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Marlowe's Dramatic Techniques and Thematic Development in Doctor Faustus


Marlowe employs various dramatic techniques in Doctor Faustus, such as the use of soliloquies to explore Faustus's inner conflict and the inclusion of comic relief to contrast the play's serious themes. The thematic development revolves around the dangers of ambition, the conflict between good and evil, and the consequences of overreaching human limits.

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How does Doctor Faustus reveal Christopher Marlowe's traits as a dramatist?

Doctor Faustus may well be Marlowe's best-known play, and it reveals several of his characteristic traits as a dramatist. Most prominent among these is that Marlowe is an outstanding poet, and his drama is invariably poetic. His greatest strength as a dramatist is at the level of the individual line and phrase. Marlowe uses blank verse with great flexibility and skill, writing speeches, like the one Faustus makes to Helen, that could be read as poems, while others function as powerful pieces of rhetoric.

The complexity of Marlowe's writing is in the language, not in the plot. The story of Doctor Faustus is typical of Marlowe's simple, straightforward storytelling. There are no surprises and no intricacies in the action. Marlowe is a much stronger writer of tragedy than of comedy, and the comic scenes in Faustus are forgettable while the tragic ones remain compelling.

Finally, Doctor Faustus is a drama of ideas—and dangerous, potentially blasphemous ideas at that. Marlowe is a philosophical playwright rather than a didactic one. He does not tell the audience what to think about Faustus or about the type of cosmic system that would damn him for curiosity. However, he is fearless in his exploration of these ideas, and the audience receives the impression that, whatever Marlowe's own position is, it will not be safe or conventional.

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How does Marlowe establish Doctor Faustus's themes and ideas in the opening scenes?

Doctor Faustus is the story of a man who sells his soul to the Devil to gain supernatural powers. It is based on the Christian theological concepts of the immortality of the soul, the nature of sin, the reality of Heaven and Hell, and the possibility of spiritual redemption.

Marlowe establishes the ideas and themes of his play in the very first scene. We learn from the Chorus that Faustus is a brilliant young man who has risen from working-class origins to be the foremost theologian at the University of Wittenberg (spelled as "Wertenberg" in the text). Faustus is familiar with all the aforementioned Christian concepts. However, he is not content with the answers theology provides about the nature of the universe and humanity's place within it, believing himself too brilliant to be limited by such constraints. The Chorus compares him to Icarus, who died after flying too close to the sun:

...swoln with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspir'd his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted now with learning's golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy;
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss[.]

Faustus's failure to accept Christian doctrine and his desire to challenge the natural order through use of magic is the root of his downfall. He could be grateful for the life God has given him as a respected theologian at a prominent university; instead, he chooses to pursue forbidden knowledge, even though this carries the risk of damnation. Faustus's "chiefest bliss" should be the understanding that, if he lives a pious life, his soul will go to Heaven. He rejects this abstract understanding in favor of gaining more power in his earthly life.

These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly [...]
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promis'd to the studious artizan!

Marlowe has used the Chorus to set the scene before introducing us to Faustus himself. The Chorus describes the arc of Faustus's life, showing his upward trajectory from humble birth to academic achievement, and then briefly indicates how Faustus stands to lose it all. When Faustus enters the study, he confirms the Chorus's description of him by showing his mastery of various subjects (medicine, law, and theology). He then confirms the Chorus's judgment of him by showing that his new infatuation is magic. Magic promises the practitioner immediate gratification, while theology demands lifelong adherence to strict moral guidelines in the hope of everlasting life after death.

The choice between temporary satisfaction and everlasting life should be an obvious one, and would have been to Marlowe's audience. But Faustus is unsure: what if there is no everlasting life? Should people forego earthly pleasures on the off-chance that eternal bliss awaits them after death? He thinks not, but the Chorus implies that he is making the wrong choice. Faustus's behavior and the consequences of his behavior are thus predicted in the opening scene.

