Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
💬 Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” is about the tragic downfall of a brilliant scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power and knowledge. It explores themes of ambition, morality, and the consequences of unrestrained desires.
Having an understanding of the historical context of Elizabethan era (1558-1603) is essential to the study of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. This understanding is useful in appreciating the play’s themes and the motivations of its characters, as well as for recognizing the broader cultural and intellectual forces that influenced Marlowe’s work. Following is a brief overview:
1. The Renaissance: The Elizabethan era was a sparkling period of cultural and intellectual revival known as the Renaissance. It marked a renewal of interest in classical learning, arts, and humanism. This intellectual awakening had an overwhelming influence on literature and the arts.
2. Religious Tensions: Religious tensions were a significant aspect of the period. England experienced religious turmoil during the reigns of Elizabeth I and her predecessors. The Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther, had led to the establishment of the Church of England, with Henry VIII as its head. Elizabeth’s reign saw the consolidation of the Church of England as a Protestant institution. However, Catholicism remained a potent force, and England faced both internal and external threats from Catholic powers.
3. Political Stability and Prosperity: The reign of queen Elizabeth I was marked by relative stability and prosperity. Her rule saw the emergence of England as a significant naval and colonial power. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 symbolized England’s resistance to the dominance of Catholic Spain and contributed to the country’s sense of national pride.
4. Rise of Theatre and Literature: The Elizabethan era was a golden age for English literature and theatre. The period is famous for the flourishing of magnificent playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson. Theatres in London, including the Globe Theatre, became popular venues for entertainment.
5. An Age of Exploration and Discovery: Elizabethan period was an age of exploration and discoveries. Explorers like Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake went on voyages that expanded England’s global influence and contributed to a sense of adventure and exploration.
In “Doctor Faustus,” these historical elements are reflected in various ways. The play deals with themes of ambition and the pursuit of knowledge, mirroring the intellectual curiosity of the Renaissance. It also reflects the religious tensions of the time, as Faustus’s actions challenge established moral and religious norms.
About the Author
Christopher Marlowe was an Elizabethan poet and William Shakespeare’s most important predecessor in English drama. He is noted especially for his establishment of dramatic blank verse. In a brief playwriting career lasting just over six years, Marlowe achieved a wide array of remarkable accomplishments.
Early Life and Education:
- Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury, England, in 1564, the same year as William Shakespeare, making him a contemporary of the Bard.
- He received a classical education, attending The King’s School in Canterbury and then Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he excelled in languages and literature.
- Marlowe obtained both a bachelor’s degree (1584) and a master’s degree (1587) at Cambridge. During this time he is also thought to have been employed in Elizabeth I’s secret service.
- Marlowe is best known for his dramatic works, which are considered ground-breaking in Elizabethan drama.
- His first major play, “Dido, Queen of Carthage,” was written in collaboration with another playwright, Thomas Nashe, and was performed around 1586-1587.
- His most famous works include “The Tragicall History of D. Faustus,” commonly known as “Doctor Faustus” (circa 1588), “Tamburlaine the Great” (circa 1587-1588), and “The Jew of Malta” (circa 1590), which are considered masterpieces of Elizabethan tragedy and blank verse drama.
- Marlowe’s writing was characterized by its powerful, poetic language, and his use of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) influenced the development of English drama and had a profound impact on later playwrights like Shakespeare.
Significance in Elizabethan Drama:
- Marlowe’s works helped shape the early Elizabethan theatre. His plays were noted for their grand themes, complex characters, and innovative use of language, setting a high standard for drama during his time.
- “Doctor Faustus” in particular explored profound themes of ambition, morality, and the human condition, making it a seminal work in the genre of tragedy.
- Marlowe’s writing challenged conventions and pushed the boundaries of what was possible on the stage, paving the way for the development of English Renaissance drama.
- His plays also contributed to the popularity of public theatres, such as the Globe, as venues for entertainment and artistic expression.
Marlowe’s life was cut short at the age of 29 when he was killed under mysterious circumstances in a tavern scuffle on May 30, 1593. His early death remains the subject of speculation and intrigue.
Christopher Marlowe’s brief but influential career as a playwright and poet left an indelible mark on Elizabethan drama in British English. His innovative use of language, exploration of profound themes, and dramatic adeptness laid the foundation for the golden age of English theatre in the late 16th century.
