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

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Many of the themes of the play are embodied in a forthright manner in Doctor Faustus himself—indeed, the play reads even better as allegory than as a fictional history of the protagonist. To underline and add weight to his themes, Marlowe makes great use of classical and religious imagery.

One of the most readily apparent uses of religious imagery is seen in the exhibition of the Seven Deadly Sins. Each one, made manifest by Lucifer, steps forward to provide a brief biography. Later, we can see how Faustus, drunk with power, enacts the sins through his various debaucheries: Wrath, with his furious punishment of the assassin knights; Covetousness, by eating the Carter’s entire load of hay for three farthings; and Lechery, in the summoning of Helen of Troy to be his own paramour, among other examples.

The overriding theme, of course, is that of pride leading to a fall. This is referenced explicitly when Mephistophilis tells Faustus, in response to the latter inquiring about the demon’s lord Lucifer, that the devil was thrown out of heaven for his pride. This reference to Christian theology re-emphasizes a previous scene, in which Faustus decides that all the careers his studies have prepared him for are beneath him. That scene, in turn, echoes the chorus at the beginning of the play, in which the Grecian legend of Icarus is alluded to. Icarus, of course, ignored warnings not to fly too close to the sun, which melted his wings and sent him tumbling to his death. So, too, does Faustus in his pride ignore all remonstrances—from his colleagues, from the Good Angel, from the Old Man—and proceed upon his destructive path.

Some of the allusions are more subtle. At least twice, a reference is made to The Golden Fleece: when referring to the Spanish treasure ships bringing yearly loads of gold to Philip of Spain and more obliquely in the opening Chorus, which references “learning’s golden gifts.” Though initially a triumph, Jason’s recovery of the Golden Fleece eventually doomed him to disappointment and an ignoble death; so, too, Faustus is initially rewarded with power and riches, only to have it all taken from him as his soul plunges into Hell.

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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.

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