Doctor Faustus eNotes Lesson Plan
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After studying Doctor Faustus students will be able to
- critique and explain how the chorus assists in developing the narrative in the play;
- utilize text evidence to describe the development of the themes within the play;
- evaluate the significance of the motifs within the narrative;
- interpret how interactions between characters develop the characters;
- identify symbols in the play and interpret what they symbolize;
- explain how the play reflects the medieval and the Renaissance periods.
Common Core Standards: RL.9-10.1, RL.9-10.2, RL.9-10.3, RL.9-10.4
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus tells the tale of the most famous deal with the devil in literature. Main character Doctor Faustus, a man with excessive ambition and a thirst for knowledge, sells his soul to the devil to gain insight into the universe and power over the world. For his pride and ambition, he is damned for all eternity. The story parallels the biblical Lucifer’s fall from grace and Adam and Eve’s quest for knowledge. In Marlowe’s play, which is based on a German version of the story, Faustus’s conflicts develop in the context of Marlowe’s 16th-century society when Renaissance thought challenged medieval philosophies and religious tenets. The legend of Faustus’s pact with Lucifer is so well known that the adjective "Faustian" has become a part of our common lexicon, referring to gaining something at the price of integrity and without regard for future cost or consequences
In both Marlowe’s play and the German legend on which it is based, Faustus is a scholar who has achieved great academic success but sees this success as inadequate. Each academic field that he has studied—law, theology, medicine, and philosophy—only offers him temporal human power and recognition. He craves ultimate power and omniscient knowledge. Thus, Faustus strikes a deal with Lucifer. For 24 years, the devil Mephistophilis will be bound to Faustus and answer any questions or grant him any request. In exchange, upon Faustus’s death, Lucifer will collect Faustus’s soul. Faustus makes this pact with the devil at the beginning of the play. The remainder of the play fills the time between Faustus’s signing away his soul and his ultimate damnation.
Drawing on its German source text, The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, Marlowe’s play is primarily set in Wittenberg, Germany. While Marlowe takes the basic plot of this German fable and many characteristics of the primary and secondary characters, he leaves behind the straightforward moral message. In the source text, Faustus is explicitly damned for his immoral behavior after being tricked into making a pact with the devil. Marlowe complicates this moral by raising questions about the pursuit of knowledge and power and the importance of faith—issues that were of special significance to his contemporaries at the time he wrote Doctor Faustus.
Marlowe's Doctor Faustus was written at a pivotal time in European history. The Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation emerged as dominant schools of thought in England at the end of the 16th century, and both movements challenged traditional social, political, and religious structures that shaped the medieval world. During the Renaissance, literacy increased across the classes, promoting the rise of individualism and encouraging people to better themselves by pursuing knowledge. Humanism, a Renaissance cultural movement that contended one could achieve grace through the cultivation of art and knowledge, celebrated the goodness of human pursuits and rejected the idea that humankind must be ruled by the divine. The humanist worldview was shaped by ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and literature, rather than theological scholasticism, and humanists relied on rational thought and reason rather than prayer to solve problems. This movement complemented the ideas that characterized the Protestant Reformation, a 16th-century intellectual and religious upheaval that splintered the Catholic Church. Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Henry VIII challenged the church’s authority and urged worshipers to create a personal connection to God by reading the Bible and praying. Calvinist Protestantism also introduced the idea of predestination, that God had marked all souls for damnation or salvation before they even got to earth, and therefore man had no control over his fate. Many of the allusions throughout the play, such as the allusions to biblical stories, figures and stories in Greek mythology, famous writers, poets, physicians, alchemists, magicians from antiquity, and Spanish rule, illuminate the transitional nature of the Renaissance—the blending of old beliefs with new ideas and knowledge.
These new systems of belief shaped the critical debate over the moral of Marlowe’s play. What is the cause of Faustus’s damnation, and why does he never repent? When presented with these questions, scholars have argued on either side of the intellectual conversations of the time. One argument is that the play is a Protestant critique of Humanism and the Renaissance. Since humanists believed that one could achieve grace through art, the advancement of knowledge, and rational thought, religious philosophers criticized this movement as iconoclastic. They argued that much of the universe must be taken on faith, not reason, and that humans could damn themselves by trying to access forbidden knowledge of God’s works. In this reading, Faustus’s relentless pursuit of knowledge and repeated references to antiquity show that the pursuit of knowledge can be dangerous; there are things that humans are not meant to know or think. Another argument is that the play is a humanist or Renaissance critique of radical Protestant ideas, namely predestination. If Faustus believes that he is already damned and that there is nothing he can do to reverse his damnation, then his pact with the devil is a way to make the most of his time on earth. He merely uses magic to distract himself from the inevitable because he knows God will not hear his prayers.