- The play opens with Doctor Faustus, a highly intelligent but dissatisfied scholar, who becomes disillusioned with traditional fields of study like philosophy and theology.
- Seeking greater power and knowledge, Faustus decides to turn to necromancy and makes a pact with the devil, Mephistophilis, and Lucifer himself.
- Faustus gains magical powers, which he uses for worldly pleasures and to perform miraculous feats.
- However, as he indulges in his newfound abilities, Faustus begins to realize the moral and spiritual consequences of his actions.
- The Good and Bad Angels symbolize the internal conflict within Faustus, representing his struggle between repentance and damnation.
- The play explores Faustus’s descent into despair and his eventual tragic end as he faces the consequences of his Faustian bargain.
The play “Doctor Faustus” explores themes of ambition, morality, the consequences of one’s choices, and will to self-aggrandizement (the human desire for power and knowledge). Faustus’s tragic journey serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unrestrained ambition and the price one may pay for worldly success.
- Doctor Faustus: The protagonist, an ambitious and brilliant scholar who makes a pact with the devil in exchange for magical powers and knowledge.
- Mephistophilis: A demon who serves as Faustus’s infernal guide and enforcer of the pact.
- Lucifer: The ruler of hell, who is also a central figure in Faustus’s pact.
- The Good Angel and The Bad Angel: These symbolic characters represent the moral and spiritual conflict within Faustus. The Good Angel urges him towards repentance, while the Bad Angel tempts him further into his sinful pursuits.
- Wagner: Faustus’s servant, who is influenced by his master’s magical powers.
- Various Minor Characters: These include the Pope, the Emperor, scholars, and other figures who interact with Faustus throughout the play.
Doctor Faustus, a brilliant scholar, considers what area of study he should devote himself to, desiring to master only the greatest of subjects. After exhausting numerous potential subjects, including philosophy, medicine, law, and theology, Faustus decides that the pursuit with the greatest potential is necromancy (i.e. black magic). He finally makes this decision because his interpretation of the Bible leads him to believe that sin and damnation are something that cannot be avoided and that he can simply repent towards the end of his life if necessary and he will be saved. Besides unlike theology, mastery of unholy magic promises unparalleled power, wealth, and greatness.
He therefore sets out to master these unholy arts with the help of two scholarly acquaintances, Valdes and Cornelius, who are known to practice the art of summoning spirits. Having learned from these men, Faustus sets himself to conjuring a devil and successfully summons the great demon, Mephistophilis. Faustus commands Mephistophilis to hide his devilish appearance by disguising as a Franciscan monk and asks him to go back to Lucifer with a bargain: Faustus will trade his immortal soul in exchange for twenty-four years of service from Mephistophilis, who is to grant Faustus anything he wishes. Mephistophilis departs and returns later to tell Faustus that Lucifer agrees to this bargain. After briefly considering repentance, Faustus concludes that hell is likely more mythological than real. Attempting to sign the blood oath, Faustus’s blood first congeals (means “clots”) so as not to be usable for writing, and then the words “Homo Fuge!” (run away, O human!) appear on his arm. Finally, however, he signs a deed to his soul, and from this point, Mephistophilis is in Faustus’s service.
With the powers of hell at his command, Faustus conveys his elaborate ambitions to conquer all the kingdoms of Europe, divert the world’s geography to suit his wishes, call forth the greatest treasures of the earth, and to rule, invulnerable, over all the realms he desires.
Meanwhile, the narrative turns to a comedic scene featuring Faustus’s servant, Wagner, who has picked up some of Faustus’s unholy magic. Wagner goes to the street and mocks an impoverished clown, insisting that the clown become his servant or he will summon devils for his torment. When the clown finally sees the devils, he changes his mind and agrees to call Wagner his master.
With the demon now at his command, Faustus asks Mephistophilis a number of questions about hell, and Mephistophilis reveals that hell is not so much a location as it is a state of being that is absent of the graces of God. Satisfied, Faustus then asks Mephistophilis for a beautiful wife, but since marriage is a sacrament (means “ritual”) of God, Mephistophilis is only able to provide a devil in women’s clothing, whom Faustus rejects. From there, Faustus asks to be given knowledge of various subjects, including the nature of the cosmos, all of which Mephistophilis is able to provide. He is unable, however, to answer when Faustus asks him who it was who created the universe, as to do so would be against his demonic nature.
