Despite an enormous difference in content and plot, Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and Paradise Lost by John Milton share a great deal in common thematically. In both Doctor Faustus and Paradise Lost, the quest for knowledge is not a noble pursuit with great rewards at the end, but rather it proves to be a means to an end. In each work, knowledge that is not directly accessible in either of the narrative’s world (academia for Faustus and Eden for Adam and Eve) is tempting to attain but is dangerous. The main characters in both Doctor Faustus and Paradise Lost strive to attain knowledge and understand that they have been forbidden and this eventual gaining of knowledge leads to a dramatic downfall.
In the case of Faustus, his knowledge of the dark and arcane arts is appealing at first, but by the end of his life he begins to see the terrible consequences that await him. The case is similar in Paradise Lost when the couple tastes the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and even as Satan quests after his own form of knowledge. The characters in both Doctor Faustus and Paradise Lost suffer harsh consequences as a result of their desire to understand and know that which is supposed to remain hidden and likewise in each work there is a great deal of regret and lamentation after the knowledge is gleaned. Interestingly, as this essay seeks to point out, the theme of forbidden knowledge does not end at the parallels between Faustus and Adam and Eve, but is also present in the case of Satan. Like Faustus, Satan’s arrogance and need to gain knowledge and personal power led to his status as a miserable outcast and this union between the two texts is worth exploring as well. Even though both Doctor Faustus and Paradise Lost present readers with two different settings and tales, the final message at the end of each is that knowledge is dangerous.
The opening lines of Paradise Lost and the closing message to readers spoken by the Chorus inDoctor Faustus are remarkably similar in tone and meaning. Milton begins his epic tale of the fall of man with an essay on the “warning” of the danger of knowledge by stating the nature of the text and what the reader should learn from it. Milton writes that the tale is, as stated in one of the important quotes fromParadise Lost by John Milton that, “Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit / of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste / Brought death into the world, and all our woe” (1.1-5).
Although it is likely that Milton’s readers both of the present and past already know the tale they are to be told, the author is careful to state this message at the beginning in an essay so that it serves as a warning against striving for forbidden knowledge. We are reminded that the act of trying to gain illegal knowledge brought about horrible events and throughout the text we are not allowed to forget this message, especially during the long scenes detailing the perfect beauty of Eden that has been lost forever because of this want of knowledge. The same narrative tactic is employed by Marlowe in Doctor Faustus,but the message comes at the end of the text instead of the beginning, presumably because the reader is not already familiar with the tale. The stern warning about the danger of knowledge is spoken by the Chorus at the end in order to leave readers (or theatre goers) with the message and thus make it more resonant. The Chorus reminds readers of the fate of Faustus and chides, “Faustus is gone! Regard his hellish fall, / Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise / Only to wonder at unlawful things” (Epilogue 4-6). Despite the difference is placement within the narrative, both authors have clearly stated their wish for readers to avoid the temptation of dangerous and forbidden knowledge as it can only lead to one’s downfall.
In both Doctor Faustus and Paradise Lost, the characters take a great fall from perfection (or in Faustus’ case, education and respect) because of their insatiable lust for knowledge that has been forbidden. At the beginning of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the reader quickly learns that the central character is highly educated and ambitious, as well as remarkably arrogant. Before we are introduced to him as he sits in his study, we are told that he is “swollen with cunning” and has grown tired of traditional studies and seeks a new darker path of study. This endeavor will cause him to “mount above his reach” (Prologue 21) in his quest for more knowledge and it is immediately clear that his thirst for greater knowledge coupled with his pride will eventually lead to his demise.
