The Inevitable Fall: Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and the Icarus Myth

By Li, Li | Studies in Literature and Language, November 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Inevitable Fall: Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and the Icarus Myth


Li, Li, Studies in Literature and Language


Abstract

With the application of the renowned Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye's theory of archetype, this thesis attempts to analyze the Icarus myth in Doctor Faustus. It compares the experience and temperament of the protagonist Faustus to those of the Greek mythological figure Icarus. The Icarian plots or scenes appear resoundingly in this drama. By analyzing these plots or scenes, this thesis tries to reveal the basic pattern in the play, and to probe into Christopher Marlowe's allusion to the human weakness.

Key words: Christopher Marlowe; Doctor Faustus; The Icarus myth

INTRODUCTION

Christopher Marlowe, an unorthodox personality, allegedly atheistic, allegedly homosexual, is acknowledged as one of the greatest dramatists in the Renaissance period because of the invention of English blank verse and the creation of English tragedy. Eliot termed him "the most thoughtful, the most blasphemous (and therefore probably the most Christian) of his contemporaries" (Schuchard, 1999, p. 140). Besides, Algernon Charles Swinburne (1916) said that among his contemporaries, "Marlowe stands high, and will stand for ever" (p. 742).

Born in Canterbury in 1564, Marlowe was an actor, poet and playwright during the reign of Britain's Queen Elizabeth I. Educated at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University, he received BA and MA degrees. Though Marlowe achieved the excellent classical attainments, he was often drawn into the brawls on the street. After leaving Cambridge, Marlowe moved to London, where he became a playwright and led a turbulent, scandal-plagued life. On May 30, 1593, Marlowe became involved in a tavern brawl and was killed during the quarrel over the bill. After his death, rumors and scandals were spread accusing him of atheism, treason and homosexuality, and some people believed that Marlowe was the victim of a political murder. However, little evidence could support these allegations. Marlowe's death thus has become an enigma.

Marlowe's plays, characteristically challenging, unsettling and unconventional, are distinctive for their shifting quality and their refusal to allow for moral certainties. Among his plays, The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus is the most well-known one which contains these qualities. Doctor Faustus was probably written in 1592, although the exact date of its composition is uncertain, since it was not published until a decade later. The idea of an individual selling his or her soul to the devil for knowledge is an old motif in Christian folklore. In this drama, Faustus, the protagonist, enters into a pact with the devil for the purpose of seeking genuine knowledge. He calls up Mephistopheles and makes a compact to surrender his soul to the devil after twenty-four years, during which time Mephistopheles will supply him with anything he demands. As the hour approaches, Faustus is unable or unwilling to take the advice of others and repent of his sins, thus causing his hellish fall, the Icarian tragedy. This thesis compares the experience and the temperament of Faustus to those of the Greek mythological figure Icarus and tries to discuss the Icarian plots or scenes in Doctor Faustus.

1. THE ICARUS MYTH AND NORTHROP FRYE'S THEORY OF ARCHETYPE

Icarus was the son of the master craftsman Daedalus. King Minos of Crete imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in the Labyrinth to punish Daedalus for helping the hero Theseus to kill the monster called the Minotaur and to escape with Minos' daughter, Ariadne. Daedalus knew that Minos controlled any escape routes by land or sea, but Minos could not prevent an escape by flight. So Daedalus used his skills to build wings for himself and Icarus. He used wax and string to fasten feathers to reeds of varying lengths to imitate the curves of birds' wings. Finally, Daedalus succeeded in his escape; however, Icarus fell into the sea and died since he flew so high that the sun melted his wax wings. The Icarus myth runs through Doctor Faustus, which tells us the inevitable fall of the poor scholar. …

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