Having come up against these obstacles to power—and fearing that the splendours of creation may be out of his reach with only the powers of hell—Faustus again considers repentance. At this, Mephistophilis, Beelzebub, and Lucifer himself rise up from hell in an attempt to convince Faustus to uphold his agreement. To accomplish this, Lucifer conjures a show for Faustus, featuring personifications of all the Seven Deadly Sins. This so delights Faustus that he agrees that the pleasures of his hellish bargain surely outweigh the costs.
The narrative turns once again to a comedic scene, this time featuring two Stable hands (means “caretaker at a stable”), Robin and Rafe. Robin has stolen a book of magic spells from Doctor Faustus, and the two men joke and scheme over their (mostly vulgar) plans for the mystical, unholy powers they will soon possess with the secrets contained in this book.
Faustus embarks on a journey through the cosmos with Mephistophilis, on a chariot pulled by dragons, to see for himself the grand celestial bodies. He then decides to tour Europe, including a visit to Rome and the Pope. Arriving in the Pope’s private quarters, Faustus has Mephistophilis turn him invisible. He plays numerous crude tricks, even going as far as to “box the ears” of the Pope himself. Fearing the Catholic powers of exorcism (means “casting out”), Faustus and Mephistophilis leave the Papal chambers.
The narrative returns to the stable hands Robin and Rafe. The two men are exiting a pub, where they have stolen a silver goblet. When the Vintner chases the men to retrieve the cup, Robin and Rafe (who are illiterate) utter a spell that sounds like gibberish but nonetheless successfully summon Mephistophilis to their aid. Although Mephistophilis does chase off the Vintner for the men, he is outraged at having been summoned by these ruffians for so petty a purpose. He turns Robin and Rafe into an ape and a dog, respectively.
Having toured the cosmos and now Europe, Faustus returns to Germany and becomes famous for the performance of supernatural deeds. He is soon summoned by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and Faustus goes to perform magic for the Emperor’s entertainment. The Emperor tells Faustus that he would like to see Alexander the Great, and so Faustus conjures spectres (means “ghosts”) in his likeness, to the delight of the Emperor. A Knight in the Emperor’s court, however, believes Faustus to be a charlatan (means “fraud”), and interrupts the performance to insult the doctor. Faustus, in return, causes horns to grow out of the Knight’s head, signifying that the man is a cuckold (means “someone who is cheated by his wife). Although the Emperor is thrilled, rewarding Faustus handsomely, Faustus is privately concerned that the twenty-four years for which he sold his soul to Lucifer are going by faster than he had expected.
We next see Faustus come into an argument with a Horse Courser, a man who trades horses. The courser buys Faustus’s horse for less than it is worth. Faustus sells the man his horse, but warns him not to ride the horse into water. When the courser does so, the horse turns into straw (the material out of which Mephistophilis clearly conjured the animal). The courser returns to Faustus, demanding the return of his money. Faustus pretends to be asleep, and the Horse Courser pulls on his leg in order to wake him, but Faustus uses the magic of Mephistophilis to cause his leg to come right off in the courser’s hands, making the man run away, horrified. Faustus’s leg regenerates immediately. Wagner, Faustus’s servant, enters the scene, informing Faustus that the Duke of Vanholt also wants to see a performance of Faustus’s black magic.
At the Duke’s palace, Faustus performs his magic but fails to entertain the Duchess. She tells Faustus of a craving for grapes, which she cannot have because it is winter, and Faustus sends Mephistophilis to the Southern Hemisphere to retrieve some grapes for her. Grateful, the Duke and Duchess reward Faustus for his performance.
Time passes, and Faustus’s twenty-four years have come near their end. He has returned to Germany, where he has taken on numerous students, for whom he performs magical acts, such as summoning the likeness of Helen of Troy. In private, however, Faustus has become gravely concerned for the damnation that soon awaits him. An Old Man approaches Faustus, imploring (means “pleading”) him with strong language to repent his wicked, sinful ways and pray to God for the salvation of his soul. This greatly upsets Faustus, and he considers suicide. The Old Man stops him from doing so, however. Mephistophilis, meanwhile, is angry at Faustus for being so swayed (means “moved”) by the prospect of God’s redemption. He commands Faustus to reaffirm his commitment to Lucifer in a new blood oath or he will tear Faustus to pieces. Faustus does so, apologizing for his lapse of faith in Lucifer, and asks Mephistophilis to punish the Old Man. Faustus then has Mephistophilis conjure Helen of Troy once more so that he may take her as his mistress and take comfort in her great beauty.
