How does Christopher Marlowe use classical and religious imagery throughout Doctor Faustus to emphasize the play's themes?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Christopher Marlowe’s play titled Doctor Faustus is typical of the Renaissance in its fusion of classical and Christian ideas.  Because Renaissance Christians believed that Christianity was the Truth (with a capital T), they also believed that any truth found in classical culture was compatible with Christianity. Renaissance literature therefore often draws on the Greek and Roman classics to reinforce its essentially Christian messages.

Certainly this seems true of Doctor Faustus. Examples of the fusion of classical and Christian influences in this play include the following:

  • The prologue of the play opens with explicit allusions to classical history, figures, and gods, yet the last major scene of the play is explicitly Christian in emphasis.  Marlowe apparently sees no contradiction here, nor would his audience have seen any contradiction.
  • The prologue of the play uses an allusion to the classical figure Icarus to convey an essentially Christian message about the dangers of pride: because Icarus was

. . . swollen with cunning of a self-conceit,

His waxen wings did mount above his reach,

And melting heavens conspired his overthrow.

Faustus will display similar pride and will suffer a similar fall.

  • Throughout his opening speech, Faustus quotes from classical writings, but he often does so in ways that reveal his ignorance. For instance, he quotes Aristotle, translated into Latin, to the effect that to dispute well is the purpose of logic, although Faustus should know that Aristotle, like his teacher Plato, was chiefly concerned with discovering truth, not merely disputing well.
  • Likewise, Faustus may agree with Galen that the greatest good of medicine is the health of the body, but, as a Renaissance Christian, he should also know that the health of the body is far less important than the health of the soul. Often, as here, Faustus quotes from classical authorities in ways that illuminate his ignorance.
  • Similar foolishness continues throughout the play, as when Faustus commands the demon Mephastophilis to summon the great classical Greek beauty, Helen of Troy, back from the dead.  Mephastophilis promises to do so “in twinkling of an eye” (a highly ironic allusion to Christ’s second coming in 1 Corinthians 15:52). Faustus looks forward to the return of Helen, while Mephastophilis reminds us of the return of Christ.
  • When Helen does appear, Faustus proclaims that “heaven” is in her lips – another example of Marlowe’s use of Christian irony in connection with classical imagery.
  • Later, in the play’s final scene, Faustus echoes a line from Ovid’s Amores to express his longing for further life:

O lente, lente currite noctis equi! [O slowly, slowly run, O horses of the night!]

This allusion is especially ironic, since Ovid’s speaker wants the night to pass slowly so he can spend more time in bed, in adultery, with his lover. 

In short, Marlowe uses many allusions to the classics in Doctor Faustus, but he often does so to mock, through irony, the pride and foolishness of the play’s central character.