Explain the characteristics of Doctor Faustus in the play by Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This format doesn't allow for a complete discussion of Doctor Faustus' character traits, but I can explain the two most important and competing ones, that of arrogance and that of despair. In the beginning of the tragedy, the Chorus makes it clear that Faustus is highly gifted, intelligent and talented. He excels in his studies and quickly earns his doctoral degree in theology. Not stopping there, he continues to study--and master--other fields like medicine and law and logic. In fact, there is nothing left for him to study and he is satiated with it all. As a result, in his growing arrogance and conceit at his own powers and accomplishments, he turns to the one unmastered and most enticing field--necromancy, or magic.

These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly;
A sound magician is a mighty god:
Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity.

He arrogantly dreams of being the supreme magician, able to command even the wind and oceans. Thus he calls on the devil Mephistophilis. In his arrogance, he believes he can command Mephistophilis and have from him anything he wants. This is the first painful lesson his arrogance and conceit bring him to: Mephistophilis takes orders from Lucifer, and Lucifer won't tell everything he knows. For example, after asking for knowledge of the cosmos, Lucifer offers him an entertainment by the Seven Deadly Sins and a book about how to change his shape. This adequately sketches and explains Faustus' character trait of arrogance.

In meantime take this book; peruse it throughly,
And thou shalt turn thyself into what shape thou wilt.
Farewell, Faustus, and think on the devil.

The contrasting and competing trait of despair enters most strongly into Faustus' characterization in Act IV when his days are dwindling, although his despair begins to effect him after his revealing encounter with Lucifer. As Faustus feels his designated years coming to an end and the time when he will serve Mephistophilis in hell for eternity fast approaching, his yearnings for repentance and redemption begin to overwhelm him. He is visited by an Old Man who tries to teach him how to repent and accept redemption, then by his friends the Scholars who are aghast at Faustus' misfortune and importune with him to seek Christ's mercy and seek to have his soul yet saved.

Yet, Faustus, look up to heaven; remember God's
mercies are infinite.
Yet, Faustus, call on God.

It is this despair that Faustus feels--coupled with an ironic new-found awareness of ignorance--that prevents him from acting and seeking redemptive forgiveness. His despair, which competes with and overcomes his arrogance, leads him to his ultimate doom, doom stemming from the one point on which he is ignorant and doom hemmed in by crippling despair. This adequately sketches and explains Faustus' character trait of despair.

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd.
O, I'll leap up to my God!—Who pulls me down?—