Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
In Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe supplies a nearly diagrammatic study of damnation—of the decline and fall of a human soul—growing out of excessive pride and overreaching ambition. The well-schooled Faustus, with his unbridled curiosity, skepticism, and knowledge, stands as the epitome of the Renaissance “new man.” On his graduation from the German university at Wittenberg, Faustus casts about for a suitable profession. He rejects, in turn, philosophy, medicine, law, and theology, finding that all these fields fall short of what amounts to his supra-human desires. For example, medicine (“physic”) promises the possibility of temporary healing but not of bestowing everlasting life or of raising the dead. Accordingly, Faustus at last lights upon necromancy—magic and the black arts—as providing the sole means whereby he can achieve “omnipotence” and become a “mighty god.”
In the company of his like-minded friends Valdes and Cornelius, Faustus summons up the demon Mephistophilis and informs him that, in exchange for twenty-four years of earthly pleasure, wealth, and honor, he is ready to abandon his soul to Lucifer, the evil one himself. Immediately, Good Angel and Bad Angel appear to Faustus, the former urgently pleading for the scholar’s repentance, and the latter airily dismissing the efficacy of prayer. Willfully determined, Faustus stabs his arm and writes out his agreement with the devil in his own resisting blood.
Almost immediately, however, it becomes clear that there are limits to demonic power: For example, Faustus asks for a wife only to...
(The entire section is 657 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus is generally considered his greatest. The play shares certain elements with its ancestor, the medieval morality play: the opposing admonishments of good and bad angels; the characters of Lucifer and Mephostophilis; and the appearance of the Seven Deadly Sins. Yet it breaks with tradition in two important respects: in the sympathy evoked for the straying hero, and in the questions raised against the cosmic order of conventional Christian doctrine.
Faustus pursues his grand aspirations in what Marlowe portrays as a repressive climate of Christian orthodoxy, which, in designating certain knowledge as forbidden, blocks fulfillment of his desires and effectively becomes his antagonist. The play opens with Faustus in his study. He has plumbed the depths of all disciplines and found them unfulfilling. He will settle for no less than a dominion that “Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man”—a world of physical beauty, sensual delight, and power over life and objects. He decides his best hope is necromancy, an art forbidden by Christian doctrine.
Thus, the scene is set for Faustus’s tragic decline. Planted in the text, even from the beginning, are warnings of the terrible fate awaiting Faustus. A master of dramatic irony, Marlowe has these warnings go unheeded by his hero while they build an uneasy tension in the audience’s awareness. An example is Faustus’s remark on his own great powers in conjuring up Mephostophilis. Only a few lines later, it is revealed that Mephostophilis has come more out of his own and Lucifer’s self-interest than in deference to Faustus’s wishes. Similarly, when Mephostophilis tells Faustus that Lucifer was thrown from Heaven for aspiring pride and insolence, the audience recognizes that Faustus exhibits the same faults and may meet the same fate. There is ambivalence, too, in Faustus’s repeated exhortation to himself to be resolute in his damnable course of action. The word, used more often in connection with Christian virtue, gains an ironic weight, rendering Doctor Faustus a negative version of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684).
Counterbalanced against this carefully crafted tragic inevitability is the hope that Faustus will repent and save himself. Marlowe keeps the conflict in Faustus’s soul active until the end. In the moving soliloquies, Faustus’s initial confidence in his pact with Lucifer alternates with regret and determination to turn back to God. Despair however, prevails. In his second soliloquy, Faustus is turned back from repentance by his sense of God’s indifference to...
(The entire section is 1081 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Faustus is born to a common family in Rhodes, Germany. In his maturity, while living with relatives in Wittenberg, he studies theology and becomes a doctor as well. However, Faustus is so swollen with conceit that, like Daedalus, the ancient Greek inventor, he strives too far, becoming glutted with learning. He conspires with the Devil and falls, accursed to Hell.
At the outset of his downward path, Doctor Faustus finds himself complete master of three fields of knowledge—medicine, law, and theology. As a medical doctor, he achieves huge success and great renown. After obtaining good health for his patients, he faces no challenge except achieving immortality for them. He concludes that law is nothing but an elaborate moneymaking scheme. He thinks that only theology remains, but that it leads to a blind alley. He knows that the reward of sin is death and that no one can say that he or she is without sin; all people, guilty of sin, consequently die.
Necromancy, or black magic, greatly attracts Faustus. Universal power would be within his reach, the whole world would be at his command, and emperors would lie at his feet, if he could become a magician. Summoning his servant, Wagner, Faustus orders him to contact Valdes and Cornelius, believing they could teach him their black arts.
The Good Angel and the Evil Angel each try to persuade Faustus. Faustus is in no mood to listen to the Good Angel. He exults over the prospects of his forthcoming adventures. He will get gold from India, pearls from the oceans, tasty delicacies from faraway places; he will read strange philosophies, cull from foreign kings their secrets, control Germany with his power, reform public schools, and perform many other fabulous deeds. Eager to acquire knowledge of the black arts, he departs to study with Valdes and Cornelius. Before long the scholars of Wittenberg begin to notice the doctor’s prolonged absence. Learning from Wagner of his master’s unhallowed pursuits, the scholars lament the fate of the famous doctor.
Faustus’s first act of magic is to summon Mephostophilis. At the sight of the ugly Devil, he orders Mephostophilis to assume the shape of a Franciscan friar. The docile obedience of Mephostophilis elates Faustus the magician, but Mephostophilis explains that magic has limits in the Devil’s kingdom. Mephostophilis claims that he does not actually appear at Faustus’s behest but comes, as he will to any other person, because Faustus curses Christ and abjures the Scriptures. Whenever someone is on the verge of being...
(The entire section is 1044 words.)