Knowledge as Vice and Virtue in Everyman and Doctor Faustus

In Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the title character is banished to hell for his unbridled pursuit of knowledge. By contrast, in the play Everyman, the protagonist, unlike poor Faustus, is ultimately able to face God with hope of redemption or being saved from "worldly sins." Both plays, from the Late Medieval/Early Modern period of Britain explore the notion of morality in the context of knowledge as a path to either salvation or sin.

However, while the ultimate fate for each title character differs, both Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Everyman (author unknown) are essentially making the same case, that knowledge can be a tool for good or for evil depending on the underlying motivation. Within these plays, which are intended to impart understanding to their audience regarding acceptable conduct and behavior, knowledge paired with virtue, good deeds and right action are commendable, and knowledge for the sake of worldly power, selfishness and greed lead only to damnation.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is still a popular performance today.
Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is still a popular performance today.

The Epiphany of Everyman

The unknown author of Everyman leaves little to the imagination in terms of character names. The title character, Everyman, is meant to represent the common man. The rest of the characters are named after the respective vice or virtue that they represent.

At the start of the play, Everyman informed by Death that he is to go before God in order that “Thy reckoning to give before his presence." Everyman is, at this point, still a "sinner," with “many bad deeds and good but a few." He has spent his life thus far in the pursuit of worldly pleasures, and has only Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin and Goods to call upon in his aid.

Yet friendship proves to be fleeting, and Goods “condition is man’s soul to kill." It is the nature of wealth to destroy a man’s soul before God, unless of course they have “loved moderately” and given charity to the poor. Thus deserted in his day of reckoning by what comforts the world had previously provided him, Everyman is forced to turn to what he has provided to the world, Good Deeds.

At first Good Deeds is a small and weak character indeed, and must refer Everyman to his sister, Knowledge. Everyman is now embarking on the path to knowledge solely in the hope of salvation, significantly after eschewing wealth, company, power and luxury. Knowledge in this aim is now able to bring Everyman to Virtues, and Confession, rather than setting him on a path of towards earthly pursuits.

Like Icarus, Faustus flew too close to forbidden realms.
Like Icarus, Faustus flew too close to forbidden realms. | Source

The Demise of Dr. Faustus

The progression seen in Everyman, of sinful nature and action leading to renunciation, ultimately yielding a form of spiritual enlightenment is at odds with the path of Dr. Faustus. Faustus is at first not a sinful man, only a scholar with an ambition that verges on the profane. While Everyman begins his saga in almost certain damnation, yet is able to overcome it, Faustus is at a crossroads, not yet committed to either a sinful or a good path.

Scene One is a monologue by Faustus in which he expresses dissatisfaction and boredom with the various aspects of knowledge that he has encountered. Though the Prologue has told us that Faustus was “graced with doctor’s name,/ Excelling all…” he has become “swollen with cunning, of a self-conceit."

A comparison is made in lines 21 and 22 to Icarus, a character of Greek mythology. Icarus was given wings made of feather and wax in order to fly, but cautioned not to fly too close to the sun lest they would melt and he fall back to earth. Like Icarus, Faustus has been given a great ability, which in itself is not inherently sinful. Yet to become overly ambitious with an ability, to seek to go only higher and farther with it ultimately bring only a sad demise.

Faustus crosses the forbidden line when he takes the knowledge and accomplishment that he has been lauded and turns it to selfish gain, for riches, power and friends, the very things that Everyman has already given up before his quest for Knowledge. Faustus falls for the lure of evil when he becomes seduced by the words “Faustus, these books, thy wit, and our experience/ Shall make all nations to canonize us,” rather than seeking knowledge to do good in a selfless manner.

Faustus' Chance at Repenting

Despite the Prologue of Doctor Faustus informing the reader of an eventual fall from grace, the reader is still a witness to the progression of this fall in its entirety. This heightens the awareness of the process, rather than purely serving as spectators, the audience is drawn into the play to consider and pass judgment upon the moral issues at stake.

