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Categorizing Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus


Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe is generally categorized as a tragedy. It follows the classical structure of a tragic play, depicting the protagonist, Faustus, who is led to his downfall by his ambition and desire for power, ultimately resulting in his eternal damnation.

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How would you interpret Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus as a play?

Looking at Christopher Marlowe`s Doctor Faustus as a play, rather than as just a written text, means paying attention to the details of staging. The most obvious approach to this is to attempt to understand the original conditions of performance. First, consider that all of the female roles were actually played by women. Next, think about the open air theatre and how that affects vocal style and production. Costumes would have been the Elizabethan clothing used by characters of the appropriate station. Some of the more interesting decisions were the chorus (costume, whether it chants and dances like a Greek chorus), and the supernatural beings (do they fly in on machines, how do you convey their supernatural character).

For a 3,000 word essay, you could:

1. Attempt to reconstruct the first performance from what is known of the period

2. Argue for a certain style of ideal performance

3. Look at how performances of the play have evolved over the past five centuries

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Is "Doctor Faustus" by Christopher Marlowe a play?

A play, also called a drama or a comedy, is defined by American Heritage Dictionary as "A literary work written for performance on the stage; a drama." The literary characteristics of a play are that there is no narrator, except in special instances like Antigone, Our Town and The Glass Menagerie. The characters engage in dialogue. It is the dialogue itself that explains events, develops the characters and the plot, and moves the plot from conflict to resolution. By this definition and by these characteristics, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is indeed a play.

Let's look at some of the particulars. Doctor Faustus is in fact one of the special instances in which a play does have a narrator of sorts. Marlowe included a Greek Chorus as is present in Antigone and other Greek plays. The Chorus introduces and concludes the play; gives critical background information; provides a concluding statement; adds explanation and information as needed:

CHORUS. Learned Faustus,
To know the secrets of astronomy112
Graven in the book of Jove's high firmament,
Did mount himself to scale Olympus' top,
Being seated in a chariot burning bright,
Drawn by the strength of yoky dragons' necks.

The characters engage in direct dialogue with each other, and it is their dialogue and their soliloquies, like Faustus's opening soliloquy, that reveal character traits, character conflicts, plot conflicts, background, complications, rising action, falling action, and the resolution--with the Chorus adding comments and information as needed. Here is an example of how dialogue between Faustus and Mephistophilis reveals plot development and conflict in Doctor Faustus:

FAUSTUS. But, leaving off this, let me have a wife,95
The fairest maid in Germany;
For I am wanton and lascivious,
And cannot live without a wife.

MEPHIST. How! a wife!
I prithee, Faustus, talk not of a wife.

FAUSTUS. Nay, sweet Mephistophilis, fetch me one, for I will have

MEPHIST. Well, thou wilt have one?  Sit there till I come:  I'll
fetch thee a wife in the devil's name.

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Is "Doctor Faustus" by Christopher Marlowe a play?

Yes. The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus is a play by Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare. It concerns a legendary intellectual who sells his soul to the devil in order to obtain power and knowledge.

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Is Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus similar to a morality play?

Christopher Marlowe’s drama titled Doctor Faustus resembles a medieval morality play in a number of ways, including the following:

  • It rebukes the sin of pride, which was considered the root cause of all other sins.
  • It teaches Christian lessons without dramatizing a Biblical episode, the common method of so-called “mystery” plays.
  • It presents a mainly secular character in order to make religious points.
  • It presents a character who is very much a symbol of common human failings rather than a completely unique or individualized personality.
  • It tries to show the relevance of the main character’s life to the lives of the audience.
  • It makes no attempt to disguise its didactic tendencies, which are emphasized both at the very beginning and the very end of the play.

