Dr. Faustus as a Tragic Hero | As Per “Poetics” by Aristotle

Dr. Faustus as a Tragic Hero - As Per Poetics by Aristotle

If the play “Dr. Faustus” is a tragedy then undoubtedly its character Dr. Faustus is a successful tragic hero. After going through the whole play, its plot, techniques used by the dramatist Christopher Marlowe and character analysis of Dr. Faustus, any critic can safely say that Dr. Faustus falls in the category of best tragic heroes just like Oedipus Rex. Aristotle has appreciated the tragic character of Oedipus Rex in his book “Poetics”. In fact, whenever he talks about an ideal tragic hero, he refers to Oedipus Rex. Meaning thereby, Oedipus was the best tragic hero in the eyes of Aristotle when he wrote “Poetics”. Even after Aristotle, many scholars including critics have appreciated it. However, it cannot be denied that the majority of critics feels that Oedipus Rex has no role in the play and he is just a puppet in the hands of gods.

Let us leave Oedipus Rex for some other day and talk about “Dr. Faustus”. Before going in detail, it is important to mention here that there is no new definition of tragedy and tragic hero; if there is any, it is not important for us as we are bound to define Dr. Faustus as a tragic hero keeping in view the parameters, given in “Poetics” by Aristotle. We may have another choice; we may talk about Shakespearean tragedy or any modern tragedy and compare it with “Dr. Faustus” but the basic elements of a tragic hero are the same. Hence, conventional definition, given by Aristotle, is enough to discuss whether Dr. Faustus is a tragic hero or not.

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If you have read “Poetics” then its Chapter XIII should be in your consciousness, where Aristotle in detail motions all the characteristics of an ideal tragic hero. We are not going in detail about these characteristics; whether they are right or wrong, it is not our concern. We are here to judge whether Dr. Faustus fits in those characteristics or not. Characteristics of an ideal tragic hero are

  • He should be a nobleman.
  • Character should neither be pious nor a complete sinner.
  • He should fall from prosperity to adversity.
  • His sufferings are necessary; however, death is not essential in every case.
  • Although he should suffer, yet he must suffer because of his wrongdoings and not because of circumstances.

It is necessary for every writer to keep in mind the above said key elements if he wants a perfect tragedy and an ideal tragic hero. It seems that Christopher Marlowe had the knowledge of all these ingredients; that is the reason his character “Dr. Faustus” fulfills all these necessary requirements of a conventional tragedy.

Firstly, from the very beginning of the play, spectators witness that Dr. Faustus is a nobleman. He is famous. He is not a common person but an extraordinary scholar, having knowledge of every field of life. We can also not say that he is a poor man as he is a well-known person of his locality. He, somehow, fulfills the requirement of a tragedy as far as the character’s noble birth is concerned.

If it is not the case, many writers, including Shakespeare have changed the taste of tragedy by presenting common persons from everyday life such as w h o r e s, butchers, cobblers, etc. They have proved Aristotle wrong and demonstrated that catharsis is possible without “depicting a character of only noble birth”. In the case of Dr. Faustus, when spectators watch the sufferings of Dr. Faustus, they feel pity for him and at the same time fear for his wrongdoings. Hence, in both the cases Dr. Faustus has the ability to become a tragic hero. 

Secondly, when we find that Dr. Faustus is going to sign an agreement with Lucifer/Mephistopheles somewhere in his heart, there is fear of God. He knows that he is going to follow the wrong path. He knows the boundaries of God and feels that only these can take him to the right path. No doubt, he signs the agreement and this act makes him a sinner but it does not mean that he is entirely an evil kind of person. Any person, having a prudent mind, can say that it is just a simple mistake. He wants to get more and more knowledge. He selects black magic because he wants powers too. In the end, we find him repenting on his sins.

Although, he becomes arrogant yet this is what Aristotle calls “Hamartia”. It is the “err” of Dr. Faustus, which leads him towards his destruction. There is hardly any critic, who says that Dr. Faustus is purely bad or evil kind of person. Most of the critics agree that Dr. Faustus is the combination of both good and evil, due to which he perfectly fits for tragedy and becomes a perfect tragic hero.

Thirdly, there is no denying the fact that Dr. Faustus falls from prosperity to adversity. He signs the agreement, enjoys life, does what he want and ultimately suffers. In the start, he is prosperous but at the end of the play, we see his miserable condition. Hell becomes his permanent destination.

Suffering is one of the most important ingredients of tragedy because catharsis always depends on suffering. In this play, Dr. Faustus, in the climax, cries. He seeks help but cannot find any refuge. Spectators cry with Dr. Faustus. He regrets but no help reaches for him. Finally, he meets with his death. Notwithstanding, it is not the death of Dr. Faustus, which frightens us but his everlasting agonies. His sufferings in the eternal world terrify us. Dr. Faustus, in this way, justifiably completes this requirement of tragic hero too.

As regards the last element of tragedy, circumstances on no occasion are responsible for the downfall of Dr. Faustus. Christopher Marlowe has very beautifully knitted this element of tragedy. Examine in detail the character of Dr. Faustus from any perspective, you would witness that it is one and only Dr. Faustus, who is responsible for his destruction. Unlike Oedipus Rex, he has free will. He chooses black magic just because he wants powers and knowledge. On many occasions, a good angel warns him but he does not seek forgiveness from God. Even, he makes fun of the old man, who advises him. He blindly follows evil just to enjoy the luxuries of life. Thus, circumstances by no mean are responsible for the fall of Dr. Faustus. His own desires force him to choose the wrong path. Like so, Dr. Faustus also fulfills this requirement of an ideal tragic hero.

Suffice is to say that Dr. Faustus is a perfect tragic hero. In the traditional definition of tragedy, we do not find any loophole in his character. He is noble by birth, (even if he is not noble he fits for tragedy….see successful plays of Shakespeare such as Othello, in which a moor is picture-perfect tragic hero), he is not too good nor too bad, he falls from prosperity to adversity and at the end he suffers because of hamartia (his hamartia is his pride). All these components of tragedy make Dr. Faustus a wonderful and everlasting tragic hero. Due to the availability of these elements of a tragic hero in Dr. Faustus, students of English Literature would keep seeking guidance from this character forever.