European Renaissance thought centered around the belief that man had the right to value and to celebrate earthly life and also to improve himself and advance; although, the latter idea did not become fully expressed until the Enlightenment of the eighteenth-century. In Renaissance Italy, the sensual beauty of the paintings of Raphael, Michelangelo, and others embodies this new orientation, as does the poetry of Ariosto and Tasso. By the late sixteenth-century, the same attitudes came to be expressed in English poetry and drama. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is part of this "awakening," though in some ways it paradoxically embodies a kind of negative, or inverted, version of the newer modes of thought.
In the play, Faustus finds his own life and achievements inadequate. He has acquired vast knowledge of philosophy and medicine and is a renowned figure in the intellectual world of Germany, where the play takes place. But he wants something beyond these "conventional" and earthbound achievements. His desire represents a striving to advance, in step with the Zeitgeist of the Europe of Marlowe's time. The method by which he achieves these greater "powers," however—by selling his soul to Mephistopheles, the devil—is paradoxical with respect to the modern attitudes of the Renaissance. In this, Doctor Faustus shows its connection with the past, with the Middle Ages, during which literal belief in black magic and sorcery was almost universal. Faustus's striving for the unreachable, for the unattainable, is of Marlowe's time, but the magical trappings of the story are a look backward.
In the end, what Faustus has been granted is both earthbound and yet beyond what is possible within the normal confines of earthly life. He wishes for an "ultimate" experience, and this comes about in his meeting with the most beautiful woman of history, Helen of Troy. But what comes after this? Faustus's fate is sealed, and he must keep his part of the bargain and suffer eternal punishment. The depiction of man defeated is, like the supernatural trappings of the story, one that looks backward to the medieval period. Yet, the Renaissance was a time in which religious belief was still fully embraced. Perhaps because of censorship by the church authorities, a writer, even if personally oriented in a more secular direction, was unlikely to allow a character to escape unscathed from a pact with the devil. The world would have to wait another 200 years before Goethe would use the same material of the Faust legend to create a drama with a universal message, independent of organized religion.