The final day of Faustus’s twenty-four years arrives, and Faustus appears gravely ill, sick with worry for his impending (means “approaching”) damnation. As the hours quickly go by, Faustus becomes increasingly upset, attempting to bargain with the forces of the world for more time. Unable to repent for his life of sin, and soon to be damned to Lucifer’s grasp for eternity, Faustus cries regretfully into the night. The clock finally turns to midnight, and devils come to carry him off to hell. As they do so, Faustus offers to burn his books, and he utters his final words, “Ah, Mephistophilis!”
Ambition and Hubris: Ambition is the driving force behind Faustus’s character. As a scholar, he is not content with the conventional boundaries of human knowledge. He seeks to transcend those limits and attain ultimate power and wisdom. Faustus’s ambition is evident when he decides to forsake traditional scholarship and make a pact with the devil, believing that it will grant him the power and knowledge he craves. His pursuit of this unholy knowledge is exemplified in Act 1, Scene 1, when he declares, “Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin / To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess.” This quote reveals Faustus’s relentless pursuit of his ambitions.
Faustus’s ambition is accompanied by a dangerous sense of hubris, or excessive pride. He believes that he can defy the natural order of the universe and control supernatural forces. This hubris is most evident when he summons Mephistophilis and Lucifer and makes a pact to sell his soul in exchange for power and knowledge. Despite warnings from the Good Angel and the Old Man, who urge him to repent and seek salvation, Faustus dismisses their counsel, convinced that his intellect and ambition are superior to any moral considerations. His hubris blinds him to the spiritual consequences of his actions and leads him down a path of damnation.
Temptation: Faustus’s initial temptation arises from his dissatisfaction with traditional knowledge. He desires to transcend human limits and gain access to occult knowledge. His soliloquy, “A sound magician is a mighty god,” reflects his longing for the forbidden, exemplifying his temptation to explore the unknown.
The height of Faustus’s temptation occurs when he decides to make a pact with Mephistophilis and Lucifer. Despite the warnings from the Good and Evil Angels and the knowledge of eternal damnation, he yields to the temptation of twenty-four years of limitless power and worldly pleasure. This pivotal moment illustrates the immense pull of temptation, as Faustus willingly trades off his soul for power.
Throughout the play, Faustus is bombarded with temptations in the form of extravagant feasts, the display of the seven deadly sins, and encounters with mythological figures. His indulgence in these temptations leads him further down the path of moral degradation. For example, the scene with Helen of Troy showcases his willingness to give up all moral restraint for the fleeting pleasures of the senses.
As the nemesis of his choices become evident, Faustus’s struggle for redemption becomes a prominent aspect associated with temptation. He yearns to repent, but his fear of loss and attachment to worldly power constantly tempt him away from the possibility of salvation. This inner conflict between temptation and the desire for redemption highlights the complexity of human nature.
Good vs. Evil: When Faustus signs the contract with Mephistophilis, he essentially sells his soul to the devil. This act is a clear representation of his choice to embrace evil in pursuit of his desires.
Throughout the play, Faustus’s conscience, often personified as Good and Evil Angels, debates his choices. The Good Angel urges him to repent and seek forgiveness, while the Evil Angel encourages him to continue his pursuit of power. This inner conflict illustrates the ongoing battle between good and evil within Faustus.
Faustus uses his newfound powers for selfish and frivolous purposes, such as playing tricks on the Pope and indulging in sensual pleasures. These actions showcase the corrupting influence of evil when one loses sight of moral boundaries.
As Faustus’s pact with the devil progresses, he experiences the negative consequences of his actions. He becomes increasingly tormented and fearful of his approaching damnation which highlights the destructive nature of choosing evil over good.
Faustus’s desire for redemption and his inability to achieve it, once again, exemplify the theme of good vs evil. He seeks salvation and repents, but his pact with the devil prevents him from being saved, emphasizing the irreversibility of his choice for evil.
