Christopher Marlowe’s most famous play is called, on one of its early title pages, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. This title implies that Marlowe, at least, thought of it as a kind of hybrid between tragedy (which dealt with the protagonist’s suffering and downfall) and history (which claimed to present accurate information about the past). Yet the play is also clearly indebted to the medieval genre known as the “morality play,” and it also has strong elements of what we, today, tend to call a “black comedy.” The play, in short, seems an amalgam of a variety of genres and tones in the following ways:
- Doctor Faustus is partly a tragedy because it deals with the downfall and suffering not only of a prominent figure but of a prominent figure who had enormous potential to live a life that might have been useful and also spiritually exemplary. Because of his intelligence and, presumably, his work ethic, Faustus had achieved academic distinction, especially in theology, a field that was considered enormously important during the Renaissance. It was mainly thanks to his theological skills that
. . . he was graced with doctor’s name,
Excelling all, whose sweet delight disputes
In heavenly matters of theology.
The fact that Faustus misuses his great gifts of mind is one element that makes his story tragic; the fact that he loses his soul, however, is the greatest tragedy of all.
- Doctor Faustus is partly a history because it deals with the past, apparently the recent past. Some sources suggest that its temporal setting is the 1580s.
- Doctor Faustus is partly a morality play because it deals with a character who is in some ways a typical human being (especially in his uncontrolled pride) and since the work obviously exists to teach moral, religious lessons.
- Finally, Doctor Faustus is partly a black comedy not only because of the explicitly comic scenes (involving Wagner, the Clown, and others) but also because Faustus repeatedly makes a fool of himself, yet his foolishness leads to his eternal damnation.
One example of Faustus’s foolishness is his use of a long, elaborate incantation to summon a devil, only to be told by the demon who appears that simple disrespect for God would have been enough to provoke a devil to show up. Another example occurs when Faustus proclaims that he is unafraid of hell. Still another appears when he says he is unconcerned with “these vain trifles of men’s souls.” (Of course, he will be very concerned with such “trifles” by the time the play ends.) Faustus’s pride continually leads him to say foolish things, but, rather than evoking simple laughter, his foolishness also leads him directly to eternal punishment and pain.