Doctor Faustus - Social Attitudes
The Great Chain of Being
Among the most important of the continuities with the Classical period was the concept of the Great Chain of Being. Its major premise was that every existing thing in the universe had its "place" in a divinely planned hierarchical order, which was pictured as a chain vertically extended. Whilst Renaissance writers seemed to support "order", the theme of "disorder" is much in evidence, suggesting that the age may have been experiencing some growing discomfort with traditional hierarchies Also, some Renaissance writers were fascinated by the thought of going beyond boundaries set by the chain of being. Faustus is one of the major examples of this. Simultaneously displaying the grand spirit of human aspiration and the more questionable hunger for superhuman powers, Faustus seems in the play to be both exalted and punished. Marlowe's drama, in fact, has often been seen as the embodiment of Renaissance ambiguity in this regard, suggesting both its fear of and its fascination with pushing beyond human limitations.
Humanism is the contradictory school of thought to the Great Chain of Being. In the terms used in the Renaissance itself, Humanism represented a shift from the "contemplative life" to the "active life." In the Middle Ages, great value had often been attached to the life of contemplation and religious devotion, away from the world (though this ideal applied to only a small number of people). In the Renaissance, the highest cultural values were usually associated with active involvement in public life. Individual achievement, breadth of knowledge, and personal aspiration (as personified by Doctor Faustus) were valued. The concept of the "Renaissance Man" refers to an individual who, in addition to participating actively in the affairs of public life, possesses knowledge of and skill in many subject areas. Overall, in consciously attempting to revive the thought and culture of classical antiquity, perhaps the most important value the Humanists extracted from their studies of classical literature, history, and moral philosophy was the social nature of humanity. Humanists also felt that human beings could be in control of their destinies and positions in society.
Dr Faustus was written in approximately 1592. English society at this time was a world apart from that of the modern (or post-modern) world. Despite undergoing drastic changes since the earlier Medieval times, society remained highly regimented.
The power of the State was largely concentrated in the hands of the Crown, at this time that power being exercised by Elizabeth I. Her policy was shaped, influenced and implemented by an elite class of nobles and courtiers, generally drawn from the landed classes.
The core economy was based on agriculture and weaving, both activities primarily lining the pockets of the owners of large estates. However, there was a developing merchant and artisan class – centred in the great urban centres such as London, Bristol, Norwich and York – and Elizabeth’s reign saw the beginnings of a conflict between this new ‘middling’ sort…