During the course of the play, Faustus is given numerous chances to repent, to renounce the Dark Arts that he has embraced as the penultimate quest for knowledge and power. Had he taken the course of contrition as Everyman did, Faustus might not be certainly condemned to hell. Albeit that this certainty of condemnation exists more in the mind of Faustus than his peers, he nonetheless doubts the ability of man to be pardoned for his sins, claiming “The serpent that tempted Eve may be saved, but not Faustus."

Faustus essentially blames his damnation on learning, “O would I have never seen Wittenberg, never read book,” though the characters of the Good Angel, the Scholars, and the Old Man have advised him that with penance, renunciation, and contrition there is still a chance for clemency. “Remember God’s mercies are infinite,” says a Scholar, yet Faustus takes no heed, unwilling to the last to humble himself, and ready to cast blame outside of himself rather than to take the responsibility of himself as an imperfect vessel, a sinner, as Everyman has done.

Medieval morality plays gave religious lessons to their audience.
Medieval morality plays gave religious lessons to their audience. | Source

Day of Reckoning

Despite the fact that Faustus’ friends are willing to advise him and to pray for him, they abandon him in the end. Says one Scholar to another “Tempt not God, sweet friend, but let us into the next room and there pray for him." This is no different from the way that Everyman is deserted, and left to face Death alone. Both plays epitomize the philosophy of the times, as they boldly proclaim that each man must ultimately meet his day of reckoning and judgment alone.

What comes of the earth, friendship, wealth, power is all fleeting. Virtue also is fleeting. Everyman, through the character of Knowledge, has become acquainted with the virtues of Beauty, Strength, Five-Wits, and Discretion. Yet none of these characters (virtues) will accompany him all the way to meet Death. Faustus, in turn, has used his corrupt knowledge to meet his own version of these virtues, using sorcery to obtain wealth, beauty, companionship, and love. The end result for Faustus, as Everyman, is a lesson-- things that are of the earth stay with the earth, and are no help on the day of reckoning in Heaven or Hell. Thus whether begotten by good or evil, all of the things both virtuous and material amassed by both Everyman and Faustus are inconsequential. They must both be judged on the sole merit of their character and their contrition.

The Morality of Knowledge

In this manner knowledge can either be friend or foe. When sought prudently, and used judiciously, knowledge can strengthen good deed and right action. This is dependant upon acting selflessly, without ambition, greed or egotism. Though Knowledge cannot not follow Everyman all the way to God, as, after all, knowledge is only good on earth, what he can do is make sure that Good Deeds are counted in the afterlife. In the end that is what Everyman, and Doctor Faustus are to be judged upon, it is the only thing that they take all the way to death. It is simply up to them if they utilize knowledge for good deeds or for evil, selfish pursuits.

Both of these plays are morality plays, instructive to the viewers and readers on how to lead a good life. Both make a case against worldly pursuits, and a case for penitence, contrition, and humbleness. Everyman paints knowledge as a virtue if it comes out of desire for that which is virtuous rather than selfish in itself, yet there is a contrasting cautionary tone regarding the danger of learning in Doctor Faustus. It is not that it is inherently bad, indeed it can be a tool for good, yet care must be taken that it does not lead one into selfishness, greed and sin. Though Faustus may blame the thirst for knowledge and books on his undoing, the underlying theme is that it was his own greed in this regard that caused him to be damned, not the actual knowledge itself.

The correct methods for acquiring and enhancing knowledge are those that are taken in the aim of bettering the world, rather than the individual. Faustus could have been content to become a brilliant doctor, theologian, philosopher, and helped others, but instead he succumbed to pride, choosing only to further himself. What is sinful is to abandon good deeds, to lose discretion in this aim in the quest for personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Thus in the morality of this particular society, knowledge is only as good as the manner in which it is sought.

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Comments 1 comment

Scarlet Scrivener 5 years ago

Reading this article makes me realize that the propaganda machine was up and running so many centuries ago. Everyman was clearly church propaganda and the Faust stories, in general, seem to give the reader the same message, don't you dare try to rise above your lowly station, to which God has damned you.

The people in power (the church in those days, mainly) want to keep their power. Ignorance of the masses is a virtue as far as they are concerned.

But, I do love Marlowe!

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