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.)
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.
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...
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