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What are the dramatic elements in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus?

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus can be an immensely theatrical work—Marlowe seemed to intuit how to move an audience. He also seemed to better understand the dramatic potential of the Elizabethan stage compared to his immediate predecessors, who often staged plays that functioned more like debates.

The overtly dramatic elements of this play would include the presence of demons on stage. When Faustus conjures Mephistopheles, he does so by standing alone in a circle of the woods, saying out loud certain words in Latin that seem magical:

Faustus, begin thine incantations
And try if devils will obey thy hest,
Seeing thou hast prayed and sacrificed to them.
Within this circle is Jehovah's name,
Forward, and backward, anagrammatised:
Th'abbreviated names of holy saints,
Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,
And characters of signs, and evening stars,
By which the spirits are enforced to rise.
Then fear not, Faustus, to be resolute
And try the utmost magic can perform.

Thunder. Sint mihi Dei Acherontis propitii! Valeat numen tri-
plex Jehovae! Ignei aerii, aquatani spiritus, salvete! Orientis
princeps Beelzebub, inferni ardentis monarcha, et Demigor-
gon, propitiamus vos, ut appareat, et surgat Mephistophilis
Dragon, quod tumeraris; per Jehovam, gehennam, et con-
secratam aquam quam nunc spargo; signumque crucis quod
nunc facio, et per vota nostra, ipse nunc surgat nobis dicatus
Mephistophilis! (3.1)

There is some doubt about the shape of the stage Marlowe would have used, but if it was round like the Globe, we would have another instance of the self-referentiality so common in Elizabethan plays. However, an audience would have witnessed an actor doing on stage exactly what Faustus is supposedly doing, and the plausibility that this "dark art" of theater (due to frequent objections about its morality) participates in the dark art of necromancy might have stirred audiences' imagination to believe, at least temporarily, that they were seeing demons. Indeed, legend has it that actual audience members were driven to insanity at this play—Ned Alleyn (who was so powerful in his performance of Faustus) founded a hospital later in his life to compensate (Chambers).

In the pranking of the Pope, Marlowe seems also to delight in the specifically theatrical nature of the scene. In order to stage the Pope's dinner such that actors do not have their backs to the audience, the scene becomes something of a tableau of The Last Supper, a painting that would have been known by copy to English audiences. Similarly, in the other works of magic that Faustus commits, we see run-of-the-mill theatrical illusion, further linking theater and magic.

In the last scene, the play is at its most dramatic, as Faustus begs to be vaporized or to leap into the heavens. There are slightly different endings to the play, one of which includes a dismembering of Faustus. From the trap door beneath the stage (hell's mouth), artificial limbs could be tossed. It was easy to simulate thunder in the Elizabethan stage, and gunpowder was used to create flashes of light and smoke.

This play, then, might well have been the Elizabethan equivalent of the multi-sensory theatrical experiences we see in our most elaborate productions today. Combining a medieval story of a man confronting his last judgment and an early modern ambition, Doctor Faustus repeatedly presses its audiences to ponder (both in plot and in stagecraft) what is possible or believable, as well as what is unbelievable.

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What are the dramatic elements in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus?

I would argue that the biggest dramatic element in this play is of course the presence of the supernatural and of magic. This is a play that is full of various devils and angels that wander around. It has more magic than a Harry Potter novel and there are dragons that pull chariots. This is clearly a central dramatic element and presents a significant challenge to any director as they have to think very carefully about how they are going to stage such elements.

What is interesting about the supernatural and magic, however, is that although they are so prominent, in another sense, they really are very unimportant to the central conflict of the play which is the battle for the soul of Faustus. This is of course featured when he sells his soul and then thinks about repenting and trying to save himself. In this sense, magic is something that can distract and is not really relevant to the central dramatic element, which is the massive conflict that Faustus himself faces for his soul and life. Marlowe seems to set aside magic and the supernatural, as obvious as it is, to focus on a very real battle between good and evil and how evil threatens to dominate one man's life. This would be the core dramatic element of this play.

