Doctor Faustus Critical Overview
by Christopher Marlowe

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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 learns to question immoderate behavior, but the play leaves a viewer unsatisfied about Faustus's motivation. Perhaps Faustus will realize what the audience already knows, that eternal suffering is a high price to pay for the power to perform a few, trivial practical jokes.

If Faustus's agonizing over whether or not to repent forms the play's dramatic middle, the play's dramatic unity depends on the timing of his damnation. If he can seek mercy until the last moment—an option open to him theologically, though one he fails to see—then the play has suspense until the end as audiences wonder if Faustus will see his error and repent. If, on the other hand, Faustus seals his fate in the first act, when signing the deed, then, as Cleanth Brooks wrote in A Shaping of Joy: Studies in the Writer's Craft, all that follows would be merely "elegiac." The play falls flat, absent of actual dramatic conflict.

Pinpointing the exact moment of Faustus's damnation can be difficult. Some believe that his damnation follows his signing the deed, uttering as he does the same words that Christ said before he died: "Consummatum est"; it is finished. "On a purely legalistic basis, of course, Faustus's case is hopeless," wrote Brooks. ''He has made a contract and he has to abide by it."

The play offers other options, however, and Brooks notes that even after Faustus has signed the bond, the Good Angel appears, urging him to ''Repent, yet God will pity thee." Also, at...

(The entire section is 1,054 words.)