What is the role of myth in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus?

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The story of Christopher Marlowe's, play, Doctor Faustus, is itself a myth. The myth of Faustus is based on the life of Johann Georg Faust (c 1480–1540), an alchemist and, like Doctor Faustus in Marlowe's play, a practitioner of necromancy and "black magic."

An anonymous chapbook (a small, cheaply-produced book with paper covers) entitled Historia von D. Johann Fausten was published after Faust's death. The book contained highly fictionalized stories about Faust's life and his supposed exploits in the "black arts," including selling his soul to the devil.

The book circulated throughout Europe and served as the inspiration for Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (c 1590), as well as for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's play, Faust (1808). In turn, Goethe's Faust provided the inspiration, in part, for the libretto for Charles Gounod's opera, Faust (1859).

The Faust legend inspired artistic works in all literary genres (novels, poetry, and drama) and the performing arts (music, painting, sculpture, dance, and theatre).

The myth of Faustus is based on another myth: the ancient Greek myth of Icarus.

Icarus wanted to fly, and his father, Daedalus, gave him wings made out of feathers and wax but warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun. Icarus's pride and ambition caused him to ignore his father's warning. When Icarus flew too close to the sun in his quest to fly higher than anyone else, his wings melted and disintegrated, and Icarus fell to his death.

The Chorus in Doctor Faustus opens the play with a brief story of Faustus's life, making a clear allusion to Icarus and how Faustus will suffer Icarus's fate.

CHORUS ... Till swollen with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, Heavens conspired his overthrow... (Prologue, 20–22)

Faustus constructs his own wings out of pride, ambition, and his pact with Lucifer for his soul, and through the course of the play, Faustus strives to fly higher and higher, closer and closer to the height of knowledge, power, fame, and glory he so desperately seeks. As with Icarus, however, Faustus's wings ultimately fail him, and he falls to his destruction, his soul condemned to eternal damnation.

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