During his long monologue in the first scene, Faustus states in one of the important quotes from Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, “Philosophy is odious and obscure, / Both law and physic are for petty wits, / Divinity is the basest of the three” (1.107-109). While his arrogance is certainly present in this scene, it is also demonstrative of his frustration with what the world has to offer him. He is a vain creature with a desire for great fame and notoriety and he believes that through gaining special arcane knowledge he will achieve these things. Unlike the character of Adam in Paradise Lost, Faustus lusts for knowledge for more petty reasons and we are forced to remember the term, “swollen cunning” when thinking of him. To Faustus, notions of faith and God are for fools and he makes fun of religion at nearly every bend once he attains his power. Ironically, at one point, he states to Mephastophilis, “I think hell’s a fable / …/ Tush, these are trifles and mere old wives’ tales” (5.126-135) and mocks the visions of the Seven Deadly Sins as mere entertainment. Obviously, he looks foolish when he is begging for God’s forgiveness in the end, but these scenes of his denial of something greater than him that he does not yet know fully drives the final message home even more poignantly.
Eve has a much different reason for striving to gain forbidden knowledge. While Faustus was more inclined to gain illegal knowledge to benefit his ego, a few compliments from a very persuasive disguised Satan is enough to send her to her doom. Until confronted with this temptation she has been content to lie beside Adam in complete admiration, surrounded by her paradise and God’s love. Interestingly, she does not even seem to want to want the most basic knowledge, such as the nature of the conversation between her mate and Raphael, for instance. When one thinks about it, it almost seems as though Adam was the one seeking to much knowledge, especially when he inquires Raphael about the beginnings of the universe.
The reader must simply assume that Adam is beyond this potential weakness and thus Eve, being the “lesser” of the two is more prone to temptation and the desire to know and understand that which has been denied her. Still, even when God tells the couple that they must not eat from the Tree of Knowledge, telling them “it is the only sign of our obedience left” she is still easily coerced into it when she considers that if she eats it she could “render more equal” the difference between the two (9.825). In this sense, there is a slight amount of vanity on Eve’s part although she is still nothing like the arrogant Faustus. Even though the two characters have few parallels, it is worth noting that both texts present knowledge as connected with power and that this power, or equalizing force, is not to be dealt with.
When considering the theme of forbidden knowledge for this essay and what it brings, Faustus is more like the Satan presented in Paradise Lost than he is like Adam or Eve. He has attempted to outreach his bounds and in doing so he has condemned himself to great misery and pain. In Satan’s quest to know more and better than God, he shut himself out from future glory and it is clear that like Faustus he laments his quest to know more and better when he states, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven” (Paradise Lost 1.253-55) which implies that he has created his own hell through his wants, thoughts, and actions. Even the Mephistopheles character in Doctor Faustus seems to mourn his outcast state which was won as a result of trying to know more and be higher than God. The sad demon almost mimics the words of Milton’s Satan, saying, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. / Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God, / And tasted the eternal joys of heaven, / Am not tormented with ten thousand hells in being deprived of everlasting bliss” (3.76-80). In sum, many characters in both texts feel the disappointment and pain that happens when they have touched forbidden knowledge and been corrupted by its power and this very knowledge makes Faustus, Adam, Eve and Satan as villains in the end rather than characters the reader can identify with.
In Book 12 of Paradise Lost, one of the most impressive statements is made about the nature of knowledge as seen by both Milton and Marlowe in these texts. “To know that which before us lies in daily life / Is the prime wisdom” (VII.192-194). This sums up the sentiments expressed thematically in both of these works. In essence, each author’s tale is suggesting that any knowledge that is not directly in front of us and or explicitly available for everyone is dangerous and the pursuit of such knowledge will lead to one’s downfall. Neither text places general knowledge such as how to be a good human being or general educational subjects out of reach. It is the arcane and deep mysteries that are too dangerous for us to be allowed to probe and each of these works offers us a stern warning to stay away from knowledge that is not for general consumption. While to some reading this essay, this may seem like an unfair concept since we constantly striving to learn more about our world, these texts come from a time period in which Church control was omnipresent and knowing anything outside of biblical truth posed serious dangers.
Other essays articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : A Critical Reading of Adam’s Fall in “Paradise Lost” by John Milton • Paradise Lost by Milton : Is Satan as an Epic Hero? • Character Analysis of Satan in Paradise Lost Against other Characters • Atheism in “Doctor Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe • Comparison of Hypocrisy Theme in Doctor Faustus and The Importance of Being Earnest • Sin and Villains in Doctor Faustus and Othello