Why is it that in Doctor Faustus Marlowe's satire mocks the Catholic Church and Pope? Is it because of the difficulties Catholics went through after the change in the reign from Mary I to Elizabeth...

Why is it that in Doctor Faustus Marlowe's satire mocks the Catholic Church and Pope? Is it because of the difficulties Catholics went through after the change in the reign from Mary I to Elizabeth I and because of how that change affected religion in Britain? What was the effect of the Elizabethan Protestant Reformation on the satire against the Church in Doctor Faustus?


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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In order to arrive at some understanding on this complex question, let's take each separate element and analyze each as well as possible in this very limited format.

FIRST: Marlowe was Protestant Anglican (Church of England) and at one time was a Canterbury Scholar at Cambridge, which indicates an intent to go into the Anglican ministry. Certainly this indicates a predisposition in Marlowe to hold to and carry on Protestant England's ill-will and adversarial disposition against Catholic England and, perhaps, Catholicism in general, which would be represented, of course, by the Pope, Pius V. That Marlowe was a publicly recognized Anglican Protestant is confirmed by his espionage work (spy work) for Queen Elizabeth (now fairly well acknowledged as having adequate proof of fact).

SECOND: Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, though initially tolerant of religious difference upon succeeding to the thrown (1547) following the reign of Catholic Queen Mary I (Bloody Mary), became increasingly more intolerant as she had increasingly significant evidence of disloyalty to her Reign and to England from some powerful Catholic nobility. In the further years of her reign, after Pope Pius V excommunicated her from the Catholic Church, Elizabeth reacted to the evidence--such as the plot spearheaded by Pope Gregory XIII to assassinate Queen Elizabeth--by instituting these and other anti-Catholic measures under the Recusancy Laws:

  • compulsory Anglican Protestant Church attendance (1559).
  • holding or attending Catholic mass in private homes was punishable by imprisonment (1559).
  • fines for violations of the Recusancy Laws later went as high as 20 pounds to be paid monthly.

THIRD: 1517 Protestant Reformation / c. 1529 English Reformation: The reformations were already underway when Elizabeth took power and her rule was much, much more lenient than that of the reformed Henry VIII who orchestrated the dissolution of the Catholic monasteries beginning in 1536 and of Mary I who retaliated heavily against Protestants. So while Catholics had difficulties during the Elizabethan era, their difficulties, though significant, were not as violent as had been earlier difficulties.

FOURTH: The Faust legend, which first appeared in cheaply produced and bound "chapbooks" (referring to their cheap, brochure-like quality) sold at fairs, did not contain a section aimed at denouncing, either seriously or through satire, the prevailing Christian Church. Therefore it is safe to say that any satirical mockery of the Catholic Church and the Pope was Marlowe's innovation.

From here on, all I can offer is logical speculation. It would seem that since Marlowe was not only loyal to the Queen but also a spy in her service from his Cambridge years onward, that he would have a motive for denouncing an institution and a leader whom he thought of as her enemies. Doctor Faustus was composed by Marlowe between 1588 and 1592, after two plots against the Queen's reign and life were carried out. It is reasonable to think that Marlowe would be motivated to strike in literary satire to mock those who had tried but failed to harm the Queen. Though I find no definitive source that asserts this, it seems reasonable to suggest that Marlowe's satire mocking the Catholic Church and the Pope was motivated by the threats against Elizabeth and came from a sense of the superiority of Reformation Protestantism over Catholicism (even if it was only the Queen's and not his own religious beliefs he thought superior).