One morality play that has a great deal in common with Doctor Faustus is the famous late-medieval work titled Everyman. A key difference, however, is that the character Everyman is completely reformed, spiritually, by the time his play ends. He looks forward to death and is welcomed into heaven by the end of the work.  In contrast, Faustus, who never repents, fears death enormously and is taken into hell as the play concludes. Everyman thus functions as a positive example for the Christian audience, whereas Faustus, in epilogue of his play, is offered as a stark warning of what can happen to anyone who violates God’s teachings:

CHORUS. Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,

And burned is Apollo's laurel-bough,

That sometime grew within this learned man.

Faustus is gone:  regard his hellish fall,

Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise,

Only to wonder at unlawful things,

Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits

To practice more than heavenly power permits.

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How would you categorize Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus?

Christopher Marlowe’s most famous play is called, on one of its early title pages, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. This title implies that Marlowe, at least, thought of it as a kind of hybrid between tragedy (which dealt with the protagonist’s suffering and downfall) and history (which claimed to present accurate information about the past). Yet the play is also clearly indebted to the medieval genre known as the “morality play,” and it also has strong elements of what we, today, tend to call a “black comedy.” The play, in short, seems an amalgam of a variety of genres and tones in the following ways:

  • Doctor Faustus is partly a tragedy because it deals with the downfall and suffering not only of a prominent figure but of a prominent figure who had enormous potential to live a life that might have been useful and also spiritually exemplary. Because of his intelligence and, presumably, his work ethic, Faustus had achieved academic distinction, especially in theology, a field that was considered enormously important during the Renaissance. It was mainly thanks to his theological skills that

. . . he was graced with doctor’s name,

Excelling all, whose sweet delight disputes

In heavenly matters of theology.

The fact that Faustus misuses his great gifts of mind is one element that makes his story tragic; the fact that he loses his soul, however, is the greatest tragedy of all.

  • Doctor Faustus is partly a history because it deals with the past, apparently the recent past. Some sources suggest that its temporal setting is the 1580s.
  • Doctor Faustus is partly a morality play because it deals with a character who is in some ways a typical human being (especially in his uncontrolled pride) and since the work obviously exists to teach moral, religious lessons.
  • Finally, Doctor Faustus is partly a black comedy not only because of the explicitly comic scenes (involving Wagner, the Clown, and others) but also because Faustus repeatedly makes a fool of himself, yet his foolishness leads to his eternal damnation.  

One example of Faustus’s foolishness is his use of a long, elaborate incantation to summon a devil, only to be told by the demon who appears that simple disrespect for God would have been enough to provoke a devil to show up. Another example occurs when Faustus proclaims that he is unafraid of hell. Still another appears when he says he is unconcerned with “these vain trifles of men’s souls.” (Of course, he will be very concerned with such “trifles” by the time the play ends.) Faustus’s pride continually leads him to say foolish things, but, rather than evoking simple laughter, his foolishness also leads him directly to eternal punishment and pain.

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How would you look at Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe as a play?

This is rather a vague question. I can look at Doctor Faustus as a play from a personal perspective, asking, "Do I like it?" To this, I would answer, yes, I do. Marlowe does a pleasing job of telling this famous tale based on the life of an actual individual, though scholars debate about which of several candidates it might be. I would also say I don't like it as well as Goethe's Faust, Parts I and II

I can also look at Doctor Faustus in relation to other plays, in which case I'd say that some of Shakespeare's plays, like Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, and Goethe's Faust are structured and told with greater skill and interest. This is particularly true of Faust Part I.

I can also look at Doctor Faustus in an analytical light and criticize its structure and other internal devices. I would say that structurally, it has some interest because of the Chorus, the antagonism between Faustus and Mephistophilis, and the heightened emotion of Faustus's last struggles. I'd say the presence of a Greek style Chorus allows Marlowe to make moralistic points from outside the plot line so that the story itself isn't sacrificed to the moral.

CHORUS. Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
     Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise,
     Only to wonder at unlawful things,
     Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
     To practice more than heavenly power permits.

