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Anatomy of Tragedy #4: The Hell and Heaven of Faustus

written by the Judge


I have drawn all of my examples from the Elizabethan stage so far because I am writing in English and they allow me to illustrate directly the linguistic operations taking place, but the same rules hold true in other dramatic cultures as well (with due differences in terms of tone and style, obviously). Case in point: the Hellenic chorus tends to close the play on an active note, with final lines that range from the soberly emancipated…

House of Atreus, you’ve survived
so much grief, but what’s been
accomplished today sets you free.

…to the outright euphoric:

Cry out your joy now, in song!

Indeed the most common rhetorical construction by the chorus at the end of tragedies is an exhortation to go somewhere or start doing something – in other words, to start taking action. Sophocles’ The Women of Trakhis ends with Hyllos saying, ‘Women, don’t cower in the house. / Come with us’, while Philoktetesends with ‘Let’s all set off together / now, praying to the nymphs of the sea / come take us safely home.’ This form holds true in other traditions, over and beyond the Elizabethan. This is how Jean Racine has Theseus speaking out in the final speech of Phaedra:

Let us go, by my mistake alas too illuminated,
And mingle our tears to the blood of our unhappy son.
Let us go embrace the remains of that dear son,
To expiate the fury of the prayer I detest.
Let us honour him as he deserves, […]

These are all very straight-forward examples, because making a general argument makes it easier to illustrate my point. I think it is important to specify that things are not always as linear or as easy as they appear. Sometimes there are important contextual issues that arise; the first two plays in Aeschylus’ Oresteia do not see the chorus ending with an active affirmation, and this for the simple reason that they are part of a trilogy, and the story does not end until the Eumenides (which, as we have seen, finish with an active chorus).

Other times, the passage from O to I is executed in ways which are more sophisticated (and thus harder to recognise) than the ones we have cited. I have described some of the possible linguistic methods that can be used to perform this transition in the third article on lyric and epic poetry, and we find them again in dramatic texts. Some can easily be confusing, such as the last line from the second part of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine: ‘For both their worths will equal him no more.’ This appears to close on an O signifier, if it weren’t that the phrase is a negative – it is the ‘equal[ity]’ which is no more. As more extensively argued in the article above, when an O signifier is negated, it is flipped onto its head to become an I signifier, and viceversa. Hence Tamburlaine closes with an I, even if a superficial examination may lead one to conclude that it does not.

When testing these arguments, it is important to remember that not all dramatists have been so kind to us as Shakespeare, who closed his heroic death speeches with a cataract of O’s. More often (and with no intention to detract from the bard, naturally), the solutions employed have been subtler.


The manner in which the epic and lyric trajectories of the chorus and hero are synthesised into the tragic is simple: the same signifiers are used for both antithetical sides. In other words, though they are going in opposite directions, they are walking on the same road (this also explains why simply reading a succession of unrelated lyric and epic poems does not produce the tragic). It is not a very difficult thing to execute; in fact it happens quite spontaneously, simply because the characters share the same story, and are thus allowed to respond (differently) to the same themes.

Marlowe’s Dr Faustusmakes this perspicuous. To the play’s audience, it seems that Faustus is torn between a path that leads to heaven and one that leads to hell, and that that’s the tension at the heart of the play. In reality, the play’s hero is tormented by a different spiritual problem – it is the question of his epistemological limits. Faustus is trying to learn everything in order to answer his existential problem; the fact that learning as much as he could, even becoming a master of the forbidden occult disciplines, does not ultimately give him a sense of spiritual fulfilment leads him to question the purpose and sense of learning in the first place, and thus his own sense of who he is and why he does what he does.

One way of explaining this drama is by saying that Faustus has his own, internal heaven and hell, one quite distinct from the Christian metaphysical ones. His idea of ‘heaven’ corresponds to an epistemological ideal, while that of hell is a state of ignorance. We thus have a public, Christian heaven / hell polarity promoted by the chorus, counterpoised to a private, intimate heaven / hell polarity promoted by the hero. In both cases, heaven corresponds to the I and hell to the O. Faustus ends up going from the I to the O in both polarities, thus crossing over from the purely private side to the public one and bringing them together in his trajectory.

Marlowe brings in a mirror-image to Dr Faustus in Act V via a character simply referred to as the ‘Old Man’. The Old Man comes to Faustus and attempts to convince him to be saved. Faustus, though initially tempted, is eventually intimidated into remaining with the forces of damnation, and he bids Mephistopheles go and torture the Old Man. Thus the Old Man is attacked by demons, just like Faustus will be at the end of the play; but his reaction is to scornfully resist them, and ‘fly unto my God’ instead. By doing this, he also asserts a metaphysical sense of self that is exactly what Faustus was looking for in his epistemological delirium – and which stands in contrast to, arguably even marks a passage from, his initial anonymous state as an ‘Old Man.’

The theme or plot is essentially the same; we are still talking about a Christian order and a private search for equanimity, and two almost identical characters who undergo the same trial with opposite results: Faustus goes to hell without having found a purpose, the Old Man goes to heaven with his spiritual role fulfilled.

Dr Faustus is a play that, by virtue of being constructed on the very obvious polarity of heaven and hell, makes the tragic effect clear for us to see. But its structure is in fact a constant of the genre. All genuine tragedies will exhibit a public polarity against a private one, and in all cases the protagonists will cross over these polarities in their lyric and epic trajectories, thus bringing them together and synthesising them in a single effect. The private polarity can take many forms, but it is always at heart about a spiritual sense of being in control and at peace. Likewise the public polarity will always be about whether one joins a group of people or dissociates oneself from them.

A few examples, to try and make this clearer. In the Iliad, Achilles’ private struggle between the integrity and the dissolution of his rage is set against his choice to return to the ranks of the army or retire into the solitude of his tent. In Oedipus Rex, the hero’s doubt between seeing (and controlling) his condition or being blind to it is what stands against the cleansing or perpetuation of the plague on the city of Thebes. In Macbeth, the ability to determine one’s fate or have it determined by the prophecies of the witches stands against the appropriation or loss of the crown. The list could go on.

The fact that the symbols of the I and the O in the public and private polarities are essentially interchangeable means that we can even express the tragic genre algebraically. (These representations are not particularly useful in literature, as the precise nature of any given symbol can always be debated and is open to interpretation, but they are amusing enough that I may be forgiven, I hope, if I indulge on them briefly). If we understand the lyric to be represented as I → O,and the epic as O → I, then the tragic can be designated by the following formula:

C(O → I) = H (I → O)

The hero and the chorus, in tragedy, symbolically become each other when they go through their respective lyric and epic trajectories; but the specific themes inside the brackets are interchangeable. It doesn’t matter if the original symbol belonged in the private or the public polarity; it can fit just as well on either side of the equation, and in any of the brackets. Like in a theorem, the values can be transferred to different sides of the equation without changing the result.

But these attempts at usurping mathematical language are, as I said, not particularly useful, and this strand of the argument is perhaps best left at that.

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