Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 314

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus has been called Renaissance England’s “last avowedly religious drama.” While that assertion might be contested, it is certainly true that the play supplies the clearest and most emphatic representation of the psychomachia—the struggle between God and the devil for the fate of an individual human soul—that was available to English playgoers since the equally straightforward morality plays of the Middle Ages (with which Doctor Faustus bears many similarities.)

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It is not that Faustus is unaware of this war between good and evil, between flesh and spirit, that is going on all around and within him. “Oh, I’ll leap up to my God!—Who pulls me down?” Faustus cries out at play’s end. What pulls him down is his obdurate pride, the habitual pattern of sins from which he cannot or will not release himself, and his condition of despair. Essentially, Faustus is convinced (wrongly, according to orthodox Christian thought) that his sins are so manifold and serious that they are beyond even God’s redress and forgiveness; accordingly, he cannot truly repent. To many Renaissance minds, such conscious embracing of despair constitutes the “sin against the Holy Spirit,” warned of in Scripture that alone resides outside the circumference of God’s mercy.

Faustus finally understands that he has long suspected on some level—namely, that “for the vain pleasure of four and twenty years,” he has “lost eternal joy and felicity” in the presence of God’s glory. He had dreamed of world conquest but ends up as little more than a court clown, fetching grapes for a bored and dissipated duchess. He had thought to acquire all knowledge but is at last left praying for the sublime oblivion of the bestial and even mineral worlds. This alarming declension—this devolution—of a human soul receives a powerful dramatic treatment in Marlowe’s famous play.

Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1152

In many ways, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus reflects the extensive intellectual, economic, and political changes taking place in sixteenth century England, changes sparked by the Renaissance and the Reformation.

The Renaissance began in Italy during the 14th century, and in the next two centuries, spread new ideas throughout Europe. Generally, this intellectual and aesthetic rebirth resulted from the recovery and translation of many lost ancient Greek and Roman texts and from the new ideas which people developed after studying the work of earlier thinkers.

Politics and religion came to be intricately interwoven with national identity because of the association between the Protestant Reformation and England's Renaissance culture. Exploration of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, pioneered by Spain, led to changes in Europe's political and social structure. Imperial economies developed that linked European nations with their colonies, contributing to the rise of the modern nation state by creating a heightened sense of national identity.

During the reign of Henry VII as king of England, which began in 1485, government centralization and efficient bureaucracy brought England political stability. This allowed Renaissance ideas to flourish.

Henry VIII became king in 1509. His inability to conceive a male heir with his wife Catherine of Aragon led him to demand a divorce. When Pope Leo X refused that demand, largely due to the political pressure of Spain, Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church. The Act of Supremacy in 1534 established the Church of England, with the monarch as its head. This initiated in England an era of serious religious strife, though not as bloody as similar struggles in other parts of the world. After Henry VIII's death, Edward VI, who continued England's Protestant course, ruled for a short period. At his death, Mary Tudor, a half-Spanish Catholic became queen and attempted to return England to Catholicism. Religious persecution earned her the name "Bloody Mary," and her marriage to her cousin Philip II of Spain raised concerns about England coming under the political and religious influence of Catholic Spain. Mary's death led to the crowning of Queen Elizabeth, who reversed England's Catholic drift but maintained a largely centrist position regarding religion and politics. Spain's preeminent role on the world stage, fueled by gold from its conquest of the Americas, led to England's continued anxiety about that country's Catholicism and the effects it might have on England. This concern was eased by a large military failure incurred by the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Readers of Marlowe's plays may want to keep this history in mind, for it helps to explain Faustus's mockery of the Pope and even Faustus's damnation. Remember that, as the play begins, Faustus contemplates pursuing the black arts. He rejects study of theology instead of magic because of his reading of Jerome's bible, a much-revised edition negatively identified with Catholicism by England's Protestant majority. Reading the ''wrong'' version of the bible contributes to Faustus making his fatal decision.

The Renaissance placed a new focus on Humanism. Generally, medieval religious attitudes emphasized the next, spiritual world instead of this, the material world. Medieval society prized collective values over those of the individual. The Renaissance changed this way of thinking, validating individual worth and emphasizing the potential for happiness and accomplishment in this world.

