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Both ‘Dr Faustus’ and ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ seek to offer comprehensive views on both Christianity and its moral values. A particular emphasis in both texts is placed upon sin, and both the two eponymous characters, as well as the societies in which they live, seem to be incapable of halting their sins, or indeed redeeming them.
Both Chaucer and Marlowe explore the theme of sin through several passages, one of which they have in common being their title characters. In ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, the Pardoner is shown immediately to be a dishonest character with very few moral values whatsoever.
Chaucer’s use of somewhat grotesque simile in his mere description makes us feel uneasy, with his hair ‘as yellow as wax’ hanging down ‘like flax’. Later, when we are introduced to the principal aspects of his character, we find that he is dishonest, scheming and self-obsessed to the core.
Moreover, he commits what the medieval world thought the greatest sin of all in that he is so proud of it. He tells us quite openly that his intentions are ‘nought but to win [money], and nothing for correction of sin’, and delights in recounting to the pilgrims how he is able to dupe his congregations into buying his pardons.
The Pardoner’s sin is presented very effectively to us as readers, in exactly the same way that the Pardoner goes about his sinful acts, through his powerful oratory, and given that when ‘The Canterbury Tales’ was written, poetry was designed to be read aloud and heard, this presentation of sin becomes even more appropriate.
Marlowe makes use of a similar technique in ‘Dr Faustus’ to show off his character’s greatest sin, which also happens to be pride. The medium of drama lends itself probably best of all to exposing a character’s shortcomings through their own words and actions, and this is exactly the image Marlowe gives us of Faustus.
We first see Faustus’ arrogance in the opening scene, when he tells us that his ‘common talk’ are ‘sound aphorisms’, and his self-important nature soon leads him to succumb to the chance to become ‘a mighty god’ by the conclusion of the play. However, unlike Chaucer, Marlowe does not present Faustus as being a character wholly drenched in sin. Faustus is far more wavering, and indeed has many occasions in the play where he is unsure about what he is doing. This leads the audience to develop a somewhat sympathetic relationship with Faustus, which is totally different from our condemnation of the Pardoner.
Faustus seems totally unsure in his own head what to do: ‘I do repent, and yet I do despair’, but his pride eventually becomes his downfall, as even after Mephistopheles warned him of his ‘frivolous demands’, Faustus pours scorn over him, telling him to ‘learn of Faustus manly fortitude’. The cruel irony that Marlowe gives us here is that though Faustus many be all-knowing in mortal terms, unlike Mephistopheles he has seen neither heaven nor hell, and therefore knows nothing of the latter’s true torment.
The characters of the Seven Deadly Sins are physically portrayed in ‘Dr Faustus’. Mephistopheles conjures devils masquerading as each of the sins to present to Faustus. This is generally accepted by critics as Marlowe’s shorthand way of introducing the Deadly Sins into the play without adding numerous extra scenes detailing the incorporation of all the sins into Marlowe’s deeds. They are typical of a device often used in Elizabethan theatre, and would have been dressed grotesquely in such a way to extract laughter from the audience.
This is somewhat contradictory, as making the sins into a joke may serve to lessen their potential to be a warning to Faustus to change his ways. However, considering firstly that Faustus sees them as a joke also (in any case he has no true belief that Hell actually exists at all), and secondly the words of the ‘sins’, they become a very useful symbolic device in the play. Through their self-description, we can link many of the sins’ traits to similar ones of Faustus. Pride, for example, has an arrogance that leads him to reject the place into which he has been born, having ‘disdain for any parents’.
This is very similar to Faustus’ desire to escape the world of mortal knowledge. Covetousness tells us of its ‘sweet gold’: Faustus too tells us of his desire to ‘heap up gold’ in the opening scene of the play. Thus, there are many warning signs for Faustus in the pageant, but whilst the audience may pick up on them, Marlowe makes sure the dramatic irony is effected by making Faustus oblivious to any of them. The Pardoner, on the other hand, is far from oblivious of his sin, but sin itself is portrayed in a rather different way by Chaucer.
Rather than have the sins parade to him, the Pardoner details personally what he considers to be the worldly sins to the pilgrims. This creates the additional irony when the audience discovers that the Pardoner himself is guilty of all of them. Were ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ simply a sermon, an audience would perhaps not take it seriously, given that the Pardoner’s hypocrisy makes his words lack any true conviction or seriousness. However, the part-Parabolic nature of the tale itself brings a new element of meaning into the sins of ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’.
