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Sympathy for the Devil Despite his morally reprehensible lifestyle and personal shortcomings, I like Tony Soprano. Through the entire run of the television show The Sopranos, even when his transgressions became too great for redemption to be an option any longer, I never wished the character ill will, never wanted him to get his comeuppance. It’s hard to pinpoint why I find Tony so endearing; James Gandolfini made the middle-aged Mafioso surprisingly relatable. He was the first and best in a line of male protagonists on television that have been given the title “antihero.” However, this moniker hasn’t stopped fans from viewing Tony and his successors as they would normal heroes, supporting their decisions and sympathizing rather than condemning. Although the idea of an antihero is relatively new to television, the protagonist of questionable morals and heroism has been on the stage for quite some time. In Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, the titular doctor is not presented as a particularly heroic man. The aspects we associate with heroism, chiefly voluntary service to others at the cost of personal sacrifice and potential harm, are not displayed by Faustus. Yet if we examine the history of dramatic tragedy as well as morality plays, we can get a better understanding of why Faustus indeed fits into the categorization of hero. While not necessarily a character that gains our initial support, Dr. Faustus is nonetheless the hero of the play. With a word like “tragical” in the title, it’s safe to say that Doctor Faustus isn’t a comedy. Yet comic elements are present throughout the play, so what makes this a tragedy? Aristotle attempted to set the boundaries for tragedy and the tragic hero in his Poetics. According to Aristotle, tragedy is dramatic imitation of man, as is comedy, but it imitates good men rather than the baser variety that is the focus of comedy. In this case, “good” goes beyond an aesthetic or social sense of the term and directly relates to someone who is virtuous and morally upright (Reeves 172,180). Another tenet of the tragedy is that it produces feelings of pity and fear from the audience. These feelings will not be brought about, Aristotle argues, if the audience witnesses a truly bad man fall into misery. His vices causing his downfall don’t provoke pity but rather contempt, and being so unrighteous makes it impossible for the audience to relate to him; without that connection there can be no fear. In addition, “‘the change in the hero's fortunes must be not from misery to happiness, but on the contrary from happiness to misery; and the cause of it must lie not in any depravity, but in some great error on his part’” (Reeves 173). The hero of a tragedy, then, must fulfill at least three criteria: he is morally good, he causes a catharsis of pity and fear from the audience, and his fall into misery must be caused not by any inherent wickedness but by his own grievous error. From ancient Greece I must now jump to medieval England, where morality plays have taken center stage, so to speak. Following Christian teachings, the hero of the morality play is a sinner, representative of all of us, damned with the original sin of Adam. Throughout the play, the hero is confronted by temptations that lead him astray, only to be reeled in again by some angel or force of good. This back and forth goes on for some time, but ultimately the only chance the hero has at salvation is through repentance and God’s grace. This concept of absolution from sins via divine mercy is at the heart of the Christian Mass, and “it is the presentation of man in this situation in perfectly general terms that is the essence of the morality play” (Craig 67). The recognition of these two established forms of drama is essential in the understanding of Marlowe’s creation of Faustus and his status as a hero because the playwrights of the Elizabethan era, Marlowe in particular, used elements from the old tragedies and morality plays to create something original. Every high school student in the country may not know the name Christopher Marlowe, but they surely know of his most famous contemporary: William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays have achieved unparalleled popularity, and it is therefore beneficial to compare the character of Doctor Faustus to one of the heroes in Shakespeare’s tragedies to see the standard convention of the day. The tragic hero I will focus on is King Lear. King Lear fulfills the requirement set by Aristotle that the hero must elicit both pity and fear from us; in his old age we can relate and fear for him, and we pity him his sufferings. There is also a trace of the morality plays here, because “in spite of the horror Lear shows that hope exists for us all till the day we die” (Adade-Yeboah). As with the tragic hero, it is up to us to choose our own redemption, and no matter how heinous our transgressions, the offer stands until the time of death; all that is required is a penitent heart and faith in God’s forgiveness. More importantly, King Lear shows how the Aristotelian understanding of the tragic hero’s fall had changed during the Renaissance. While Aristotle was adamant that the hero be morally sound, a mistranslation of scholars at the time lead to the conclusion that the hero needed “a weakness of character”. This lead to what is known as the “tragic flaw theory,” which “became more acceptable in characterizing the postclassical renaissance tragic hero” (Adade-Yeboah). Here we see the first allowance of a chink in the tragic hero’s moral armor, permitting enough leeway to make the hero morally fallible while still avoiding a truly wicked character. Marlowe would have been aware of and was undoubtedly influenced by all of this, but