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Although both “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde and “Dr. Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe is filled with humor, each of these plays addresses the morality, or immorality, of deception. In “The Importance of Being Earnest”, more than one character pretends to be someone or something other than what they are. It is only through being earnest, or honest, that they finally find happiness. “Dr. Faustus” on the other hand, takes on the dark side of deception, allowing the main character to carry off a series of mean tricks which only serve to seal his own doom. Through differing courses of events, and differing conclusions, both plays manage to convey the idea that deception, regardless of its form or intent, is not worth the trouble it causes.
The two main characters in Wilde’s play are Algernon “Algy” Moncrieff and Jack Worthing. Both of these characters are constrained by the rigid social conditions of the Victorian upper class. To escape these conventions occasionally, each of them has developed an alter ego. Although this deception is seen as innocent in that it is not intended to harm anyone and necessary in that it allows them the freedom they’ve been missing, it causes a great deal of trouble when they each fall in love. Jack falls in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax, Algy’s cousin, who believes him to be a ‘man about town’ named Ernest whom she is reforming.
Algy falls in love with Cecily Cardew, Jack’s ward, who believes him to be the younger brother Ernest that Jack takes off to rescue out of the city every once in a while. The men can’t simply tell their respective women the truth about their identity because neither woman will marry unless the groom is named Ernest. To ensure Cecily’s affection, Algy immediately makes arrangements to be rechristened Ernest, thereby making him officially meet her requirements. Jack, through an amazing coincidence and the exposure of another deception altogether different, finds his long-lost family and discovers the name his parents gave him really is Ernest.
Far from discovering the value of honesty, Dr. Faustus, the main character in “Dr. Faustus,” is a scholar who is famed the world over for his extensive knowledge. In spite of this knowledge, though, Faustus still feels there is something remaining for him to learn, secrets of the gods that will make him immortal and all-powerful. He is easily tempted by the allure of magic and almost thoughtlessly trades his soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of having everything he wants. He envisions himself taking part in numerous humanitarian endeavors, but instead spends his time practicing his own form of deception.
This involves such activities as performing stupid parlor tricks for the entertainment of the Emperor and playing invisibility games on the Pope. Although deception is more than evident in the way in which Faustus deals with other characters throughout the play, it is his deception of himself that remains in the mind of the reader after the play has finished.
The most obvious form of deception in both “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Dr. Faustus” is the main characters’ intentional deception of other people throughout the course of the play.
In order to achieve freedom in a highly structured and constricted world of Victorian England, both Jack Worthing and Algy Moncrieff develop alter egos named ‘Earnest’ and ‘Bunbury’ respectively.
“You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose” (Wilde, Act 1, Scene 1) Algy tells Jack in the opening scene of the play. This makes the connection between the two characters in that they are playing the same game of ‘innocent’ deception as a means of helping themselves rather than out of malice toward other people. Faustus spends his entire magical career, with all the powers he has at his command, committing base pranks.
Perhaps the best example of this is the behavior he demonstrates at the special banquet in Act III, scene 1. An invisible Faustus grabs the Pope’s dishes out of the air and moves them about, causing the Pope to cross himself in fear and awe, although Faustus has already told him once not to do so. Faustus tells him “Well, there’s the second time. Aware the third; / I give you fair warning. / [The POPE crosses himself again, and FAUSTUS hits him a box / of the ear; and they all run away.]” All three of these characters believe they are tremendously clever and original, having much more wisdom than anyone around them, yet demonstrating a profound naiveté regarding the value of truth.
Algy, Jack and Dr. Faustus would have a very difficult time admitting they were capable of being deceived by another, but both plays illustrate that these characters are easily deceived. Both Jack and Algy fool each other in the development of their alter egos, which quickly illustrates to the audience that they are not deception-proof. However, it is the nurse maid’s deception of the nursemaid that leads to the final revelation of Jack’s true identity and paves the way for his future life of truth.
Lady Bracknell says “Twenty-eight years ago, Prism, you left Lord Bracknell’s house, Number 104, Upper Grosvenor Street, in charge of a perambulator that contained a baby of the male sex. You never returned. … Where is that baby?” (Wilde, Act III, Scene II), forcing Ms. Prism’s confession and the entire truth of Jack to be revealed. In contrast, although Mephastophilis, the devil’s servant, tells Faustus nothing but the truth, including the horrors he suffers wherever he goes, Faustus cannot see the truth. Instead, he chooses to believe others who are actively working to deceive him such as Cornelius and the evil devil.
Trying to make the study of magic seem like the best thing that ever happened to him, Cornelius tells Faustus “[t]he miracles that magic will perform / will make thee vow to study nothing else” (Marlowe, Act 1, Scene 1) while the evil angel distracts Faustus from thoughts of repentance to “think of honor and of wealth” (Marlowe, Act 1, Scene 5) instead.
Both plays talk about the intentional deception of others and the efforts of others to deceive the self, but the greatest deception in both plays seems to focus on self-deception. Faustus continues to fool himself into thinking that he’s doing the right thing for his own well-being even though he keeps experiencing feelings of unease.
He even refuses to hear warnings from others such as the good angel and the old man – “I might prevail / To guide thy steps unto the way of life, / By which sweet path thou mayst attain the goal / That shall conduct thee to celestial rest!” (Marlowe, Act III, Scene III).
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Although Jack has taken some degree of pride in his ‘rebellious’ behavior of deceiving others regarding his identity, he learns in the end that he has never deceived anyone but himself as he was christened both Ernest and John after his father and that he really does have a disreputable younger brother in the figure of Algy: “Algy’s elder brother! Then I have a brother after all. I knew I had a brother! I always said I had a brother!” (Wilde, Act III, Scene II).
Although deception is illustrated in both plays to be an immoral activity with negative consequences, there does seem to be some relativity to judgments. Although Jack, Algy and Dr. Faustus all participate willingly and knowingly in deception of some form, their intentions, focus and willingness to ‘come clean’ have significant effects on their futures. Neither Dr. Faustus nor Jack Worthing is able to accurately assess their own value because, despite their beliefs to the contrary, they have been deceived by others. Jack Worthing, along with his brother Algy, proves to be worthy of a good, honest life despite his attempts at trickery mainly because he was willing to face the truth and take the necessary steps to rectify the situation.
Dr. Faustus, though, is provided the truth from the beginning of his adventures and suffers eternally for his willingness to deceive himself and unwillingness to face the truth or make restitution.
Marlowe, C. (1616). “Dr. Faustus”. Masterplots. Ed. S. Flecher. Salem Press, Inc., 1996.
Wilde, O. (1895). “The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”.
Masterplots. Ed. S. Bromige. Salem Press, Inc., 1996.