Doctor Faustus Analysis

Doctor Faustus (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Doctor Faustus, a scholar famed the world over, thinks that he has reached the limits of knowledge in philosophy, medicine, law, and theology, and he hungers for power. Magic lures him with the offer of knowledge without work or study, and Faustus sells his soul to the devil in return for 24 years during which he will have everything he wants.

Faustus begins with grand plans: to free his country, to help the poor, and to make himself master of the world. In the scenes that follow, the reader never sees him even try to reach these goals.

Instead, he performs parlor tricks for the Emperor and plays practical jokes on the Pope. When he asks his servant devil Mephostopilis, the secrets of the universe, he gets what he calls “freshman” answers. Only at the end of the play does Faustus realize that he has tried to get something for nothing: knowledge without work and power without responsibility.

Marlowe’s gorgeous language tends to hide the meanness of his character’s desires. Time and again, Faustus begins to repent, only to be distracted by spectacle or frightened by threats.

Marlowe’s play, first staged in 1592 or 1593, presents a figure who is a mirror: Each age sees Faustus in its own terms. Readers during the Romantic period, often more interested in the struggle than the goal, saw Faustus as an “overreacher,” someone who pushes the limit of what humans can achieve. The very fact that he was doomed to failure only made him more interesting.

Contemporary readers are more likely to see Faustus as an example of “burn-out,” a man whose life has become stale because he has no interests beyond himself.

Bibliography:

Brooke, Nicholas. “The Moral Tragedy of Dr. Faustus.” Cambridge Journal 5 (1952): 663-687. Focuses on the moral choices presented to Faustus. Attempts to incorporate the comic subplots in a unified reading of Renaissance dualism, which would render the play an aesthetic whole and a dramatic success.

Kirschbaum, Leo. “Marlowe’s Faustus: A Reconsideration.” Review of English Studies 19 (1943): 225-241. Examines the language of the most memorable poetry of the play, the praise of Helen of Troy, to discover when the audience ought to be seduced by the language and when it must judge and resist beautiful verse.

Kocher, Paul H. “Marlowe’s Atheist Lecture.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 39 (1940): 98-106. Reprints the blasphemous comments allegedly made by Christopher Marlowe, attested by one Richard Baines before the Privy Council in 1593. Judging the veracity of these comments and, if they are truly Marlowe’s, how typical they are of his beliefs helps readers decide their sympathies in Doctor Faustus.

Levin, Harry. The Overreacher: A Study of Christopher Marlowe. 1952. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964. Examines the sources of the Faust legend and places them in the context of the fall of Lucifer from heaven. Examines the comic scenes to find in them a burlesque of the main plot.

Mizener, Arthur. “The Tragedy of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.” College English 5 (1943): 70-75. Treats the ambivalence toward knowledge in the Renaissance evidenced in Faustus’ tragic progress in the play. Examines reason versus faith and allies necromancy with the dark side of the latter.

Doctor Faustus Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Faustus’s study

Faustus’s study (FOWS-tuhs). Lodgings at Germany’s University of Wittenberg of Dr. Faustus, a learned scholar and theologian who seeks boundless knowledge. Most of the play takes place here. Characters enter and exit the study frequently, and on many occasions, other characters converse in Faustus’s rooms while he is away. The study is faintly described—it contains books of various sorts, and presumably the paraphernalia of scholarly and clerical work. It is a large area, sufficient to entertain as many as nine characters at a time. The fact that the specific university is Wittenberg may be correlated to the fact that it was in this city that Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses, heralding the Protestant separation from the Roman Catholic Church and the beginning of the Reformation.

Fantastic travels

Fantastic travels. At the outset of the third act, the chorus informs the audience that Faustus has traveled above the clouds, on dragons, to see the world from a higher perspective. Faustus notes that he has traveled from Wittenberg through Naples and Campania. Later, he chooses to walk rather than rely on demoniac magic.

*Papal palace

*Papal palace. Court of the pope in Rome, the seat of the spiritual power of the Roman Catholic Church. Mephistophilis, the agent of the devil that Faustus calls forth, magically transports Faustus to the privy chamber of the pope. In addition to holding audience with malefactors, the pope has dinner brought into the room. Faustus and Mephistophilis hide and wear the clothes of cardinals, and later Faustus becomes invisible and plays tricks on the pope.

