Both the medieval and Renaissance worlds are depicted in Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus. What was Marlowe's aim and how successful was he in reflecting both eras?
Differences between the middle ages and the so-called “Renaissance” can easily be exaggerated. Both, after all, were eras in which Christianity was taken extremely seriously, although by the middle of the sixteenth century any hope of a reunified Christendom must have seemed impossible to most thinking people. Nevertheless, Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus reveals aspects of both the middle ages and the Renaissance, especially in its apparent purpose of teaching Christian lessons.
Consider, for example, the following points:
- The mere fact that the play is a drama written for an established public theater is itself important. Such permanent theaters did not exist in the middle ages in England. Marlowe was one of the very first writers to contribute to a totally new kind of English institution – an institution characteristic of the Renaissance, not the middle ages.
- The play opens by emphasizing Faustus’s impressive education. Education, especially at universities, was becoming increasingly more widespread and widely expected during the Renaissance than it had been during the middle ages. More and more schools of all kinds were being established, and Faustus is obviously a beneficiary of this increasing emphasis on higher education.
- Faustus’s parents are described as “base of stock.” In other words, their social status was not high. Nevertheless, their son has been able to attend and profit from a fine university – an indication of the kind of social mobility that was far more common in the Renaissance than during the middle ages.
- Interestingly enough, Faustus attended college in the German town of Wittenberg, a town associated with the Protestant Reformation, since it was there that Martin Luther had made his public break with the Roman Catholic Church. The reference to Wittenberg reminds us that this play was written during a time when that town had become famous because of its association with the schism in the Christian church
However, if the opening of the play seems mainly to reflect the Renaissance, aspects of the closing scene could easily have been included in any medieval work. That scene, for instance, emphasizes the common medieval themes of mutability (the instability and unreliability of earthly existence); the great chain of being (as when Faustus wishes he were an animal rather than a human); contemptus mundi (contempt for the ephemeral world, especially in comparison with the eternal pleasures of heaven); and the sin of pride (as in Faustus’s attempt to blame his parents for his predicament):
Curs'd be the parents that engender'd me!
Faustus is designed to teach moral lessons, in much the manner of a medieval morality play such as Everyman, and it even ends with a speech by a Chorus who explicitly spells out the message in case we missed it, much as the Doctor does the same thing at the very end of Everyman. The play, in other words, reflects aspects of both the middle ages and the Renaissance, mainly because Christianity is so important to the meaning of the play, just as Christianity was so crucially important in both of those historical eras.