In his play titled Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe positions Faustus between two worlds. How is this positioning reflected in the play?

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The central character of Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus might be said to be positioned between two worlds in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • Faustus is positioned between a world we think of as medieval, with its strong focus of heaven and hell, and a world we think of as the Renaissance, with, perhaps, a growing focus on the here-and-now. The opening scene, for instance, reveals just how distracted Faustus has become by all his worldly possibilities. He cannot decide if he should be a philosopher, a doctor, a lawyer, or a theologian. He finally chooses to dabble in black magic, perhaps the most “worldly” (but also the most demonic) choice he could make. The dominion of a magician, he thinks,

Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man . . . .

This is an ironic comment coming from Faustus because, as the play reveals, his intellect does not stretch very far at all.  By the end of the play he has become a kind of cheap entertainer.

  • Faustus is also positioned between the contemporary world and the world of the classical past.  He alludes constantly to the classics, but he does so in ways that often reveal his worldly pride and foolishness. Instead of learning the wisdom the classics are capable of teaching, he uses the classics to reinforce his pride.
  • Faustus is also positioned between the world of the classics and the world of Christian belief. Ideally, during the Renaissance, these two worlds were supposed to be in harmony with each other. Any truth found in classical texts was by definition compatible with Christianity, since Christianity was considered (at least by Christians) to be the Truth.
  • Faustus is also positioned between existence in the present, physical, temporal world and the world to come – the world of eternity, which he will spend either in heaven or in hell. His time on earth should be used in the attempt to be worthy of eternal salvation. Unfortunately, by the end of the play he is dragged off to spend eternity as a damned soul.
  • Finally, Faustus is also positioned between the world of virtue and the world of vice. He does have some good influences (or potential influences) in his life, such as the Old Man who appears late in the play to warn him away from sin and to encourage him to follow virtue. Faustus himself is tormented by his sins, because he knows that sin is wrong, but he commits himself to sin anyway.  The scene with the Old Man is an example of a psychomachia, a war within (and for) Faustus’s mind and soul. Similarly, the final scene shows Faustus torn between two spiritual worlds – the world of God and the world of Satan.

Faustus is thus torn between different worlds in many different ways, but the responsibility for this self-division is ultimately his own.

SOMETHING EXTRA: For an excellent introduction to the relationship between Christianity and the Greek and Roman classics in Marlowe's era, see the superb book by Isabel Rivers titled Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry.




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