Several factors contributed to the rise of Humanism. First, Martin Luther and the Protestant reformation weakened the hold Roman Catholicism held over European religion during the middle ages. Translations of rediscovered classical texts as well as contemporary continental writers increased the general trend toward secularization. Previously, books were hand copied, but the invention of printing by Johann Gutenberg in 1445 and its introduction into England by William Caxton in 1476 made books more readily available. The style and content of education also changed. Tutors and universities added the study of newly recovered classical texts to the subjects taught during the medieval period. Students read these texts not only to improve language skills but also to understand their ethical, social, and political content. Classical values influenced English society, as did those of contemporary Italian texts like Niccolo Machiavelli's 1513 The Prince and Baldassare Castiglione's 1528 The Book of the Courtier. Not only the elite but professionals, artisans, and merchants recognized the value of education, both for its personal and economic value. Literacy increased.

By freeing intellectual inquiry from the confines of theology, a scientific revolution known as the "New Science" began to take place. In the wake of astronomical discoveries by Galileo and Copernicus, thinkers like Francis Bacon privileged observation of nature over the study of traditional writings about nature, developing what we recognize today as the scientific method. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus satirizes both the New Science and Humanism, which lie behind Faustus's unquenchable desire to know more about the natural world. The play questions what limits, if any, should be set on human knowledge and scientific inquiry.

Columbus's travels to the Americas late in the 15th century inaugurated an age of maritime exploration among Spain, France, Portugal, and England. The demand for financing to support this exploration and trade led to the beginnings of modern banking and commerce, particularly crown-supported monopolies. Organizations like the Senegal Adventurers (1588) and the East India Company (1600) enabled entrepreneurs to sell stock to finance various businesses, in particular trade with Asia, African, and the Americas.

Political and economic changes affected not only how but where people lived. The industrial and agricultural revolutions that came to fruition during the eighteenth century have their roots in the Renaissance. Under Queen Elizabeth, the enclosure movement led to more efficient agriculture, but it displaced rural workers, who migrated from the city. England, up to this point a wool exporting country, began manufacturing and exporting cloth. Increases in trade drew people to urban population centers, where trade-related industries flourished. Such commerce enriched the country as a whole, and city dwellers who provided these goods and services became increasingly prosperous. That prosperity sped the growth of England's professional and artisan-based middle classes that began in the late middle ages and that Geoffrey Chaucer represented in his Canterbury Tales. In addition to being a political and economic center, London became a cultural center as well, providing the necessary ingredients for great theatre like Marlowe's: patrons, artists, and audiences.

Students of Marlowe must pay particular attention to these shifting social structures, which allowed people without titles or inherited wealth to advance to prominence. Increased social mobility, coupled with renewed emphasis on secular education, led to the rise of the strong, ambitious personality type that exemplifies Renaissance Individualism. Marlowe's heroes epitomize this type, aspiring to greatness in the military, political, or spiritual realm. In Tamburlaine, for example, a shepherd becomes a warrior-king. Not all shepherds became kings, but economic opportunities broadened horizons for many people. The over-reaching of Marlowe's characters, often combined with the ruthlessness of their efforts, leads to their downfall. In that sense, their personal ambitions reflect those of society at large and serve as a warning not to sell one's soul for material advancement.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

1590's: People were anxious about the "New Science" of Galileo, Copernicus, and Bacon. They also were intrigued by the explorations of the "New World" of the Americas by Christopher Columbus and by the discoveries of maritime adventurers like Sir Frances Drake.

Today: Scientific advances in genetic engineering and cloning both intrigue and frighten people, as does the discovery of possible life in new worlds in space.

1590's: People feared those who were different from them. Protestants feared Catholics; Catholics feared Protestants, and both feared Jews and Muslims.

Today: In spite of advances in education and literacy, people today remain anxious of those who are of different races, creeds, and colors.

1590's: Theatre audiences respond to plays that take them to magical places or allow them to meet incredible beings like the demons in Doctor Faustus.

Today: Modern audiences are bored by straight narrative tales; they now demand spectacles such as the prop- and effect-heavy Phantom of the Opera. Special effects play a significant role in most successful Broadway shows and in many films. The advent of computer generated animation—which created life-like dinosaurs in the films Jurassic Park and The Lost World—has upped the ante on what constitutes entertainment.

1590's: Audiences respond positively to plays about heroes like kings and warriors, and enjoy plays like Doctor Faustus which poke fun at academics.

Today: Then as now, people admire those who achieve great things—especially when they must also overcome adversity—such as the title character in the film Forrest Gump. Films such as Back to School and television shows like 3rd Rock from the Sun satirize inflexible, "by the book" teachers and academics.

1590's: Monarchy is the dominant form of government throughout the world. Though some monarchies have legislative branches that allow group decision-making, most of the power is concentrated in the executive branch.

Today: Very few absolute monarchs exist today, though several constitutional monarchies (such as England) function with royal figureheads and government power concentrated in the hands of a legislature and ministry.

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