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“Paradise Lost” by John Milton and “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe Research Paper

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Nowadays, it is only the handful of uneducated Christian fundamentalists, who continue to refer to the Bible as the actual “word of God”, due to the fact that Christianity had long ago lost its conceptual validity, as theological doctrine. However, it would be wrong to think that such a situation came about as the result of particularly recent developments, in the field of empirical science. Even as far back as in 16th century, many European intellectuals were beginning to realize the sheer outdatedness of Christian worldview. And the reason for this was simple – ever since Martin Luther had translated the Bible from Latin into the secularly spoken German language, Catholic clergy was deprived of its exclusive right on interpreting the “holy book”. In his book “Protestant Thought and Republican Spirit: How Luther Enchanted the World”, Joshua Mitchell says: “Luther’s stress upon the pure inwardness of religious experience inculcated an attitude of quietude and quiescence toward worldly power. Religion perhaps gained in spirituality, but the state certainly gained in power” (Mitchell 1992, p. 689). In its turn, this explains why Christopher Marlowe’s play “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” and John Milton’s poem “Paradise Lost” provide us with unconventional interpretation of Hell – the fact that both writers’ worldviews have been affected by religious movement of Protestantism, caused Marlowe and Milton to adopt philosophical rather then literal approach, while dealing with the subject matter. In this paper, we will aim at substantiating the validity of this statement by analyzing Marlowe and Milton’s visions of Hell as being fundamentally different from those closely associated with Catholic tradition.

The reason why White Protestants became undisputed masters of the world by the end of 19th century is that they continuously sought to grasp the essence of highly abstract notions, such as the notion of divinity, for example, while striving to refrain from viewing these notions as intellectually petrified categories. Unlike Jews, Muslims or Buddhists, they were trying to associate religious laws with the notion of common sense. This is exactly the reason why the character of Satan in Milton’s poem cannot be referred to as a classical villain. Upon being exposed to Satan’s reasoning as to why he decided to rebel against God, we recognize it as not being entirely deprived of rationale:

“The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n…
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n” (Milton, Book I).

In his book “Milton”, while referring to Milton’s depiction of Satan, Walter Alexander Raleigh says: “Satan unavoidably reminds us of Prometheus, and although there are essential differences, we are not made to feel them essential. His very situation as the fearless antagonist of Omnipotence made him either a fool or a hero, and Milton is far indeed from permitting us to think him a fool” (Raleigh 1900, p.106).

The same can be said about Marlowe’s character of Faustus, who is being initially presented to readers as the very embodiment of Western existential values, which cannot be discussed outside of the concept of scientific progress. This character’s stance in life provides us with the insight on the principle of scientific inquiry as such that can know no limits, which in its turn, prompts us to think of him as being hero, rather then a villain, who was willing to sell its soul to Lucifer. Just as a true European intellectual, Faustus was well aware of the fact that one’s strive towards power through science is being absolutely natural in its essence, as it corresponds to fundamental laws of nature:

“Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters;
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promis’d to the studious artizan!” (Marlowe, Prologue).

As it appears from play’s context, Faustus’ tragedy concerns the process of protagonist being slowly deprived of his posture of an intellectual and turned merely into a seeker of cheep thrills, rather with the fact that by signing contract with a Devil, Faustus has doomed its soul to eternal damnation. In his article “Marlowe and God: The Tragic Theology of Dr. Faustus”, Robert Ornstein makes a perfectly good point when suggesting that: “From the beginning, mean sensual appetites intermingle with Faustus’ Promethean aspirations. From the beginning, he is too glutted with self-conceit to see that his mastery over Mephistophilis is mere appearance. As an intellectual rebel, Faustus has mythic significance. As a writhing sinner, he seems merely another example of religious despair” (Ornstein 1968, p. 1380). Thus, Marlowe does not refer to Faustus’ greatest sin as such that is being related to his willingness to oppose God by siding with Devil, but as such that is being concerned with the protagonist’s inability to utilize his newly acquired powers in a meaningful way.

