The Possibilty Of Different Interpretations


02 Nov 2017

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Prescribed Question:

Text and genre: How could the text be read and interpreted differently by two different readers?

Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Norton Critical Editions.

Task is related to course section:

Part 3: Literature – texts and contexts

Task Focus:

This essay concentrates on the possibilty of different interpretations and/or reactions to Dr. Faustus by two different readers. A person from the Renaissance period and a modern reader.

This essay deals with how the text could be inferred differently, the varying impacts it might have on the two readers, and the reasons for these contrasting responses for the text.

My attempt, through this essay, is to study the audience response from two different eras and how their varied circumstances could lead to different interpretations.

Christopher Marlowe was a man with strong renaissance beliefs, and this clearly had it’s implications in what he wrote and how he potrayed his thoughts through his stories and thoughts. His works are nothing but manifestations of his thoughts and perspectives. The heroes he moulded and the subjects he addressed were only his mouthpieces, voicing his extravagant dreams.

Marlowe’s Faustus has been called a ‘Renaissance Man’ – a personification of the spirit of the Renaissance. It typically means a man with expertise in various fields and subjects, empowered and limitless in his capacities for development. This exactly is what Faustus’s character implied.

Renaissance, means ‘rebirth’, and is the name given to the period of European history, which followed the Middle Ages. The confidence in man’s potential grew during this time.

The Renaissance was a period where many things began to change. People began to break free from their shells, and slowly try to let go of their medieval past. However amidst all the transformation and change, there were many who feared stepping outside the confined yet comfortable dominance of the church.

Dr. Faustus, was however a character Marlowe sketched that portrayed to the renaissance audience all they could be, but given their religious inhibitions, chose not to. This play, to the Elizabethans, wasn’t like one of the other traditional morality plays that they grew accustomed to through age- old habits. Christopher Marlowe lived in the same era as Shakespeare and therefore these conventional new forms of plays were slowly beginning to gain acceptance from the audience. However, this work of Dr. Faustus wasn’t just another entertaining entity, it was almost like a piercing question. I believe the renaissance readers would have been intrigued and terrified in equal measure at the rebellion of Faustus. While instances where he utters phrases such as ‘Despair in God’ [1] would have inevitably stunned many believers and those who could never imagine rising against the church, it still reached out and spoke to those such as Marlowe and the revolutionaries who Faustus only embodied.

The medieval point of view believed that man should be content with where he is placed by god and any attempt to go beyond that was considered a sin of pride. This notion was one that stayed in the minds and beliefs of many people even in the renaissance period, therefore making Faustus nothing close to a hero. A hero to them would have been someone who possessed all the perfect qualities, and didn’t question god but Faustus in contrast, would have only posed as a villian. The 7 deadly sins, that infamously revolved in the lives of everyone, were highlighted in Faustus time and again.Pride, which prevailed in the character of Lucifer and the concept of lust would have astonished the audience.

Apart from the religious values of the Elizabethan audience that would have led to such varied perceptions, cultural factors too could have played a role. In the Elizabethan era, there was control and controlling, the peasents and the ruling.The concept of Faustus gaining power would have appealed to everyone wanting to attain immediate gratification, especially the peasants.

While many would have remained in awe of the magnificence of the plot and the idea of revolution it brought initially, the tragic end only stood as proof that anyone who dares to question the supreme, and tread the path in a quest to know more than they need to, will ultimately face doom. This satisfied the church believers and re-confirmed to the renaissance people who were slowly beginning to accept change, that Faustus was no more than one of them, an epitome of Renaissance’s questioning strength but pulled back in by the stronger beliefs of the medieval.

Following suite, many years later, the same work is read, witnessed and studied by us, the modern readers. While the people from this era, have come far from the grasps of a confined, narrow society, Faustus still doesn’t fail to captivate. A modern reader, with a far more sense of ‘open-mindedness’ relates instantaneously to Faustus and interprets it differently from a Renaissance person. There are no shackles of rules anymore, the Church, though still important does not play a completely authoritative role.

People now can read Faustus, just as they read many other plays without worrying about how it affects their stand in the society. While the renaissance reader, giving in to his fears and inhibitions wouldn’t whole-heartedly connect with Faustus at every level, a person of this era most definitely understands that there is more to Faustus than Marlowe’s atheistic beliefs. His courage, his thirst to hunt for the infinite, explore the unknown are few of the attributes that only personify the kind of people we see today. In contrast to the Renaissance people’s doubt in calling Faustus a ‘hero’, in the mind of a modern reader, he will most definitely be more than just a hero. Maybe because the conventional notions of a ‘perfect’ person have changed, thinking differently from usual religious beliefs isn’t ‘blasphemy’ and sins such as lust, pride, gluttony and greed aren’t as immoral as they used to be.

While a reader in the renaissance would have called Faustus "a vulgar sorcerer, tempted to sell his soul to the Devil for the ordinary price of sensual pleasure, and earthly power and glory." [2] To a person of this times Faustus maybe "more sinned against than sinning, as one whose intellectual passion and aesthetic awareness justify his disobedience." [3] 

These varying perceptions of Dr. Faustus may majorly depend on the society and circumstances around the reader, but the fact that it leaves an impact nevertheless cannot be undermined. A renaissance person, after studying Faustus would have been inspired, because Faustus was everything they feared to become. To many others, he was a self-conceited man who forayed away from god, challenging what shouldn’t even be questioned, which aptly led him to a deserving punishment, impending doom.

But to a modern reader, Faustus is a story of a genius of a man, with mistakes as human as anybody else’s. Maybe just an unhappy figure who couldn’t deal wisely with his infatuation, but his agonized death should be more regretted than applauded.

Bibliography –


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