knowing the cultural atmosphere surrounding Doctor Faustus is not enough. We must also look to the man himself for greater insight. It is worth mentioning that there are some notable similarities between Christopher Marlowe and Dr. John Faustus. The play opens with Faustus alone in his study, describing his extensive education in various fields and how he remains unsatisfied with the truths he’s uncovered. He is an accomplished physician, as well as learned in the arts of philosophy, rhetoric, and divinity. However, his studies of religion do not give him a better relationship with God; rather they push him further away: “The reward of sin is death? That’s hard. […] Divinity, adieu! These metaphysics of magicians and necromantic books are heavenly!” (Marlowe 1130). Similarly, Marlowe was a man with an impressive education and several degrees from Cambridge (Boas 94). He too turned his back on the Church and gained a reputation as an atheist, which was socially unacceptable at the time: “One could argue that the atheistic Marlowe was the archetypal Renaissance man, breaking out of the suffocating clutches of medieval religion” (Austen). Marlowe’s own lack of faith would then explain why Faustus’ ambitions aren’t seen as evil; “indeed, he presents them as brave and attractive, as inherently noble” (Austen). Marlowe, unshackled from religion, made his hero reject God while still seeking truth and knowledge. It is reminiscent of the story of Prometheus, who refused to obey the gods and brought fire down from Mount Olympus to the mortals. Faustus’ fate is even more closely related to the Icarus myth, for his reach exceeded his grasp and he paid the ultimate price. Faustus displays “the tragic hero's necessary defiance of religion” (Joyce). In rejecting religion, man is elevated and thus his actions are more heroic. Yet this defiance isn’t concrete; in the vein of the morality plays, Faustus constantly switches from accepting and embracing his damnation to feeling pity for himself and longing for forgiveness he doesn’t think he deserves. This again may be connected to Marlowe the man, for just as Faustus is swayed by Lucifer and the evil angel, then again by the old man and the good angel, “so we may see Marlowe hesitating between the submissive acceptance of a dogmatic system and a pagan simplicity of outlook to which instinct and temperament prompted him” (Ellis-Fermor 67). This battle for Faustus’ soul was not only relatable to Marlowe but to any of the audience that had similar doubts in their own faith. As if it weren’t relatable enough already, Doctor Faustus makes itself even more accessible to its audience through its humor. I had briefly mentioned before that despite its classification as a tragedy, the play is far from lacking in comedy. The comic elements have clearly been handed down by the morality plays, and their continued popularity with crowds no doubt gave Marlowe reason to include them: “high seriousness and buffoonery had long before joined hands in the Miracles and Moralities, and popular taste weighed more heavily than critical theory in the public theatres” (Ornstein 166). But the humor is more than just a crowd-pleaser; it gives more weight to the drama. Immediately after Faustus tells Mephastophilis to go back to Lucifer with the offer of his soul, we see Wagner and the Clown having a similar exchange. When Wagner remarks on the Clown’s hunger, saying he would sell his soul to the devil in exchange for a piece of raw mutton, the Clown deadpans: “I had need have it well roasted, and good sauce to it, if I pay so dear” (Marlowe 1137). Their conversation works on multiple levels. Firstly, there is the humor; we can all recognize the absurdity of the claim, for no one in their right mind would sell their soul for a piece of mutton, cooked or otherwise. Then there is the connection to be made between the Clown and Faustus. As the play progresses, it becomes clear that Faustus doesn’t really get much out of the bargain he made and that his ambitions were futile. There appears to be quite a gap between the Clown and the elevated, educated doctor, but Faustus’ achievements become increasingly petty, narrowing the gap between the solemn fight for a man’s soul and the jokes of fools. Indeed, “the measure of his tragic fall is the increasing disparity between his aspirations and achievements” (Ornstein 170). Marlowe shows wondrous talent in the ability of maintaining the delicate balance of elevating Faustus above us, pushing the fools below us, and then simultaneously bringing both parties to our level. By maintaining this relationship between what’s onstage and what we experience in real life, Faustus’ admittedly fantastic selling of his soul “will seem both human and heroic, pitiful and grand, and our response will have something of the complexity and the uncertainty of our response to life itself” (Homan, Jr. 504). We laugh at the ridiculous and then grow quiet when we’re shown that it’s not so ridiculous after all. Just as we need to look past the surface of the humor in the play to see its true meaning, so too must we go beyond any initial feelings of animosity or disdain for Faustus to see his true role as the play’s tragic hero. It is important not to forget that along with his interest to elevate himself to a godly status, Faustus planned to “make all learning his province, better the lot of students, improve geography, and defeat tyranny,” which are all noble desires (Ornstein 169). This clearly establishes Faustus as a man who is morally good, in accordance to Aristotle’s guidelines for the tragic hero. However, there is no getting around Faustus’ incredible hubris; it is his defining characteristic and is what puts the play in action. Our kneejerk response may be to reject such arrogance because we find it