When we look at Satan’s existential evolution, throughout the “Paradise Lost”, it will appear that, just as Marlowe’s Faustus, this Milton’s character was also undergoing the process of transformation from “high” to “low”. Whereas, at the beginning of a poem Satan is being presented to us as the figure whose magnificence almost equals that of God’s, by the time poem ends he is being reduced to a role of petty troublemaker, who cannot possibly pose any danger to God. The fact that, while talking to Eve, Satan has assumed the exterior of a snake signifies the objective nature of his fall. Whereas, while addressing fallen angels in poem’s Book I , Satan appears as being intellectual, who understands the fundamental nature of socio-political dynamics, regardless of whether these processes take place among angels or among humans:

“Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme
Above his equals” (Milton, Book I),

in poem’s subsequent Books, he gradually loses his ability to reason, which eventually causes Satan to conclude that acting opposite to God may somehow increase his chances in confrontation with Creator. In his article “The Satan of Milton”, William Empson states: “The analytic mind of Satan, in his answering speech, does consider the question of God’s goodness; he says that his side, however impotent otherwise, will from now on do ill to oppose the good works of God” (Empson 1960, p. 35). In other words, it is not the fact that Satan’s intellectual powers were utterly inferior to those of God, which resulted in his ultimate demise, but the fact that he had chosen to utilize them in utterly counter-productive manner.

Apparently, the greatest misdeed on the part of both: Marlowe’s Faustus and Milton’s Satan, corresponded to their willingness to “disperse” their intellectual powers into the void. In its turn, this brings us to the discussion as to why, unlike Catholic Renaissance intellectuals such as Dante, Marlowe and Milton do not refer to Hell as the place where sinners undergo everlasting physical torments, but rather as dark, soundless and motionless state of energetic entropy, the “void”, in which sinners suffer from being separated from God, as the worst punishment possible. In his article “Paradise Lost and the Acoustics of Hell”, Matthew Steggle says: “The background condition of Hell is silence: “horrid silence”, containing “silent” locations, run through by the “slow and silent stream” of Lethe. What sound there is created by the damned. Hell itself, when personified as a geographical location, is actually rather frightened by noise” (Steggle 2001). The utter horror of Milton’s Hell is that its existence contradicts the laws of nature, which refer to the state of energetic entropy as being synonymous to the concept of death. Thus, as a true Protestant intellectual, Milton was striving to enlighten readers onto the true nature of the notion of horror as being something necessarily unnatural (fire radiates darkness instead of light), rather than simply frightening. Milton’s hell does exist, even though those unfortunate souls contained in it are dead, in spiritual sense of this word:

“A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes” (Milton, Book I).

Sinners that are being cast into hell will never be able to get out of there – Milton’s Protestant mindset rejected the possibility for the existence of “purgatory”. In this respect, Milton’s “hellish” allusions remind those of Marlowe – the reasons why evildoers can never escape Hell is because they bring Hell with them, no matter where they go. In her article “The Picture of Hell in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus”, Pushpita Ghosh reveals the true subtleties of “hell’s omnipotence”, for as long as the fate of Marlowe’s antagonists is concerned: “Faustus asks how he (Mephistophilis) comes out of the Hell. And in reply of this he says that he is not out of the hell but carries Hell wherever he goes… And all sinners carry the hell within their bosom. Where are the sinners there is only the Hell. Even Milton echoes the same expression in Paradise Lost; “Myself am Hell ” replies Satan” (Ghosh 2003). While answering Faustus’ questions as to what Hell really is, Mephistophilis refers to it as “void”, where even a trace of God’s presence cannot be found, by definition:

“Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Think’st thou that I, that saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?” (Marlowe, Scene 1).

Unlike poets and writers, associated with Catholic tradition, in their works Marlowe and Milton subtly imply that sin is something that cannot really be redeemed, simply because the perpetration of every sin draws a series of effects – the concept of “redemption of sin” would only make sense if such redemption could also eliminate sin’s consequences. For example, one can be well forgiven for perpetrating adultery by invoking God’s name, but this would not affect the fact that an immoral relationship between both adulterers often results in the birth of illegitimate children. This is the reason why Faustus decides not to proceed with his original intention of asking for God’s forgiveness, just before being dragged “down under” – despite Biblical assurances that no sin can be big enough in order to unable God to forgive it, Marlowe’s main character had a good reason to dismiss such assurances, due to the sheer severity of his misdeeds:

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and
there’s no truth in us. Why, then, belike we must sin, and so
consequently die:
Ay, we must die an everlasting death” (Marlowe, Prologue).

