Critical Overview

(Drama for Students)

When Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus appeared on the London stage in 1594, audiences did not name it an overwhelming success. Today, however, critics and theatre-goers alike consider it Marlowe's masterpiece. Contemporary critical debate focuses on several, related critical issues: what motivates Faustus's character? When does his damnation occur? And does the play have a "middle?"

Critics interested in assessing the play's quality consider the unity of Doctor Faustus's structure to be central. For some, it has a beginning—Faustus's contract with the devil—and an end—Faustus's damnation—with little of consequence in between. The frivolous ways Faustus uses his powers supports this position, suggesting that the hero learns or changes little as the narrative action progresses. As Wilbur Sanders wrote in Shakespeare's Contemporaries: Modern Studies in English Renaissance Drama, the "unity of Doctor Faustus is ... something that we have to create for ourselves."

The play's complex textual history further complicates the issue. Two different published versions of the play appeared in 1604 and 1616, and theatre manager Philip Henslowe contracted revisions from other writers. This leaves the authorship of the play's middle sections open to debate, though Marlowe certainly wrote the play's beginning and end. Few believe Marlowe wrote the middle of Doctor Faustus alone, and some believe he had little part in it at all.

Audiences and critics agree that Faustus seems an essentially selfish, superficial man who uses infinite power foolishly. In Further Explorations, L. C. Knights saw Faustus's motivations as essentially immature, driven by ''the perverse and infantile desire for enormous power and immediate gratifications." This does not trivialize that desire, however, for ''we should see the pact with the devil and the magic ... as dramatic representations of the desire to ignore that 'lightness of limitation', which, according to Whitehead, 'is essential for the growth of reality' [from Religion in the Making]." While Faustus's efforts to transcend limits distract him from understanding reality, the audience gains insight from the magician's errors. Faustus's excessive ambition must be condemned, whether in terms of Renaissance Aristoteanism, which validates moderate behavior, or Freudian psychoanalytic theory, in which the ego's reality principle must negotiate between the pure desire of the "id" and the absolute law of the "superego." The audience...

(The entire section is 1054 words.)