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The Theme of Knowledge in Dr Faustus

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Though on a basic level it would seem that Marlowe seeks to condemn over-reaching knowledge, with Faustus undoubtedly seeking damnation and punishment for his knowledge of the dark arts, to conclude that knowledge is negative and will lead to one's downfall is too simple an assumption. The text doesn't place general knowledge such as how to be a good human being or general educational subjects out of reach. It is, however, the supernatural knowledge that Faustus seeks that ultimately results in corruption and damnation. At a time where Church control was omnipresent and knowing anything outside of biblical truth posed serious dangers, it could be seen instead that Faustus' thirst for knowledge places him as a martyr for society, yet the fact that his ambition is inexplicably to gain power instead suggests that often knowledge does not equate to intelligence.

In some ways, though, Marlowe celebrates Faustus' abilities and knowledge. At a time in society where your hereditary determined your status, Faustus is initially able to challenge the social hierarchy and move from a man born "of parents base of stock" to a man "Grac'd with doctor's name". Through challenging society's accepted norm, therefore, and being a product of a Humanist society, Faustus' knowledge is celebrated by Marlowe in that it has granted him power (a 'doctor') and even "grac'd" divinity. Thus, it seems that Marlowe does not criticise the power of knowledge at all, but rather Faustus' interpretation of it. He moves from a man "grac'd" to a man "damned" through his acquisition of the dark arts, and so Marlowe does not criticise knowledge as such but rather Faustus' misinterpretation of knowledge. Whilst he is "damned" his fellow scholars, presumably also intelligent and knowledgeable by being referred to as a 'Scholar', are safe from damnation and beg Faustus to "Look up to heaven and remember God's mercy is infinite", therefore suggesting that to seek to further knowledge is acceptable and to challenge norms of intellect should be celebrated, but to do so through questioning religion is a mistake on Faustus' part.

Yet that theory seems somewhat ironic considering that Marlowe himself was believed to be an Atheist. Why would he condone challenging Christianity and God's Divine Right if he didn't believe in it himself? From this, one can raise the question of whether Faustus was martyring himself for the Humanistic cause. Towards the end of the play, Faustus is "in his study" and has "made his will ...and given" Wagner his possessions. By Doctor Faustus beginning and ending with Faustus in his study it could be argued that Faustus has come full circle, his life (as audiences know it) starts and ends in his "study" and so his home is the place of knowledge. Therefore, this 'man of knowledge' can be seen to have pushed the boundaries of knowledge and Humanism and ultimately sealed his doomed fate so that "We are much beholding to this learned man". Though the Duke was showered with gifts and 'tricks' from Faustus, the fact that this "learned man" has discovered the "double motion of the planets" whilst others are seemingly oblivious suggests that Faustus does somewhat martyr himself for the greater cause of furthering man's knowledge. The allegory a snake to Faustus furthermore emphasises that Faustus martyrs himself for mankind:

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