How do the prologue and epilogue in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus both embody and problematize the central message of the play?
If one had to say that Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus had any “central message,” one might argue that that message is this: avoid excessive pride and always be obedient to God. This message is plainly stated both in the prologue to the play and in the epilogue as well. Thus, the prologue compares Faustus to Icarus, the self-destructive figure of ancient Greek myth who made wings of wax and then flew too near the sun. The wax melted, and Icarus died after he fell into the sea. In the prologue, Faustus is explicitly likened to Icarus. Faustus became
. . . swollen with cunning, of a self-conceit, [so that]
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting heavens conspired his overthrow. (20-22)
At the very end of the play, in the epilogue, the dangers of pride are once again stressed. We are invited to avoid “unlawful things,”
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits [that is, aspiring minds]
To practice more than heavenly power permits.
In other words: avoid excessive pride, be humble and obedient to God, and behave this way especially if you are a person pursing knowledge. Such persons have special obligations to use wisely the divine gift of reason. The prologue and epilogue, then, perfectly and explicitly express and embody the central “message” of the play.
It is difficult to see any way in which the prologue and epilogue “problematize” that message. The message is simple, clear, and thoroughly orthodox, and everything said in the prologue and epilogue is simple, clear, and thoroughly orthodox. No Christian living in Marlowe’s period would have been puzzled at all by anything said in the prologue and epilogue to this play. Modern efforts to deconstruct or “problematize” the prologue and epilogue should probably therefore be resisted. These portions of the play are plainly homiletic, and the lesson they teach is the standard Christian lesson that pride is the root of all sin. There is nothing very problematic here. If Faustus had learned these lessons well, he would never have created for himself all the problems that he does create, and for which he alone is fully responsible.