Christopher Marlowe wrote The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus in about 1590, at a time when England was at the height of its Renaissance, in the latter part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and about one hundred years since the end of the Medieval period.
In the midst of significant advances throughout Europe in science, law, medicine, and theology, Marlowe seems to have written Doctor Faustus from a noticeably Medieval perspective. Marlow seems to be promoting the Medieval beliefs (the morals of the story) that too much knowledge can be dangerous and indulging in magic and the occult can lead to dire consequences.
Doctor Faustus is an Elizabethan tragedy clearly based on Aristotelian principles of the tragic hero. Faustus suffers from the tragic flaw (hamartia) of excessive pride (hubris). He makes a serious mistake in judgement based on his tragic flaw (selling his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and power), which brings about an unavoidable punishment (nemesis), which is eternal damnation.
Near the end of the play, when his twenty-four-year period of unlimited knowledge and power is ending, Faustus comes to an important realization (anagnorisis) that his pact with Lucifer was essentially meaningless, and he's now faced with the profound reversal of fate (peripeteia) that awaits him, when he is transported from the world of pleasure to the depths of hell.
Although the audience hopes throughout the play that Faustus will come to his senses and realize what he's done before it's too late, his fate is ultimately sealed by his own actions, and the audience undergoes catharsis (a release of feelings of pity and fear) for his inevitable downfall.
An interesting aspect of Doctor Faustus is that throughout the play, Marlowe presents the Medieval view that no matter what a person has done in life—including selling their soul to the devil, as Faustus did—they can still find salvation by renouncing the evil they've done and asking for God's forgiveness
Faustus has several opportunities during the play to save his soul but refuses to avail himself of God's forgiveness until near the end of the play.
In scene 13, Faustus tries to call on God to save him, but the devils won't let him.
THIRD SCHOLAR. Yet, Faustus, call on God.
FAUSTUS: On God, whom Faustus hath abjured! on God,
whom Faustus hath blasphemed! Ah, my God, I would(30)
weep, but the Devil draws in my tears. Gush forth
blood instead of tears! yea, life and soul! Oh, he stays
my tongue! I would lift up my hands, but see, they
hold them, they hold them! (Scene 13, 28-34)
That's when Marlowe changes the rules, and the entire perspective of the play, and transports Faustus from the Medieval Christian world into the secular, humanistic Renaissance world.
If "man is the measure of all things," as the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras wrote in the 5th century B.C.—and which, as a concept, was adopted in the Renaissance by humanists like Marlowe (who might also have been an atheist)—then a man is wholly responsible for his choices and his actions.
Faustus lived his life as he chose to live it, and there's no reprieve from his poor life choices, no last-minute absolution for his sins, and no forgiveness for his meaningless, ill-spent life—except, perhaps, as an example and a warning to others.
As with Goethe's Faust over two centuries later, Marlowe's version of the legend is a parable about man's search for the impossible. Marlowe anchors the story in a religious framework, however, in which Faustus ends up punished for going too far, for seeking too much. My view, however, is that the religious message is secondary and probably is not what Marlowe intended as the main point of the drama.
Faustus is a man in search of some ultimate experience, something that will tie together the different strands of life and give meaning or fulfillment where it has previously been lacking. Ultimately he fails, but the failure is evident even before his time is up and he is sentenced to damnation. The culmination of Faustus's quest is his encounter with Helen of Troy. But after it, he is no more fulfilled than before. The point seems to be that there is no "ultimate" experience: instead, "this life," as plain and pedestrian as it may be, is all there is.
Marlowe probably found it necessary to include the sentencing of Faustus to eternal punishment due to the censorship requirements of his time. But it conforms to the legendary idea of one "selling his soul" to the devil in exchange for magical powers. Marlowe's version, as Goethe's later one does to an even greater degree, goes beyond this to create an existential drama about man's striving for an unreachable goal.
It's perhaps difficult to know Marlowe's true motives, since there is much speculation that he was an atheist who did not believe in God, nor hell. But the play itself seems to serve as a universal lesson on the dangers of absolute power, and the folly of searching for happiness and fulfillment in money and renown -- neither of which are inherently evil things. The almost comical aspect of Faustus' quest for dominion is the limitation that comes along with his power. Anytime he performs a "magic trick" there is always a caveat attached. The tricks he performs are petty, unhelpful and sometimes just plain cruel. Although the play does end with Faustus being dragged to hell, a very serious consequence for actions performed, the story can also simply be taken as a lesson to find fulfillment in things that truly make one happy and lead to a prosperous, selfless existence that benefits the lives of others.