The characters in the tale are described simply as ‘three rioters’, and the tale is clearly one of morality: The Pardoner does not focus on their deaths at the end of the tale, simply skating over the fact that ‘they had him slain, and that anon’, not getting drawn into the violent details but keeping the overall message of morality going. We know the Pardoner is only doing this in an attempt to make the pilgrims ‘meekly receive’ his pardon and bag him a profit, but nonetheless the tale can be taken a lot more seriously than the Pardoner’s sermon given its uncanny resemblance to one of Jesus’ Parables.
Both authors also seek to further the point that sin comes about by the devil taking advantage of one’s personal weaknesses. In ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, the Pardoner tells us that ‘the fiend, our enemy’ put the idea of poisoning his fellows into the mind of the third reveller, which goes someway to absolving the third reveller of his sins because it was not his fault, but the devil’s. One possible reading of the character of the Old Man is that he is the devil in disguise, sat at the stile; the ‘crossroads’ ready to lead the three men down the wrong path.
This too would lessen the blame of the revellers for pursuing their sinful cause, although their treatment of the man and their desire for the gold are still both faults of their own. This idea of lessening the blame is also used by Marlowe in ‘Doctor Faustus’. All through the play, it is clear at points when Faustus starts to doubt the path he has chosen, Mephistopheles will conjure up a cheap trick to distract his interest.
In addition, Mephistopheles explains to us when we first meet him that the reason he has come to Faustus is that ‘when we hear one rack the name of God, Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ, we fly in hope to get his glorious soul’. This element of alleviating blame is crucial in ‘Doctor Faustus’, and pivotal to its success as a play, because shifting an element of the responsibility for Faustus’ sins onto Lucifer allows us to empathise with Faustus, an emotion that would be otherwise impossible to justify.
Similarly, we are able to empathise with Mephistopheles as he tells us that he is ‘tormented with ten thousand hells’ and asks Faustus to ‘leave his demands’. It is clear from the language Mephistopheles uses in this passage in Act I, Scene III, that he still has an element of ‘human nature’ about him. He conveys a sense of emotion and pain that we are able to relate to, in a way that we cannot with, say, Lucifer, as we never get to hear such intimate thoughts of his.
Mephistopheles’ sin is also mitigated by the fact that he lives in hell due to ‘conspiring against our God with Lucifer’. The fact that it was Lucifer who committed the mortal sin, and Mephistopheles just a fringe party to it, again allows us to blame Lucifer for part of Mephistopheles’ fate. Despite some contemporaries and critics believing Marlowe to be an atheist, he nonetheless, along with Chaucer, presents a view typical of contemporary English belief that the devil is responsible for the sins of man.
However, both authors go beyond this and suggest that the religious system itself is inwardly sinful, or at least not concerned with the plight of wider society. In ‘Dr Faustus’, the Papacy is displayed as greedy and gluttonous, concerned only with ‘dainty dishes’ and ‘who took the meat’. The stupidity of the dirge also highlights the incompetence of the Church, and seeks to mock the general state of Catholicism.
In fact, given the era in which the play was written, this may merely be an innocent satire, government-pleasing anti-Catholic propaganda, but even so within the context of the play it raises an important point: are the forces of ‘good’ on the side of God really any better than Faustus and his path of ‘evil’? In most of the play, good and evil are kept very distinct, with Faustus’ ‘Good Angel’ and ‘Bad Angel’ consciences. However here, they become merged, and therefore it becomes more difficult to measure Faustus’ sins. In ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, we do not suffer this problem.
The Pardoner’s hypocrisy actually clarifies good and evil all the more because he is so outrageous that we can spot the irony that the ‘good’ path of life he forwards is not the one he takes. Chaucer also attempts a satire at the Church system, because the Pope and cardinals are in on the Pardoner’s game. The Pardoner has ‘come from the Court of Rome’ and he later tells us that he has been given pardons ‘by the Pope’s hand’. This gives us the impression that the Church, as well as the Pardoner, is using people’s fear of their own sins and retribution to make money.
Human sin is a key strand of thought throughout both texts, and both authors present it in ways that invoke entirely different emotional responses from their audiences: Marlowe’s invitation of empathy and sorrow is entirely contrasted by Chaucer’s effect of comedy and farce. However, both in their own ways still leave a message of morality, and their different presentations of sin both contribute heavily to the audience’s need for self-reflection after seeing or hearing the text.