Doctor Faustus Questions and Answers
by Christopher Marlowe

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Discuss Doctor Faustus as a tragedy.

Christopher Marolowe's play Doctor Faustus portrays the titular character on a pursuit of knowledge that ultimately leads to his downfall. Faustus makes an error in judgment in making a pact with Lucifer, which brings about not only his death but the damnation of his soul.

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Payal Khullar eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is perhaps one of the best known tragedies. It definitely differs from a traditional Greek tragedy, as Faustus doesn't have a high birth status (like a king, prince etc.). Moreover, as we know, in a Greek tragedy, though the hero suffers, but everything is brought into restoration by the end. As long as the person is alive, there is an option of repentance and forgiveness of his sins by the God. But Doctor Faustus shows some deviations.

Doctor Faustus can be called as an Elizabethan form of tragedy with elements of Christianity and Renaissance. It drew inspiration but was significantly different from the Aristotelian form of tragedy. In fact, the tragedy plays by the famous playwright William Shakespeare are believed to be an advancement of Marlowe’s genius.

Now, though we understand that Faustus doesn't have a high birth status, he still enjoys respect in the society because of his unmatchable education and intelligence. 

Doctor Faustus represents the modern man who is divided between the Christian faith and the Renaissance spirit. Faustus, similar to the heroes of Greek tragedies (Greeks were pioneers of tragedy plays) has one fatal error or tragic flaw (known as Hamartia) that leads to his damnation. It is his hubris or extreme pride (this is considered as the most severe of all seven deadly sins as it gives rise to the other sins). He is guilty of being too proud over his intelligence and achievements. Because of his he commits a series of other mistakes one after the other.

We see that Faustus too finally realizes his mistakes (all tragic heroes meet revelation of their faults) and begs for repentance. But it’s too late by then and he meets damnation. Through his tragic end, he gains the audience’s sympathy and provokes Catharsis. Catharis is atypical of any tragedy. In fact, the most obvious and logical conclusions of the Elizabethan (or, later famously called as the Shakespearean tragedy) is the hero’s death.

Doctor Faustus can be, hence, called as a tragedy play.


Matt Copeland eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Doctor Faustus certainly qualifies as a tragedy (in fact the full name of the play is The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus) as it incorporates many of the characteristics and qualities of such a work. In the main character we see an individual who falls from a relatively position in society to a far lower position of society as the result of his central flaw. In this case, Doctor Faustus's flaw is that of hubris, or his excessive pride. We see Faustus's excessive pride demonstrated most clearly is his own steadfast belief in his soul's damnation.

One specific way in which Doctor Faustus differs from the traditional tragedy mold is in the background of the main character. Taditional tragic figures typically come from the highest of social ranks--often royalty or nobility. Faustus, however, is not. In fact, he comes from very meager beginnings and lower class parents. His rise of the rungs of the social ladder is facilitated by his ability to excel in academia.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I would say that one reason why Marlowe's work represents tragedy is because it is the story of a protagonist who seeks to appropriate the world in accordance to his own subjectivity.  Within the seeds of his greatness are the very elements of his own destruction.  It is here where a tragic condition lies.  Faustus seeks to gain more knowledge, more understanding, and more control over his own world.  These attributes are brought to a tragic condition when it is seen that Faustus' destruction is not prevented by these qualities, but actually enhanced by them.  It is in this light where tragedy is apparent in the character.  This notion of seeking to make one's place in the world better actually setting the stage for one's own demise is a tragic predicament.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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[Second Post to answer.]


In addition to this, the questions addressed in Marlowe's play are nobel universal questions pertaining to the highest order of considerations: the meaning of life and death, the quest for knowledge, the respective power of of good and evil. In further accord with elizabethan tragedy, the play Dr. Faustus employs comedic relief through the presence of clowns that also acts as a means of giving information about the characters and the action of the play. The clowns in Dr. Faustus are Rafe and Robin. In Elizabethan tragedy, the clowns (rural, country simpletons who misuse language accidentally) and fools (urban dwellers who play with language and "misuse" it intentionally for wit) generally replace the Greek Chorus that carried the task of moving the story along with information not performed on stage, but in Dr. Faustus, Marlowe employs both the Greek-style Chorus and Elizabethan clowns.

Finally, in keeping with Elizabethan tragic form, Faustus gets himself in so deep, his tragic flaw or error in judgement is so aggregious that it leads ultimately and necessarily to his death, thus fulfilling the fate of an Elizabethan tragic hero. Since Faustus has overestimated what he can attain from an arrangement with Lucifer and since he underestimated the power of Lucifer's evil, his ultimate end must be and is death even though he recognizes his mistakes and pleads for pardon.


