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...
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In many ways, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus reflects the extensive intellectual, economic, and political changes taking place in sixteenth century England, changes sparked by the Renaissance and the Reformation.
The Renaissance began in Italy during the 14th century, and in the next two centuries, spread new ideas throughout Europe. Generally, this intellectual and aesthetic rebirth resulted from the recovery and translation of many lost ancient Greek and Roman texts and from the new ideas which people developed after studying the work of earlier thinkers.
Politics and religion came to be intricately interwoven with national identity because of the association between the Protestant Reformation and England's Renaissance culture. Exploration of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, pioneered by Spain, led to changes in Europe's political and social structure. Imperial economies developed that linked European nations with their colonies, contributing to the rise of the modern nation state by creating a heightened sense of national identity.
During the reign of Henry VII as king of England, which began in 1485, government centralization and efficient bureaucracy brought England political stability. This allowed Renaissance ideas to flourish.
Henry VIII became king in 1509. His inability to conceive a male heir with his wife Catherine of Aragon led him to demand a divorce. When Pope Leo X refused that demand, largely due to the...
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Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, a tragedy in five acts, tells the story of the title character's agreement to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for twenty-four years of absolute power.
In drama, a chorus is one or more actors who comment on and interpret the action unfolding on stage. In Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the chorus appears four times. First, it introduces the play's theme. Later, it provides the where and when in the narrative action. Finally, it relates the moral and helps the audience understand the significance of the closing scene.
In an allegory, characters represent abstract ideas and are used to teach moral, ethical, or religious lessons. Marlowe's play contains a Morality Play, in which Mephistopheles orders a parade of the seven deadly sins to entertain Faustus. Sins like Pride, Envy, and Lechery are deadly, according to Christian religions, because committing one of them damns a person to hell.
The antithesis of something is its direct opposite. One example is the Good and Bad Angels who appear to save and tempt Faustus, though other figures which appear to be antithetical are God and Lucifer, Helen and the Old Man, and Faustus and Mephistopheles.
Elizabethan Drama are English comic and tragic plays produced during the Renaissance, or written during the reign of Queen Elizabeth of...
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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 the "New World" of the Americas by Christopher Columbus and by the discoveries of maritime adventurers like Sir Frances Drake.
Today: Scientific advances in genetic engineering and cloning both intrigue and frighten people, as does the discovery of possible life in new worlds in space.
1590's: People feared those who were different from them. Protestants feared Catholics; Catholics feared Protestants, and both feared Jews and Muslims.
Today: In spite of advances in education and literacy, people today remain anxious of those who are of different races, creeds, and colors.
1590's: Theatre audiences respond to plays that take them to magical places or allow them to meet incredible beings like the demons in Doctor Faustus.
Today: Modern audiences are bored by straight narrative tales; they now demand spectacles such as the prop- and effect-heavy Phantom of the Opera. Special effects play a significant role in most successful Broadway shows and in many films. The advent of computer generated animation—which created life-like dinosaurs in the films Jurassic Park and The Lost World—has upped the ante on what constitutes entertainment.
1590's: Audiences respond positively to plays about...
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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 like William Faulkner's "The Hamlet," and movies from Rosemary's Baby to Angel Heart. Compare and contrast the themes raised by these works with themes from Marlowe's play. Despite similar plot element, the significance of these stories differs. What do those different stories say about the societies which produced them?
Anyone who has spent time with children knows one reason they get into mischief is because of what might be called their natural curiosity. Some thinkers believe curiosity forms the basis of our humanity. What is it that makes people wonder and want to know more? In Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the desire for knowledge fails to produce happiness. Do you believe that limits should be placed on the pursuit of knowledge? Are there some things people were not meant to know? The Angels and Chorus in Marlowe's play seem to think so—do you? You might study the issues surrounding free speech and censorship, or controversial scientific research, exploring what kinds of things society believes should and should not be thought and communicated.
Most readers of Marlowe's play feel that Doctor Faustus wastes a wonderful opportunity. We condemn his selling his soul to the devil, of course, but we also condemn the fact that he fails to make significant use of his infinite...
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Actor Richard Burton directed and starred in a 1968 adaptation of Doctor Faustus. The film is available on videotape from Columbia.
Marlowe Leads the Way, a filmstrip about the life and works of Christopher Marlowe, distributed by Eye Gate House, 1967.
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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 Marlowe's play epitomizes Renaissance ideals Goethe's represents the unique values of the Romantic period. While both plays tell broadly similar stories, they have very different endings which warrant comparison.
In general, any works by Nathanial Hawthorne would make compelling follow-up reading to Doctor Faustus, but several short stories seem particularly appropriate. In "Young Goodman Brown," a newlywed walks off into the forest to discuss selling his soul to the devil. Though he decides against consummating the deal, he fears his wife has and spends the rest of his life unhappily aware of the corruption that seems to surround him.
Two other Hawthorne short stories raise the theme of forbidden knowledge, suggesting that the blind sacrifice of everything of value for science resembles a compact with the devil. In "The Birthmark," a man causes the destruction of his beloved by endeavoring to remove a tiny imperfection from her otherwise perfectly beautiful body. In "Rapaccini's Daughter," a father's efforts to create a daughter who is beautiful but poisonous also leads to the downfall of all involved.
In one of the first gothic novels, Matthew Lewis's The Monk, the main character completes a deal with the devil, exchanging his soul for escape from the Inquisition, though not...
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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 Jovanovich, 1972, pp. 367-80
Brooks responds to those critics who fail to see the unity of Doctor Faustus. Brooks realizes that if Marlowe's agreement with the devil damns his soul to hell, then the play, in structural terms, has no conflict, offers no possible dramatic development, and becomes merely "elegiac." Admitting the weakness of the play's middle section, Brooks believes that the sheer force of Marlowe's poetry holds the play together. Thematically, Brooks sees the play as exploring various types of knowledge: of the self, of the natural world, and of the divine. While Marlowe's treatment of this theme has medieval elements, Brooks describes his use of demonic apparatus in essentially psychological terms, noting that "the devils ... are always in some sense mirrors of the inner states of the persons to whom they appear."
Davison, Peter, "Doctor Faustus" in International Dictionary ofTheatre: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 187-89.
In a short but focused commentary, Davison identifies the exact moment of Faustus's damnation as that in which he kisses Helen of Troy Davison also usefully discusses the role of the Good and Bad Angels and of the Old Man.
Keeble, N. H., in Reference Guide to English Literature, edited by D. L....
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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.
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...
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