The antagonism between Faustus and Mephistophilis puts the story on a very human level without causing it to descend into the dark and torturous supernatural. Marlowe's point that there is a divide between the human and the demonic is made clear through this antagonism without, again, resorting to moralizing in the narrative.

As a result, when Faustus reaches his last moments, he hasn't lost his human interest, he hasn't become a type, so we can feel the agony of conflict he is going through and we can urge him, along with the Scholars, to remember his early disregard, throw off the fear of suffering, and act in his own behalf. Thus, Marlowe's most significant thematic point is clearly made: one must act on one's own behalf. 

FAUSTUS. Fair Nature's eye, rise, rise again, and make
     Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
     A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
     That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
     The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
     The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd.
     O, I'll leap up to my God!—Who pulls me down?—

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How can we look at Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus as a play?

Although Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus is generally (and understandably) read as one of the great tragic works of the English Renaissance, a case can be made for also seeing it as a very dark comedy featuring an absurd protagonist. Reasons for approaching the play in this way include the following:

  • In the very first scene of the drama, Faustus rejects one possible career and mode of life after another, often for very foolish and illogical reasons. At the same time, he displays an almost ridiculous amount of pride. At one point, for instance, he paraphrases the Bible:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us.  Why, then, belike we must sin, and so consequently die: Ay, we must die an everlasting death.

As practically every edition of the play makes clear, this is a gross misunderstanding and misquotation of the Biblical text, which continues: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Faustus, who has actually studied theology, completely botches a central tenet of the Christian faith in the words quoted above. Most significantly, however, the arrogance he displays in this opening scene would have seemed quite foolish to many of the play’s first audiences.

  • Later, having summoned Mephastophilis with elaborate Latin incantations, he asks the demon, “Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee?” To which Mephastophilis replies in a deflating and ego-puncturing way,

That was the cause, but yet per accidens,

For when we hear one rack the name of God,

Abjure the scriptures, and his savior Christ,

We fly in hope to get his glorious soul . . . .

Faustus, in other words, could have spared all the elaborate Latin incantations and simply blasphemed if he wanted a devil to appear.

  • Later still, Mephastophilis tries to warn Faustus of the pains of hell – a warning Faustus should take seriously since Mephastophilis is quite familiar with those pains from personal experience. Instead, Faustus responds by essentially asking why Mephastophilis is whining:

What, is great Mephastophilis so passionate [that is, whiny]

For being deprived of the joys of heaven?

Learn thou of [that is, from] Faustus manly fortitude . . . .

In other words, Faustus, having never been in hell, is telling this devil to buck up and imitate the great courage of Faustus. Little wonder, then, that Mephastophilis seems to take Faustus less and less seriously – and show him less and less respect and concern – as the play proceeds.

  • Even in the final scene of the play, Faustus cuts a somewhat absurd figure, especially when he keeps insisting that he must go to hell when he makes no effort (by praying) to avoid that fate.  Perhaps the nadir of Faustus’s development as a character is when he tries to blame his parents for the damnation he expects is coming: “Cursed be the parents that engendered me.”  Right until the very end of the play, Faustus foolishly refuses to accept responsibility for his own fate, just as he foolishly refuses to pray to God for forgiveness.  By the end of the work, it will be hard for some readers to take Faustus completely seriously as a truly tragic figure.
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How would you look at Doctor Faustus as a play?

To look at Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus specifically as a play means to situate it within the conventions of the dramatic genre, examining it in relationship to theatre history and the practical matters of staging, in other words to see it as play qua play rather than in terms of such aspects as plot and character that are also found in other genres.

One of the first things you might look at is the role of the chorus and how it both retains the narrative character of the Greek chorus but also transforms the chorus from it ritual role and emblematic function as “everyman” to narrative device.

Another issue you might consider is how the representations of the Devil on stage are indebted to the Mystery and Morality traditions of medieval drama and yet present a more individualized and fully characterized Devil.

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