unattractive, but it is actually his most admirable quality. Faustus’ pride is the weakness of character that follows the convention of “tragic flaw theory,” letting his character fall in a way that allows us to feel pity for him. Some readers or viewers of the play may scoff at this notion of pity; how can Faustus possibly deserve pity when salvation was offered to him every step of the way and he refused to take it? It’s simple. Faustus didn’t believe in redemption because he couldn’t believe in it: “He is so sure of his own unassailable intellectual supremacy that he cannot see what is under his nose--or at least he cannot recognise it” (Austen). This explains why a man as smart as Faustus can come off as so dimwitted in the play. When his blood congeals as he’s signing away his soul, he considers the possibility that it may be a sign and that he should not go forward with the deal. He receives another warning when the words Homo fuge (O man, fly) appear on his arm. It’s at this point that a modern audience will roll their eyes and groan that Faustus is acting more clueless than a teenager in a slasher film. But understanding why he doesn’t flee is essential in being able to recognize his heroism. When he reads the words on his arm, Faustus asks, “Whither should I fly? If unto God, he’ll throw me down to hell” (Marlowe 1140). This thought process goes back to Faustus’ original study of divinity, where he picked up on the damning nature of hell but failed to grasp the concept of God’s grace. And here’s the real tragedy, because Faustus’ hubris prevents him from even considering the idea that there’s some hidden truth in his studies that he’s yet failed to grasp. It’s the reason he can have conversations with a demon and still say “I think hell’s a fable” (Marlowe 1141). He wants to believe in the power the devil offers but is afraid to commit to that belief, because if there is a devil than there must also be a God. Faustus is certain that belief in God means belief in damnation and only damnation. If that is the case, then it makes sense that Faustus was satisfied with giving up his useless soul for controlling Mephastophilis for only twenty-four years as opposed asking for one hundred or one thousand. Hell, if he wasn’t so ambitious, Faustus might even have gone in just for some of that mutton; what good was his soul anyway? And so herein lays the audience’s fear and pity. We can clearly see where Faustus missteps and can also see why he’s blind to his own mistakes. The audience can therefore feel pity for him, because it’s really not his fault that he can’t see past his own pride. And then there’s the fear, the fear that we’re guilty of the same thing, the fear that somehow we’re shooting ourselves in the foot or digging our own graves and don’t even realize it. Faustus is far from perfect, as we all are. He ultimately fails, but his death is still glorious because “he remains heroic even though he is ignorant of the mercy of Christ that can still redeem him” (Homan, Jr. 505). And he truly is ignorant. Despite the pleadings of the good angel and the old man, and despite the fact that he constantly wishes his punishment be lifted from him, he has already condemned himself and determined salvation as impossible. Since he rejected God, Faustus also rejected the idea that “right” and “wrong” exist. What’s left is a moral relativism we still see a lot of today; it’s the kind of setup we get in The Sopranos. There are things that are similar to “right” and “wrong” but that difference can be better summed up in what is hard and what is easy. The fear we feel comes from the realization that all too often we fall for what is easy. The argument here is that it shouldn’t matter if the choice in question is escalator versus stairs or whacking a guy versus not whacking a guy. Tony Soprano’s “easy” choices may be many degrees worse than our own, but the relationship is there, just as it was between the clown and Faustus. Faustus shows us the importance of stepping up to the plate and choosing the hard option, because sometimes small choices have bigger consequences than we recognize. If we choose to do what is hard consistently, we may even become heroes ourselves without realizing it.

Works Cited
Adade-Yeboah, Asuamah, and Adwoa S. Amankwaah. "The tragic hero of the Post-Classical Renaissance." Studies in Literature and Language 5.3 (2012): 119+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.
Austen, Glyn. "The strange ambiguity of Christopher Marlowe and Dr Faustus: Glyn Austen examines the powerful paradoxes of Dr Faustus in the light of its literary and intellectual context." The English Review 14.1 (2003): 2+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.
Boas, Frederick S. Christopher Marlowe: A Biographical and Critical Study. New York: Oxford UP, 1966. Print.
Craig, Hardin. “Morality Plays and the Elizabethan Drama.” Shakespeare Quarterly 1:2 (1950): 64-72. Print.
Ellis-Fermor, U. M. Christopher Marlowe. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1967. Print.
Homan, Jr., Sidney R. “Doctor Faustus, Dekker’s Old Fortunatus, and the Morality Plays.” Modern Language Quarterly 26:4 (1965): 497-505. Print.
Joyce, Joyce Ann. "Characterization and Point of View: The Tragic Hero." Richard Wright's Art of Tragedy. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1986. 52-74. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 180. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. F. New York: Norton, 2012. 1128-1163. Print.
Ornstein, Robert. “The Comic Synthesis in Doctor Faustus.” English Literary History 22:3 (1955): 165-172. Print.
Reeves, Charles H. “The Aristotelian Concept of the Tragic Hero.” The American Journal of Philology 73:2 (1952): 172-188. Print.

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