Knowledge and Forbidden Knowledge: Early in the play, Faustus is depicted as a brilliant scholar dissatisfied with the limits of conventional learning. He seeks something more profound, something beyond the boundaries of human understanding. This dissatisfaction with the limitations of earthly knowledge leads him to turn to forbidden knowledge, particularly the dark arts of necromancy and magic.
Faustus’s pursuit of forbidden knowledge leads him to make a dangerous pact with the devil, Mephistophilis. In exchange for his soul, Faustus gains access to extraordinary powers and insights. This Faustian bargain implies the idea that the pursuit of forbidden knowledge often comes at a great moral cost.
Throughout the play, Faustus’s interactions with Mephistophilis and Lucifer highlight the seductive power of forbidden knowledge. He enjoys the immediate benefits of his newfound abilities but remains heedless to the impending catastrophe that accompanies such a sinister pact. Faustus’ case suggests that forbidden knowledge can be so fascinating that it can blind individuals to the moral and ethical consequences of their actions.
Despite moments of regret and the opportunity for redemption, he ultimately succumbs to the forces of evil. Faustus’s inability to repent or change his course accentuates the inevitable consequences of his actions, emphasizing the tragic nature of his quest for forbidden knowledge.
Redemption and Damnation: The theme of redemption and damnation is central to the play. Dissatisfied with the limits of human knowledge and power, Faustus makes a pact with the devil, Mephistophilis, to exchange his soul for twenty-four years of unlimited knowledge and power. His decision to make this pact is a sin, as it means rejection of God and his authority. However, even after signing the pact, Faustus has the opportunity to repent and be redeemed. But he refuses to do so, and instead gives in to his pride and lust for power.
Faustus’s sins lead to his damnation. In the final scene of the play, Faustus realizes the error of his ways and begs God for forgiveness. However, it is too late. He has made his choice, and he must now face the consequences.
Despite Faustus’s damnation, the play does not suggest that redemption is impossible. Even the worst sinner can be forgiven if they truly repent. However, Faustus’s story is a warning that sin has consequences and that it is important to choose wisely.
The theme of redemption and damnation is still relevant today. We continue to be tempted by the same things that tempted Faustus: pride, greed, lust, etc. However, we also have the same opportunity to choose between good and evil. Faustus’s tale inspires that we must be careful of the choices we make, because they can have eternal consequences.
Fate and Free Will: The theme of Fate and Free Will in the play is evident in Faustus’s internal struggle between the choices he makes and the seemingly predetermined path of his destiny. He struggles with the idea that his choices may ultimately be futile in the face of a preordained fate.
This theme of free will is most conspicuous in Act 5 when Faustus is approaching the end of his twenty-four-year pact with the devil. He acknowledges the criticality of his situation and contemplates repentance. He considers turning to God and seeking forgiveness, which would potentially save his soul from damnation. This moment represents his free will—the choice to repent and seek redemption.
However, the theme of fate becomes apparent when Faustus hesitates and is unable to fully commit to repentance. He is haunted by Mephistopheles and Lucifer, who remind him of the binding nature of their contract and the impending doom of his soul. Faustus’s inability to break free from the contract or escape his fate demonstrates the idea that, despite his desire for free will and redemption, he may be destined for damnation due to the immoral choices he made earlier in the play.
Nevertheless, the play should not be taken as suggesting that Faustus is simply a victim of fate. He has several opportunities to repent and be forgiven, but he chooses to ignore them. This suggests that Faustus has free will and is ultimately responsible for his own choices. In other words, Faustus’s destiny is not predetermined. He has the power to choose his own path, but he chooses to follow the devil. He is ultimately damned for his choices, but he is not a victim of fate.
Tragedy: Faustus’s initial desire for knowledge and power is noble and driven by intellectual curiosity. However, as he makes a pact with the devil and gains magical abilities, he becomes consumed by his ambition. This is a tragic flaw because his unchecked ambition leads him to make increasingly immoral choices.
Throughout the play, Faustus has opportunities to repent and seek redemption, but he runs through (means “wastes”) them due to his hubris and refusal to acknowledge the consequences of his actions. This is a classic element of tragedy, where the protagonist’s own flaws contribute to their downfall.
In the final scene of the play, Faustus faces damnation as demons come to claim his soul. This is the ultimate tragic outcome, as he is unable to escape his fate despite moments of regret and fear. His fall from a respected scholar to a tormented soul is a powerful illustration of the tragic theme.
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