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.
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.