In both interpretations, Faustus is a Renaissance man living in the context of medieval thought, cast down for his intellectual values and pursuits by the religious structures that rule his life. The main conflict in the play is internal, not situational. The situational conflict is introduced and resolved within the first five scenes of the play. Faustus debates whether or not to sell his soul, sells his soul, and then he and the audience wait until the end of the play for Lucifer to collect his due. The drama comes from watching Faustus wrestle with and avoid thinking about the fate he seals for himself at the beginning of the play. His internal conflict over the choices he has made becomes the central conflict that drives the play to its dramatic conclusion.
Marlowe also uses the structural tension between comedy and drama to underscore the thematic arc of the play. The high drama of the beginning, in which Faustus contemplates selling his soul for knowledge and power, changes rapidly to comic scenes in which low characters and Faustus himself use word play and practical jokes to fool other characters. This divide is maintained throughout the play until Faustus reaches the end of his life. In scene ten, Faustus’s comic trickery on the Horse-courser blends with dramatic monologues in which Faustus contemplates his mortality and damnation. As Faustus nears the end of his life, the strict line between comedy and drama is blurred because Faustus and the audience can no longer ignore the inevitable. The dramatic scenes can be interpreted as the main action of the play, and the comic scenes can be seen as distractions from Faustus’s ultimate damnation. Tension builds and the audience’s anticipation grows as Marlowe delays resolution of the main conflict. As the hour of Faustus’s death approaches, will he repent and seek God’s mercy to save his soul, or not?
Accounts of the original performance of the drama emphasize the play’s ability to captivate its audience. Actor Edward Allyn brought life to Faustus’s imposing character when the play was performed by the Admiral’s Men for 16th-century audiences. Allyn was unusually tall for the Elizabethan era and reportedly had an overwhelmingly powerful stage presence. His casting perhaps contributed to the lore that surrounds the play. Doctor Faustus was performed at a time when the belief in devils was very real. There are many reports of supernatural events at performances: strange noises in the theater, shadows on the walls, or extra devils appearing on stage among the actors. At the time, watching the play was akin to encountering the devil personally and leaving the theater with a bit of the dangerous knowledge the play warns the audience to avoid.
In addition to the play’s controversial subject matter and the lore associated with its performance is the intriguing history of the author himself. Christopher Marlowe, also known as Kit Marlowe and a contemporary of William Shakespeare, had aspirations of becoming a great English literato. Despite his high ambitions, Marlowe was one of the original “bad boys” of literature. Marlowe was notorious for his outrageous beliefs, hedonistic lifestyle, and cruel nature. Two years after his first play, Tamburlaine the Great, was published, Marlowe was jailed for his part in a fatal swordfight. His notoriety was further fueled by accusations of counterfeiting and his arrest in the Netherlands in 1592. His ability to evade conviction, which seemed almost miraculous, spurred suspicion that he was a spy for the British government. Richard Baines, who played a part in Marlowe’s counterfeiting woes, accused Marlowe of being a heretic. Thomas Beard, a Puritan theologian, abetted this charge by claiming Marlowe was an atheist who practiced impiety.
In May of 1593, Marlowe’s former roommate, playwright Thomas Kyd, was arrested and tortured for treason. In his defense, he claimed that the “heretical” papers authorities found in his home belonged to Marlowe, and Marlowe was arrested. When released on bail, Marlowe was stabbed to death during a tavern brawl. Some believe his death was arranged by the British government; the men sitting with him were affiliated with the government, and Queen Elizabeth pardoned the man who stabbed him, Ingram Frizer, soon after Marlowe's death. But this theory has never been proven. Many have wondered whether Marlowe’s unabashedly amoral characters were hauntingly autobiographical. If nothing else, Marlowe’s controversial biography adds to the mystery and intrigue of the play.
Filled with poignant insight into the human condition, digressions into comically absurd scenes, and numerous symbolic secondary characters, Doctor Faustus has puzzled and fascinated audiences for centuries. The insatiable mind of the protagonist, his painful deliberation, stubborn pride, and heart-breaking final moments prompt even the most cynical to question, “Faustus, must thou needs be damned?” Marlowe makes even the most pious sympathize with Dr. Faustus and the loss of his soul.
A note regarding the text: Written between 1588 and 1592, Doctor Faustus was not printed until 1604. This printed text, referred to as the “A Text,” is regarded as the text closest to the original, even though sections and references are known to have been added to it. The second version of the text, published in 1616 and referred to as the “B Text,” is much longer and was altered significantly to comply with strict censorship laws established in 1604. This eNotes study guide was created using the “A Text,” which is posted on OwlEyes.org and featured in the ninth edition of the Norton Anthology to English Literature: The Sixteenth Century / Early Seventeenth Century Volume B.
About this Document
- An in-depth introductory lecture
- Discussion questions
- Vocabulary lists
- Section-by-section comprehension questions
- A multiple-choice test
- Essay questions