What does it mean that the central conflict in Marlowe's 'Doctor Faustus' is the clash between Renaissance individualism and Christian orthodoxy?

The central conflict in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is the clash between Renaissance individualism and Christian orthodoxy. This refers to the conflict between early Christian doctrine as applied to life during the Middle Ages and the newfound sense of free will prevalent during the Renaissance Era. As a Renaissance man, the protagonist is free to bargain away his soul by deviating from strict religious tenets.

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In Europe in the early days of Christianity, society began to change from the days of ancient Greece and Rome with the infusion of newfound religious doctrine. The religious focus, especially in Western Europe, was polytheistic. Both the ancient Greek and Roman cultures studied morality, sought knowledge and truth, and attempted to learn the mysteries of life and nature. The ancient cultures worshiped a variety of gods they created to explain and explore the meaning of things existent in their societies. They performed rituals and held festivals honoring their gods. What did not exist was a uniform set of religious principles or beliefs that people were expected to follow in order to act properly in ancient societies.

With the advent of Christianity and monotheism, European societal focus shifted to Christian orthodoxy or newly established religious tenets. The conformity of social customs became grounded in the beliefs of the Church during the Middle Ages. Citizens of the era looked to the spiritual God for guidance in their lives. Societies, laws, and politics were centered on Christian values and ethics. The concept of individualism existed, but was limited to the acceptance of the principle that humans were able to choose between good and evil. The ultimate destiny of one’s soul depended upon whether a person followed God’s plan for man’s freedom. People were expected to yield to divine will in their actions, although they were technically free to choose to stray from religious beliefs at their own peril.

The religious climate and moral philosophy changed with the approach of the Renaissance Era. The hostility toward individual expression outside of formal religion weakened and the idea of human individuality began to prevail. Renaissance individualism was founded on the belief of humanism. This new system of thought shifted societal focus to the common needs of human beings rather than spiritual issues and divine intervention in human activities. While European Renaissance citizens maintained their belief in the spiritual God and Christian principles, they once again turned to Ancient Greek and Roman thought that concentrated on individual people.

Thus, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was forced to deal with the clash between established Christian orthodoxy and the new Renaissance individualism. Marlowe’s tale is the story of that conflict.

In the opening Chorus of the play, Faustus seals his fate. Marlowe introduces the theme of free will. In his desire to gain all the knowledge and power in the universe, the protagonist enters the realm of black magic:

Till swoln with cunning, of a self-conceit,

His waxen wings did mount above his reach,

And, melting, heavens conspir'd his overthrow;

For, falling to a devilish exercise

Ultimately, he chooses to bargain with Lucifer through Mephistophiles who offers the proposal by stating,

“Faustus, I swear by hell and Lucifer/To effect all promises between us made!” Faustus agrees and replies, “Ay, take it, and the devil give thee good on't!”

Faustus deviates from the organized Christian doctrine favored in his society and opts for his bargain based on the philosophy of individualism. At the end of the drama, the protagonist realizes all is lost. His deviation from Christianity has doomed him to hell. He loses his soul.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on

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