However, Marlowe and Milton lived in time when the members of Christian clergy were still in position of sentencing “heretics” to death by burning, which is why they preferred to discuss Hell in terms of “undeadness”, rather then in terms of “death”. This; however, does not deprive the validity of both authors’ innate suspicion as to the very existence of religiously dogmatized version of Hell. It is exactly because Marlowe and Milton could not possibly think of Hell as the place where sinners are being forced to lick hot frying pans and to drink molten sulfur for eternity, as shown in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, which allows us to refer to “Paradise Lost” and “The Tragic Theology of Dr. Faustus” as literary works that mark the beginning of the process of European prominent intellectuals being freed out of Christian mental imprisonment.

As true Renaissance thinkers, both: Marlowe and Milton were far from implying that it is namely people’s ability to utilize their sense of rationale, which distances them from God and consequently sentences them to Hell. The foremost message, contained in both literary masterpieces can be defined as follows: it is only when freed intellect becomes solely obsessed with seeking sensual (Faustus) or emotional (Satan) satisfaction, as opposed to seeking knowledge, which represents the initial stages of such intellect’s downfall.

Marlowe and Milton understood perfectly well that there was something seriously wrong with Bible, as the book that supposedly holds answers to all questions. Yet, they were not quite ready to recognize “holy book” as what it really is – a composite of old Jewish folk tales, which were meant to provide a conceptual validity to Jews’ belief in being “chosen people”, from theological point of view. This is why Marlowe and Milton strived to add intellectual appeal to Biblical message, by providing readers with their own explanation as to why evildoers are often able to get away with their crimes, why God appears being rather impotent then omnipotent, and why it is important to remain loyal to God, despite the fact that such loyalty does not make any rational sense. However, while doing it, they unintentionally revealed the theological fallaciousness of a Biblical fable, as being utterly illogical. Whereas, Marlowe and Milton describe Hell as the place where sinners are being deprived of any contacts with God, whatsoever, it is mainly because of such deprivation, on their part, which allows these sinners to act as fully sovereign individuals. On the other hand, Milton and Marlowe’s “good” angels, archangels and cherubs remind us soulless robots, who are only being programmed to constantly play harps and praise God, as their full-time occupation. Therefore, by being exposed to “Paradise Lost” and “The Tragic Theology of Dr. Faustus”, we inevitably come to realize that there are more reasons for us to associate Heaven rather then Hell with non-existence.

Thus, despite Marlowe and Milton’s original intention to revitalize Christianity, it is not simply by an accident that the publishing of “Paradise Lost” and “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” in 17th century coincided with the time when “religion of peace and tolerance” has been firmly set on the path of decline. And the reason for this is simple – both works encourage people to contemplate on the subject of divine. However, for as long as idealistic and educated individuals are being concerned, such contemplation usually causes them to realize that God (Heaven) and Devil (Hell) is not something to be sought for up in the sky or down underground, but within. Therefore, whatever the improbable it might sound – it is much more appropriate to discuss Marlowe’s play and Milton’s epic poem within a context of how religion continues to yield to science, as time goes by, despite both works’ formal affiliation with Christianity.

Bibliography

  1. Kelsall, Malcolm “Christopher Marlowe”. London: Leyden / Brill Publishing, 1981.
  2. Marlowe, Christopher “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus”. 1604. Project Guttenberg Ebook.
  3. Mitchell, Joshua “Protestant Thought and Republican Spirit: How Luther Enchanted the World”. The American Political Science Review, 86. 3 (1992): 688-695.
  4. Milton, John “Paradise Lost”. 1667. Project Guttenberg Ebook.
  5. Steggle, Matthew “”. 2001. Early Modern Literary Studies. 2009. Web.
  6. Ghosh, Pushpita “”. 2003. Enzine Articles. Web.
  7. Ornstein, Robert “Marlowe and God: The Tragic Theology of Dr. Faustus”. PMLA, 83. 5 (1968): 1378-1385.
  8. Raleigh, Walter “Milton”. London: BiblioBazaar, [1900]
  9. Empson, William “The Satan of Milton”. The Hudson Review, 13. 1 (1960): 33-59.
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