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What elements mark Marlowe's Doctor Faustus as a typical Renaissance tragedy?

Renaissance tragedies are characterized by their emphasis on character psychology. Characters are less often brought down by fate than they are by their own flaws as human beings. They have free will and choice, and this is what brings about their downfall, rather than merely being the victims of chance or a sinister figure.

For example, in Doctor Faustus, Faustus is not some cipher or every-man stand-in lacking personality. He is a unique individual whose personal shortcomings bring about his ultimate, tragic destiny. His greatest flaw is his pride. That is what makes him seek out infernal aid in gaining power and it is what prevents him from seeking God's forgiveness. One of the most tragic elements of the play is that Faustus could have been saved had he only asked for divine grace.

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What elements mark Marlowe's Doctor Faustus as a typical Renaissance tragedy?

Some of the characteristics that mark Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus as a Renaissance tragedy are the questions addressed, comedic relief and the death of the hero. Christopher Marlowe lived from 1564, the same year of birth as William Shakespeare, until his mysterious death in 1593.

In the tradition of dramatic tragedy, the questions that are addressed in the play are the grand and large questions of life, such as: What is the meaning of life? Why are humans here? What does life mean if it only always ends in death? Is there god(s)? How is the will of a god to be known? In Dr. Faustus, these large questions are addressed in the form of Faustus's unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a thirst that leads him to barter his life with the Devil; Faustus's doubts and regrets about his choices; Faustus's final demise, which was a terrifying end and death.

In Greek tragedy, narrative elements were presented by the Chorus who moved the plot along and gave explanations. In Renaissance tragedy the Chorus is replaced by clowns and fools: Clowns are rural simpletons who give information that moves the story along and who utter unintentional plays on words: their language is witty and amusing but it is accidental, coming about through ignorance of the English language. On the other hand, fools are urban city dwellers who fill the same story/plot function but who are witty and amusing by intention because they have the intelligence and education to play with words by design. In Dr. Faustus, Marlowe combines these two traditions by having Choruses and clowns, Rafe and Robin, who give story information to move the plot and who are witty and amusing (it is possible that they should be considered fools instead of clowns, but they are generally referred to as clowns).

In Greek tragedy, the hero does not have to die. Renaissance tragedy changes this and requires that the hero of a tragedy must die as justice for his wrong doing, well known examples are King Lear and Hamlet. Marlowe constructs Dr. Faustus according to the Renaissance model and has his tragic hero, Dr, Faustus, die horribly in the end.

This change in the form of Renaissance tragedies demonstrates a change in the idea of "catharsis." For Aristotle, a tragedy had catharsis because the internal action of the play was worked out to a satisfactory resolution giving the audience a happy ending in one way or another, such as exile instead of death. In Renaissance tragedy, catharsis came to mean the audience could feel that they had experienced the tragedy with the hero and were relieved of those wrong urges and feelings in themselves. In other words, the focus of catharsis shifted from the play, for Aristotelian Greek tragedies, to the audience, for Renaissance tragedies.

For more information on Aristotelian ideas of Greek tragedy, see Professor Larry Brown's explanations.

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How does Marlowe's use of classical and religious imagery in Doctor Faustus emphasize its themes?

Many of the themes of the play are embodied in a forthright manner in Doctor Faustus himself—indeed, the play reads even better as allegory than as a fictional history of the protagonist. To underline and add weight to his themes, Marlowe makes great use of classical and religious imagery.

One of the most readily apparent uses of religious imagery is seen in the exhibition of the Seven Deadly Sins. Each one, made manifest by Lucifer, steps forward to provide a brief biography. Later, we can see how Faustus, drunk with power, enacts the sins through his various debaucheries: Wrath, with his furious punishment of the assassin knights; Covetousness, by eating the Carter’s entire load of hay for three farthings; and Lechery, in the summoning of Helen of Troy to be his own paramour, among other examples.