Court of German emperor

Court of German emperor. Seat of political power where Faustus is feasted and treated well by Germany’s Emperor Charles. In making sport of some of the retainers, Faustus angers them and they try to waylay him in a suggested outdoor setting. Other scenes also suggest the use of the stage area to imply outdoor or rural settings. Faustus’s high aspirations take him to select and rarefied locales, but he returns from these to the byways and rooms of the commons.

Doctor Faustus Historical Context

In many ways, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus reflects the extensive intellectual, economic, and political changes taking place in sixteenth...

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Doctor Faustus Literary Style

Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, a tragedy in five acts, tells the story of the title character's agreement to sell his soul to...

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Doctor Faustus Compare and Contrast

1590's: People were anxious about the "New Science" of Galileo, Copernicus, and Bacon. They also were intrigued by the explorations of...

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Doctor Faustus Topics for Further Study

Characters who sell their souls to the devil are a common plot device in stories such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," novels...

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Doctor Faustus Media Adaptations

Actor Richard Burton directed and starred in a 1968 adaptation of Doctor Faustus. The film is available on videotape from Columbia....

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Doctor Faustus What Do I Read Next?

Perhaps the most natural play to read next would be Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, published in two parts in 1808 and 1828. If...

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Doctor Faustus Bibliography and Further Reading

Brooks, Cleanth, ''The Unity of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus'' in A Shaping of Joy Studies in the Writer's Craft, Harcourt Brace...

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Doctor Faustus Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Brooke, Nicholas. “The Moral Tragedy of Dr. Faustus.” Cambridge Journal 5 (1952): 663-687. Focuses on the moral choices presented to Faustus. Attempts to incorporate the comic subplots in a unified reading of Renaissance dualism, which would render the play an aesthetic whole and a dramatic success.

Frye, Roland M. “Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: The Repudiation of Humanity.” South Atlantic Quarterly 55 (1956): 322-328. Frye is one of the few critics to identify Faustus’s lust for power—not sensuality or curiosity—as his most central and defining sin.

Greg, W. W. “The Damnation of Faustus.” Modern Language Review 41 (1946): 97-107. An early assertion that Helen of Troy and the other spirits evoked by Faustus are actually devils; Faustus’s damnation, therefore, is finally sealed by his outright demon worship. Greg also defends the play’s comic episodes, arguing that their triviality underscores the absurdity of evil.

Kirschbaum, Leo. “Marlowe’s Faustus: A Reconsideration.” The Review of English Studies 19 (1943): 225-241. Kirschbaum focuses on Faustus’s sensuality, his habitual substitution of lower values for higher ones. Nonetheless, this critic insists that the possibility of repentance is open to Faustus from first to last.

Kocher, Paul. Christopher Marlowe: A Study of His Thought, Learning, and Character. Reprint. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974. Sees curiosity as Faustus’s primary drive—a curiosity that does not recognize or honor the limitations placed by God on human inquiry. Kocher denies (against the philosopher George Santayana) that Faustus ever truly repents. In addition, he denies (against many critics) that Faustus is in any sense predestined to fall.

Levin, Harry. The Overreacher: A Study of Christopher Marlowe. 1952. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964. Examines the sources of the Faust legend and places them in the context of the fall of Lucifer from heaven. Examines the comic scenes to find in them a burlesque of the main plot.

Lucking, David. “Carrying Tempest in His Hand and Voice: The Figure of the Magician in Jonson and Shakespeare.” English Studies 85 (August, 2004): 297-310. Explicates the influence of the theme of magic in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus on such subsequent plays as Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Mizener, Arthur. “The Tragedy of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.” College English 5 (1943): 70-75. Treats the ambivalence toward knowledge in the Renaissance evidenced in Faustus’ tragic progress in the play. Examines reason versus faith and allies necromancy with the dark side of the latter.

Pettigrew, Todd H. J. “’Faustus . . . for Ever’: Marlowe, Bruno, and Infinity.” Comparative Critical Studies 2 (2005): 257-269. Argues that Faustus falls and persists in his damnation largely because, for all his learning, he fails to comprehend fully a punishment that will persist without temporal limits. In this way, he betrays a willed ignorance of the ideas of the Italian thinker Giordano Bruno, a contemporary of Marlowe.