Doctor Faustus Analysis
by Christopher Marlowe

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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.

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Analysis

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1,163 words.)