The overriding theme, of course, is that of pride leading to a fall. This is referenced explicitly when Mephistophilis tells Faustus, in response to the latter inquiring about the demon’s lord Lucifer, that the devil was thrown out of heaven for his pride. This reference to Christian theology re-emphasizes a previous scene, in which Faustus decides that all the careers his studies have prepared him for are beneath him. That scene, in turn, echoes the chorus at the beginning of the play, in which the Grecian legend of Icarus is alluded to. Icarus, of course, ignored warnings not to fly too close to the sun, which melted his wings and sent him tumbling to his death. So, too, does Faustus in his pride ignore all remonstrances—from his colleagues, from the Good Angel, from the Old Man—and proceed upon his destructive path.

Some of the allusions are more subtle. At least twice, a reference is made to The Golden Fleece: when referring to the Spanish treasure ships bringing yearly loads of gold to Philip of Spain and more obliquely in the opening Chorus, which references “learning’s golden gifts.” Though initially a triumph, Jason’s recovery of the Golden Fleece eventually doomed him to disappointment and an ignoble death; so, too, Faustus is initially rewarded with power and riches, only to have it all taken from him as his soul plunges into Hell.

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How does Marlowe's use of classical and religious imagery in Doctor Faustus emphasize its themes?

Christopher Marlowe’s play titled Doctor Faustus is typical of the Renaissance in its fusion of classical and Christian ideas.  Because Renaissance Christians believed that Christianity was the Truth (with a capital T), they also believed that any truth found in classical culture was compatible with Christianity. Renaissance literature therefore often draws on the Greek and Roman classics to reinforce its essentially Christian messages.

Certainly this seems true of Doctor Faustus. Examples of the fusion of classical and Christian influences in this play include the following:

  • The prologue of the play opens with explicit allusions to classical history, figures, and gods, yet the last major scene of the play is explicitly Christian in emphasis.  Marlowe apparently sees no contradiction here, nor would his audience have seen any contradiction.
  • The prologue of the play uses an allusion to the classical figure Icarus to convey an essentially Christian message about the dangers of pride: because Icarus was

. . . swollen with cunning of a self-conceit,

His waxen wings did mount above his reach,

And melting heavens conspired his overthrow.

Faustus will display similar pride and will suffer a similar fall.

  • Throughout his opening speech, Faustus quotes from classical writings, but he often does so in ways that reveal his ignorance. For instance, he quotes Aristotle, translated into Latin, to the effect that to dispute well is the purpose of logic, although Faustus should know that Aristotle, like his teacher Plato, was chiefly concerned with discovering truth, not merely disputing well.
  • Likewise, Faustus may agree with Galen that the greatest good of medicine is the health of the body, but, as a Renaissance Christian, he should also know that the health of the body is far less important than the health of the soul. Often, as here, Faustus quotes from classical authorities in ways that illuminate his ignorance.
  • Similar foolishness continues throughout the play, as when Faustus commands the demon Mephastophilis to summon the great classical Greek beauty, Helen of Troy, back from the dead.  Mephastophilis promises to do so “in twinkling of an eye” (a highly ironic allusion to Christ’s second coming in 1 Corinthians 15:52). Faustus looks forward to the return of Helen, while Mephastophilis reminds us of the return of Christ.
  • When Helen does appear, Faustus proclaims that “heaven” is in her lips – another example of Marlowe’s use of Christian irony in connection with classical imagery.
  • Later, in the play’s final scene, Faustus echoes a line from Ovid’s Amores to express his longing for further life:

O lente, lente currite noctis equi! [O slowly, slowly run, O horses of the night!]

This allusion is especially ironic, since Ovid’s speaker wants the night to pass slowly so he can spend more time in bed, in adultery, with his lover. 

In short, Marlowe uses many allusions to the classics in Doctor Faustus, but he often does so to mock, through irony, the pride and foolishness of the play’s central character.

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