In Christopher Marlowe's play Dr. Faustus, is Faustus a doomed cypher in a morality play, or a tragic Renaissance hero?

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In Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus, the title character comes closer to being a figure of tragedy rather than a doomed cypher in a morality play. Faustus certainly does not seem “doomed” in the sense that his fate is predetermined or unaffected by choices he freely makes. In fact, Marlowe seems to go out of his way, repeatedly, to show Faustus making such free choices, often against the best advice of those who attempt to counsel him.  In this sense, Marlowe’s play seems relevant to W. H. Auden’s famous distinction between ancient Greek tragedy and Christian tragedy:

"Greek Tragedy is the tragedy of necessity; i.e., the feeling aroused in the spectator is 'What a pity it had to be this way.' Christian tragedy is the tragedy of possibility, 'What a pity it was this way when it might have been otherwise.'"

The fact that Faustus has many opportunities to make choices is emphasized throughout the play.  Examples include the following:

  • Lines 20 and especially 27 of the Prologue emphasize his free choices.
  • His free choices are also emphasized in the following lines from the opening scene: 10, 14, 27, 36, 37, 48, 52, 63.  In all these instance, Faustus considers various options, rejecting most of them, until he finally decides to choose to pursue black magic.  The fact that he continually contemplates different courses of behavior before finally settling on the worst possible choice makes it absolutely clear that Faustus is responsible for his own behavior.
  • Later, when he summons Mephastophilis, Faustus rejects even the sound advice of this devil, who is very personally and intimately familiar with the sufferings of hell. Mephastophilis urges him,

O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,

Which strike a terror to my fainting soul. (scene 3, lines 81-82)

Faustus, however, is too proud (and too stupid) to take this intelligent counsel.  Once again Marlowe stresses that Faustus is entirely responsible for his own choices and thus for his own “fate.”

  • Later, an old man also tries to dissuade Faustus from continuing his foolish and potentially tragic behavior.  Faustus ultimately asks Mephastophilis to torment the old man – an evil course of action that even the devil himself had not thought of pursuing until Faustus demanded it (scene 12, lines 66-68).  Once more, Faustus’s free will is emphasized.
  • Finally, throughout the final scene, Faustus continually rejects the opportunity to repent. He continually claims that he “must be damned” (59), but nothing could be less true. He has repeated chances to repent, right up until his last moment, but he fails to act on any of them.
  • Faustus’s responsibility for his own tragedy is emphasized by the Chorus in the Epilogue when the Chorus says, “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight” (1).  Even in the very final lines of the Chorus’s comments, Faustus’s freedom of choice is implied.

One way to interpret Faustus is to argue that he is not so much a tragic figure as he is a figure in a dark, bitter, sardonic, black comedy of his own invention.  Faustus often seems less a tragic hero than a fool who deliberately misuses his great intelligence.

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