can hear what Miranda Burgess had to say about this.
But I have been giving some thought to what one of you said in seminar on Wednesday, that if this reading is legitimate, then why would Marlowe have given us such an unsympathetic character in Dr. Faustus? He’s rather a fool, as some of you have noted in your blog posts, and he doesn’t do anything useful with the magic he obtains, beyond making a name for himself. If Marlowe had wanted to criticize Calvinism with this play, why do it with a character that most people are not going to empathize with, that most people will think deserves what he got in the end? Why not make your main character be someone about whom you could make what might seem more like a “tragedy,” as the official title of the play suggests? That would require, I think, a person who is flawed, but not quite so bad, someone the audience could empathize with, so they could see themselves possibly in that person’s position. Is that true of Faustus? Maybe for some, but for most of us in the class it seems that Faustus is someone we distance ourselves from.
So then we return to how having such a character could fit with a reading of the play that says Marlowe may have been criticizing Calvinism with it. Here’s one option, though I’m sure there are others! And, of course, on a different reading of the play having Dr. Faustus be unsympathetic is not a problem at all.
In order for Dr. Faustus’ fall to be believable under a Calvinist interpretation, he has to be someone who can’t repent, who is so corrupted that this is impossible. If he were a more sympathetic character then we might think he could repent, because we might not think he is one of those who are predestined to be damned. Then the fact that he does not might show that he has chosen not to, even though he could. But if he is pretty clearly a corrupted character, then it’s easier to recognize that he’s one of those who won’t be able to repent no matter if he seems to be trying.
This is just a draft of an idea, and I’m not yet sure it works, so am happy to hear comments!