Discuss how Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is a tragedy relevant to all times.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are several reasons for why Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is relevant to all times. Some have to do with its nature and stature as a work of art. Others have to do with its content. Yet another has to do with the nature of the central character, Doctor Faustus. From the perspective of great art, it is a drama that is still entertaining due to the great suspense that builds within it and is sustained right till the end. This suspense keeps the audience wondering if Faustus will repent and, if so, whether God will accept his repentance. Further, it was an innovative and definitive play even if not exemplary of perfect craftsmanship.

One way it was innovative is that it was the first play to successfully use blank verse, a form of verse that later became Shakespeare’s trademark. It was further innovative because it introduced the variation on Aristotelian tragic form that became identified as Elizabethan tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy. The most significant difference from Aristotelian tragedy is that the hero errs so severely that the only true Aristotelian catharsis (which was geared at a logical and reasonable conclusion to the tragedy) can be the hero’s death, whereas in Aristotelian theory, it is acceptable for the hero to be suitably punished and/or exiled. The play is considered to be less than exemplary because the middle segment doesn’t adequately develop Dr. Faustus’ character so the audience sees that he learns something and ultimately recognizes the error of his flawed ways.

From the perspective of moral lesson, people in the world today still uphold moral principles and religious precepts, two things that are primary thematic concerns of the play. In addition, these concerns comprise and drive the plot. In Marlowe's play the antagonist demon Mephistopheles orders the personifications of the seven deadly sins, such as Envy, Lechery, and--Faustus' favorite--Pride to occupy Faustus' time and attention. The end of the play shows the consequences of consorting with the deadly sins. Therefore the theme is as relevant to moral and religious people today and brings an Elizabethan catharsis to the audience through fear for their own potential fate. (Elizabethan catharsis as innovated by Marlowe differs from Aristotelian catharsis in that the innovative former is audience related while the classical latter is play related.)

From the perspective of character, the central character is relevant to all time because Dr. Faustus is guilty of hubris (i.e., extreme pride), and this tragical flaw leads him to commit the hamartia (i.e., fatal deed). It is well known that pride and fatal deeds are as rampant today as they were when Marlowe wrote in 1594 and when the original Dr. Johann Faustus lived and died in Germany from 1488 to 1541. So Doctor Faustus remains relevant to all ages in part because it remains entertaining; it remains the bedrock of Elizabethan tragedy; it remains a source of moral and religious instruction; and it remains an apt picture of those consumed with pride who commit deeds that lead to their undoing. One can’t help but think of the Enron catastrophe of 2006 and the banking failures of 2008. [Answer reflects information in eNotes Study Guides available at the attached links.]

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the fundamental issues in Marlowe's work comes down to whether or not the risk is worth the reward.  Is the risk of eternal damnation worth the price of Fautus' gaining of earthly power and knowledge?  I think that this is one of the fundamental elements to arise out of the play.  The idea that Faustus acts without a moral structure or order does have modern relevance.  We are inundated with examples of individuals who have engaged in financial misdeeds, political abuses of power, and unethical and illegal conduct out of a pure desire for personal gain.  Is this worth it?  Is the risk worth the reward?  Faustus addresses this and we see this in the modern setting.  The other element of the play that echoes quite clearly in the modern setting is the lack of accountability that Faustus displays.  Faustus is in a situation where only the ability to repent and truly accept responsibility for what happened is the only way out.   We see examples of professionals and public figures who similarly are in situations where "coming clean" is the only way out for them, yet, like Faustus, they balk at this or try to find another way.  In the end, these rationalizations are means to preclude the power of the individual.  This is ironic seeing that Faustus entered into his arrangement precisely to gain more power.  In the end, the alleviation of this predicament only resides with the individual power, which is more of a spiritual power and something that is lacked despite s desire to gain more control.

M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is a tragedy that can be relevant to all times because it deals with topics much inherent to human nature. The hunger for wealth, the power of ambition, and the desperate seeking for a better place for ourselves often expose our worse qualities: The weaknesses that appear as a result of our obvious co-dependence to these material and superficial emotions.

When Faustus chose to make a pact with the Devil, this was allegorical in that we, as people, everyday make pacts of a similar kind: We sometimes engage in behaviors that we know are not correct just for the sake of getting something we want. In other occasions, we befriend people, or make agreements that we know might hurt someone else and yet go for it when we really are hungry for something we want.

Therefore, the themes in Faustus repeat themselves through time and go from person to person individually, surpassing time.