[For more information on Dr. Faustus, see the blog of Tarun Tapas Mukherjee, Kolkata, West Bengal, India; Sr. Lecturer in English, with a couple of entries on Dr. Faustus.]

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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[Too long for one post. Posted in two parts. (I hope)]

Understanding of Christopher Marlowe's Elizabethan tragedy, Dr. Faustus, can be framed in terms of the Renaissance philosophy and the Elizabethan tragedy, which takes a different turn on some points from the Aristotelian tragedy, for instance such as the Elizabethan tragedy's requisite death of the tragic hero. Dr. Faustus demonstrates the Renaissance philosophy that pits the dichotomy of good, angelic humanity against evil, depraved humanity. Marlowe's play also is a model of the Elizabethan tragedy.

Marlowe constructed the character of Dr. Faustus to represent within himself both characteristics of the Renaissance view of humanity as divinely good and hellishly evil. First, Dr. Faustus is presented as a scholar of all things including divinity, the highest Renaissance scholarly discipline. Then, Faustus is shown as dissatisfied with the limitations of humanity and grasping for unlimited knowledge, which is a Biblical allusion to Adam and Eve who ate of the Tree of Knowledge. Throughout the play, Faustus descends to lower and lower planes of knowledge in his pursuit for the "power" and "omnipotence" that comes from knowledge. At the beginning, Mephistopheles answers all Faustus' questions but draws the line on talk of the universe, which can be seen to stand for astronomical and cosmological studies--the very studies that science is deeply involved in today: CERN; Hubble; SoHo; etc). Faustus must be content with merely mapping the universe instead of understanding it. Marlowe ultimately shows in Dr. Faustus the futility of the quest for ultimate knowledge and the inevitable end result of abandoning moral integrity for omnipotent knowledge.  

Dr. Faustus also represents a Classic Elizabethan tragedy. First, the tragic hero has a flaw or makes an error in judgment that leads to his own doom. It's hard to say whether Faustus had a fatal flaw in his character or whether he was doomed by a faulty understanding that lead to a fatally disastrous error in judgment. All along the way, Faustus has doubts and hesitations which speak for an integrity of his moral character. If he has a fatal flaw, it might be that he did not reckon the power of evil highly enough, that he thought that with omnipotent knowledge, he could free himself from the chains of evil he wrapped so blithely around himself. Adam and Eve also fell to the punishment from the lure of knowledge. Of course, quite often Faustus' fatal flaw is said to be greed and irreverent disregard for goodness. One clue to forming a literary stance on the question lies in examining his hesitations and second thoughts.

[Post 2 below (I hope).]

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Dr. Faustus is a tragedy because the main character falls as a victim of his own circumstances, and is a victim of himself.

He is a man with all the potential and possibilities to be successful. He is a Renaissance man who is versed in every aspect of science, philosophy, the arts, education, and genius, yet, he utilizes his energy and wit into absolutely nonsense and unnecessary goals, such as his obsession to be a magician, and his ridiculous fixation for power: A power he has no clue what to do with.

To make matters worse, his self absorbence led him to make a pact with the devil to obtain that same power he wanted for no factual reason. He didn't even know why he did it, in all reality. In fact, he did it with no solid basis, and he obviously began to regret it.

All this for nothing: He dies insane and cursed. No triumph, no merits. Just he, victim of himself.

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coachingcorner eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In his play 'Dr Faustus' Christopher Marlowe presents his main character as a tragic 'hero' right from the start - the full title of the play is 'The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus. So we have the idea of 'tragedy' and of a history (story) at the beginning - his audiences knew what they were getting - a tragedy or fall from grace or from some lofty status. Marlowe's audiences would have been familiar with this idea of tragedy from the old morality plays that were in performance round that time. Marlowe re-used an old legend called Faust to tell the story of a man,who like all of us at some time in greater or lesser degree, lets himself down. He loses credibilty, reputation, his standing in the eyes of God and Man and risks his immortal soul. It is in identifying with his human frailty and weakness that we see him as a tragic figure. He sells his priceless soul to the devil for the sake of intellectual superiority and finds it a shallow recompense.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One way that Dr. Faustus can be seen as a tragedy lies in the main character himself.  The fundamental story of a man, Faustus, trying to appropriate the world in accordance to his own subjectivity can lead to the tragic conclusion that each step towards creation is inevitably a step towards destruction.  Faustus is a man of science, of boundless optimism, who genuinely believes that through his pact with the devil, he will be able to externalize his own subjective beliefs.  In this setting, the real world is to mirror the mind.  It is in this condition where the tragic condition of Faustus is present, as he believes that he can overtake and control the world based on what is in his mind, his own subjectivity.  The realization that his desire to do so inevitably leads to his own destruction reflects the tragic condition that immerses human beings.

