Satirizing Renaissance Humanism In Dr. Faustus
In Dr. Faustus, Christopher Marlowe has vividly drawn up the character of an intelligent, learned man tragically seduced by the lure of power greater than he was mortally meant to have. The character of Dr. Faustus is, in conception, an ideal of humanism, but Marlowe has taken him and shown him to be damned nonetheless, thus satirizing the ideals of Renaissance Humanism.
M. H. Abram's A Glossary of Literary Terms defines Renaissance Humanism, stating that some of the key concepts of the philosophy centered around "the dignity and central position of human beings in the universe" as reasoning creatures, as well as downplaying the "'animal' passions" of the individual. The mode of the thought also "stressed the need for a rounded development of and individual's diverse powers... as opposed to merely technical or specialized training." Finally, all of this was synthesized into and perhaps defined by their tendency to minimize the prevalent Christian ideal of innate corruption and withdrawal from the present, flawed world in anticipation of heaven. (p. 83)
The character of Faustus is reasoning and very aware of the moral (or immoral) status of what he is undertaking. His opening speech is devoted to working out logically why he is willing to sacrifice both the road to honest knowledge and his soul in favor of more power. (I, 1-63) He exhibits, in his search for power, anything but animal passion; he indeed exhibits a chilling logic as he talks himself out of the possible delights of heaven. Not only is he intelligent, he also demonstrates a broad base of learning, another quality admired and upheld by humanists.
In several sections of the play, Faustus goes into beautifully vivid descriptions of the wonders he will accomplish with his power. (I, 78-97; III, 104-111) This seems an ironic parody of what Philip Sydney (a well-known humanist) described in his Defense of Poesy as the poet's prerogative of describing a reality better than that which may actually be attained. Faustus is rarely more humanist than when he describes what he will do with his hell-bought power.
Marlowe's attack on humanism is subtle. He demonstrates an admirable complexity of narration as he weaves these grand-seeming gestures of the power of the individual in with the essential...