Doctor Faustus (Magill Book Reviews)
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...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
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. 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. 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.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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....
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