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lmillerm eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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"Dr. Faustus" is a story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for necromantic powers (magic). The devil makes him a deal and allows Dr. Faustus 24 years of magical power, but at the end of that time, he was to be taken to Hell. "Dr. Faustus" is a tragic story because the protagonist suffers extreme suffering as a result of the choices he makes throughout the course of the play.

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hbkhbk | Student

Tragedy is defined as a drama or literary thing in which the main character is brought to ruin or or suffers extreme sorrow especially as a consequence of tragic flaw, moral weakness or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances.

In this play "DOCTOR FAUSTUS", Marlowe presents his main character as a tragic hero.

Dr. Faustus is the main character of this play. He is the man of extraordinary knowledge. Although hes get enough knowledge, yet he wants to get more and more knowledge. therefore, he sells his soul to Lucifer to get the knowledge of necromancy.

The Good Angel tries to stop him from learning necromancy. The Bad Angel appreciates him and advises him to carry it on.

At the end, Dr. Faustus himself is not satisfied with this knowledge.When Devil is also unable to satisfy his urges then he feels trapped and prays to God to secure him.

                        "MY GOD, MY GOD, LOOK NOT SO FIERCE ON ME.                                         ADDERS AND SERPENTS LET ME BREATHE A WHILE.                                    UGLY HELL, GAPE NOT LUCIFER. I WILL BURN MY BOOKS                                                   .....AH MEPHISTOPHELES".

He repents and curses wicked Mephistopheles.

                    "WHEN I BEHOLD THE HEAVENS, THEN I REPENT,                                              AND CURSE THEE, WICKED MEPHISTOPHELES,                                         BECAUSE THOU HAST DEPRIV'D ME OF THESE JOYS"

Faustus tries to challenge God and the rules of nature. His excessive pride brings him to a point where at the end of play. His pride is also a cause of his tragedy and shows his keen tendency towards hellish and necromantic books, he says,

                                       "CHE SERA, SERA"                                                                  "WHAT WILL BE, SHALL BE? DIVINITY, ADIEU"

His pride reaches a level where we can say that his soul is completely dead and he is not able to distinguish between the good and the wrong. that is his tragedy.

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hj33 | Student

Dr.Faustus is a tragedy related to a man's unrealized ambitions.

In fact the play is nearer to the psychic experience of the modern man.In the fit of achieving the superior status or equivalent to that of God, Dr. Faustus displays the attitude of power hungry people. Sometimes a dissatisfied with divinity can choose an immoral path.He is tempted by the evil with so much affinity that the voice of his conscious is not able to stop him from wrong deeds. His knowledge and education becomes mean before such huge temptations.

    When devil is also unable to satisfy his urges then he feels trapped and prays to the God to rescue him. He repents a nd curses wicked Mephistophilis. Even Christ cannot save Faustus , as Lucifer says , as His "justness" precludes those like Faustus who are assertive of their  worth.

Faustus dies questioning the very validity of human existence.

nitu03 | Student

Dr.Faustus is a tragedy of soul.

In a tragedy, the hero dies at the end but here its not only that hero is dead at the end but also we see the death of his soul itself . He tries to challenge God and the rules of nature. His excessive pride brings his to a point where at towards the end of the play he wants to pray God and forgive him but he is not able to do so.This is because his deeds and pride reaches to a level where we can say that his soul is completely dead and he could not distinguish between the right and the wrong.Hence its a tragedy and a tragedy of soul.

mstokes | Student

A tragedy is defined as a drama or literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavourable circumstances.

If we examine Doctor Faustus we find a play in which the protagonist, a man of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he cannot deal.

The possible range of human accomplishment is at the heart of Doctor Faustus. Faustus, scholar and lover of beauty, chafes at the bit of human limitation, he wants more and he seeks to leave behind the concept of human limitation. Faustus’s flaw is pride, pride gives rise to many other sins, these ultimatly bring about his downfall.

xavierkannady | Student

Discuss Dr.Faustus as a Tragedy

jtp8r | Student

Faustus is tragic because the story ends without any hope of redemption. The titular character receives multiple opportunities to repent, but remains in league with Lucifer until it is too late for him to renege on his contract. Part of what contributes to his downfall is his pride, or hubris according to the ancient Greeks. He believes himself strong enough to challenge God and unravel the mysteries of the universe, and gladly signs his soul over to Mephastophilis in order to achieve this. The same faith in his own decision prevents him from successfully breaking his contract, even though we see on a number of occasions that this might be possible. By the time he realizes that he has made a horrible mistake - his moment of anagnorisis, to refer back to the Greeks - he feels as though he has been separated totally from God and resigns himself to Hell.

Perhaps the most tragic part of the narrative is that Hell isn't something that just happens to Faustus. Instead, it is the result of a bad decision - a gloomy fate of his own choosing.