Doctor Faustus Analysis

  • In The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, there is a great contrast between the grandeur of Faustus's initial desire for power and the ultimate outcome of his endeavors. He hopes to alter the world and attain great knowledge, but in practice he performs pranks and parlor tricks in high courts and lowly venues.
  • There is an irony in Faustus's eventual return to his initial way of life. It is as if his great bargain with the devil is ultimately of little value to him. After his initial exploits, he entertains scholars and friends as before.

Analysis

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Last Reviewed on May 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1163

One of the tensions Marlowe expresses in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is that between great power and meager ambition. Faustus, who has the ability to pursue any area of study he wishes, is unsatisfied with subjects that he finds too pedestrian. He jumps at the chance to seize power, even if the cost is terrible. He enumerates the various lofty and impressive feats he wants to accomplish with the resources of hell at his disposal, and to achieve these ends, he actively ignores a great number of warning signs. To dismiss the notion that he ought to study theology, Faustus cites Romans, 6:23, which appears to show the inevitability of damnation. Marlowe uses this specific line of reasoning to show Faustus’s hastiness and inattention, because the other half of this bible verse—“but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”—overturns Faustus’s argument completely. Later, Mephistophilis’s candid and honest descriptions of hell would have served as a warning were Faustus not so blinded by the prospect of power.

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Similarly, Mephistophilis seems to do Faustus’s bidding, but he makes clear that he only performs the will of Lucifer. His interest in Faustus stems only from the desire to take his soul. Therefore, even after the deal is struck between Faustus and Mephistophilis, it is clear that Faustus commands only the illusion of power. Mephistophilis performs all the actual magic. Indeed, their arrangement was designed from the start to suit Lucifer’s ends alone. Furthermore, if we recall Lucifer’s state of eternal torment at having been cast from God’s graces, then it can be argued that Lucifer’s powers are entirely circumscribed by God’s.

Marlowe humorously juxtaposes this hierarchy with the story of Wagner and his play at power over an impoverished Clown. First, this relationship invites a comparison to Faustus, as Wagner’s absurd and trifling attempts at command reflect the relative insignificance of Faustus’s goals for his meager two-dozen years. 

We see a major departure from the grandiose, and theoretical, uses to which Faustus intends to put his unholy power. Recalling Faustus’s earlier notions of rearranging the powers of Europe and claiming the grandest treasures the world has to offer, his first activity is in keeping with Faustus’s ambitions: sailing through the cosmos on a chariot pulled by dragons. This is the highpoint of Faustus’s use of Mephistophilis’s powers. Returning from examining the celestial bodies, Faustus tours Europe and enters the Vatican—not for a grand purpose but rather to play vulgar tricks on the Pope. 

From there, Faustus begins putting on magic shows for the nobility (even going so far as to fetch food for a bored duchess). In the very halls of the Holy Roman Emperor he first picks a fight with an idly scoffing knight, possibly due to a feeling of fraudulence, and later still, Faustus extorts money from a horse courser, an ultimately useless task. The juxtaposition between Faustus’s ambitions and the increasingly mediocre tasks to which he actually sets himself helps the audience to better understand some of Faustus’s true motivations, which are less than noble. 

The displays of black magic in which Faustus engages similarly show the mediocrity of infernal powers. Just as Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephistophilis put on a (clownish) floorshow of devils dressed as the Seven Deadly Sins to distract Faustus from the reality of his situation, so Faustus uses Mephistophilis to conjure cheap imitations of true greatness for the pleasure of noblemen. He does not truly have access to Alexander the Great, but can only produce accurate shadows. Similarly, the horse Mephistophilis conjured for Faustus out of hay fell apart as soon as it got wet and turned back into the crude, flimsy substance it always was. 

As we recall the decline in Faustus’s use of power, as well as in those for whom he uses it, we now see Faustus having more or less retired back to Germany, seeking the comforts of a life as a respected academic. Ironically, this is effectively the station he held before selling his soul. Rather than performing for emperors and dukes, Faustus now uses his power as a party trick to summon things his friends and students desire to see. Marlowe similarly chooses to have Faustus summon great heroes and icons from mythology, perhaps to contrast against Faustus’s squandered potential. Alexander the Great, who conquered and controlled a great empire, and Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships,” who is widely regarded as the cause of the Trojan War, stand as mere shadows of Faustus’s indirect conjuring. They can be read as figurative shadows of his dreams and ambitions. 

Similarly, as his years decline, Faustus seems to consider repentance less and less a genuine option and more as a passive regret, impossible to mend. That he would view himself as beyond saving would explain the ease with which he recommits himself to Lucifer following the appearance of the Old Man. The hopelessness he feels may also explain his command to have the Old Man tormented by the devils.

As the hours pass and his damnation becomes imminent, Faustus spends all of his time wishing for that which he cannot have, and this is ironic for more than one reason. First, it was the fulfillment of impossible wishes, ostensibly made possible by Mephistophilis, that caused Faustus to sell his soul, and also what caused Faustus to become so trapped. Similarly, Faustus is about to pay as dearly as one can pay for the privilege of a short time in which the powers of hell are at his command. And yet, as his time runs out, Faustus does not even attempt to use his powers, either for enjoyment or for a potential solution.

As the final hour ticks into seconds, Faustus’s pleas become more urgent, and more abstract. Like every person at the end of their life, Marlowe’s Faustus simply voices the pain of coming to an end, the wish for time to stop, for even one more second of life. Faustus even offers to burn his books. This is a powerful and bitterly ironic sentiment, as it was forbidden knowledge, born of books, that brought Faustus to the brink of damnation. 

His final words, “Ah, Mephistophilis,” also convey this gravely ironic powerlessness, as well as perhaps a sense of betrayal. Mephistophilis, his companion for twenty-four years, the source of all his power, is the person to whom Faustus would always turn in order to achieve his desires, and he turns to him now in abject horror. It is here that we most apprehend Faustus’s humanity—crystallized in the regret of his life’s squandered potential—and recognize him as a tragic hero. Faustus’s very human flaws make him both a paragon of ambition and a mortal man whose greatest lesson stems from his fall.

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