In Christopher Marlowe's play Doctort Faustus, what is the relationship between knowledge, power, and morality?

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Knowledge is an important issue in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and is announced as such in the prologue to the play as well as in the play’s opening scene. In addition, the theme of knowledge is stressed throughout the play and is emphasized even in the work’s final lines.  Among the ways in which knowledge is emphasized in this play are the following:

  • The prologue emphasizes that Faustus is an educated man who has risen in social status and social power partly through his acquisition of knowledge.
  • In the opening scene of the play, Faustus deliberately rejects careers in all the fields of knowledge he has mastered. In this scene, he simultaneously illustrates his knowledge, acknowledges the power it might give him, but then turns his back both on his earlier studies and on the kinds of limited power they might provide.
  • Instead, Faustus seeks much greater power by studying and practicing a different kind of knowledge: black magic. Faustus’ desire for enormous power is a corruption of the ideal purpose of seeking knowledge. In Marlowe’s period, all knowledge was supposed to lead, ultimately, to a knowledge of God. Faustus, instead, seeks a kind of knowledge that will lead him away from God. Ironically, in his pursuit of such power, Faustus eventually loses his power forever and is condemned eternally to hell. Also ironically, in the pursuit of false knowledge, Faustus eventually reveals himself to be a fool. Whereas knowledge in Marlowe’s day was usually considered a virtue and thus associated with goodness, the kind of knowledge Faustus pursues is obviously evil.

At the very end of the play, the chorus spells out some of the main messages of the play:

CHORUS. Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight

And burned is Apollo's laurel-bough,

That sometime grew within this learned man.

Faustus is gone:  regard his hellish fall,

Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise,

Only to wonder at unlawful things,

Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits

To practice more than heavenly power permits. [emphasis added]

The italicized lines here emphasize that Faustus misused his knowledge and suffered as a result.  These lines also encourage members of the audience to use their own knowledge modestly and properly.



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