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Themes and Characterization in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus


Themes in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus include the conflict between ambition and morality, the quest for knowledge and power, and the consequences of hubris. Characterization focuses on Faustus's tragic flaws, particularly his insatiable ambition and pride, which lead to his eventual downfall and damnation. The play explores the human condition and the limits of human potential through Faustus's choices and their repercussions.

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How is God portrayed in Doctor Faustus by Marlowe?

In one sense, God is not portrayed at all in Doctor Faustus; we literally see Lucifer (Satan), but we never see God. More indirectly, however, God is portrayed as being quite merciful, at least if we see the Good Angel as a direct representative from God and the Old Man as another messenger telling Faustus that it is not too late to repent. At first glance, one would assume that selling one's soul to the devil is quite final, but even after Faustus signs the contract with the devil, the Good Angel tells him it is "never too late, if Faustus can repent." Much later in the play, when Faustus has already made much use of his powers over years, the Old Man comes to tell Faustus that he can still repent, be saved, and gain the mercy of God, "whose blood alone must wash away thy guilt." If these characters are truly messengers from God in the play, then God as Marlowe portrays him is profoundly forgiving.

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How is God portrayed in Doctor Faustus by Marlowe?

As to how God is portrayed, some critics say that Faustus confuses the Old Testament representation of a vengeful God with the New Testament merciful God and fails to seek forgiveness because of this confusion. Other critics hold that this position isn't supported in the text. Faustus's conversations with the Old Man indicate a clear understanding and portrayal of Christ as the emissary of a merciful, forgiving God. Further, Faustus's last speech portrays God clearly as a loving God who is ever present with the offer of forgiveness.

FAUSTUS. See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
     One drop would save my soul, half a drop:  ah, my Christ!—
     Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!
     Yet will I call on him:  O, spare me, Lucifer!—
     Where is it now? 'tis gone:  and see, where God
     Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his ireful brows!

What keeps Faustus from seeking forgiveness is not a portrayal of God as vengeful but the other portrayal, the one of Lucifer, that is reflected in the same quote above: "[Lucifer, ah], rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!" What stops Faustus is the torment begun by Mephistophilis, begun even while Faustus is still alive and promised for after he is dead.

MEPHIST. Thou traitor, Faustus, I arrest thy soul
     For disobedience to my sovereign lord:
     Revolt, or I'll in piece-meal tear thy flesh.
FAUSTUS. ... God, whom Faustus hath blasphemed!  Ah, my God, I would weep! but the devil draws in my tears.  Gush forth blood, instead of tears! yea, life and soul! O, he stays my tongue!  I would lift up my hands; but see, they hold them, they hold them!

The portrayal of God by the Old Man, the Three Scholars and the Good Angel offers an easier way of determining how God is portrayed since their portrayals are less confusing than the metaphysical interchanges between Faustus and Mephisto.

Scholars: They portray God as having limitless mercies and an unlimited readiness to forgive where forgiveness is sought.

SECOND SCHOLAR. Yet, Faustus, look up to heaven; remember God's mercies are infinite.

Old Man: He portrays God in a way that accords with and expands upon the Scholars portrayal. He declares God is offering His grace to Faustus   and is ready to give it freely. All that is required is a contrite heart and tears of repentance.

OLD MAN. ... I see an angel hovers o'er thy head,
     And, with a vial full of precious grace,
     Offers to pour the same into thy soul:

Good Angel: The Good Angel is the bearer of the message of sin and blasphemy to Faustus. Later though, the Angel promises God's pity and mercy.

GOOD ANGEL: And heap God's heavy wrath upon thy head! ... that is blasphemy! ... Faustus, repent; yet God will pity thee.

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What are the characteristics of Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's play?

In Christopher Marlowe's play, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, written around 1590, the protagonist, Doctor Faustus, suffers from what the ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights called hubris—excessive pride. The tragic flaw of hubris proved to be the downfall of many Greek tragic heroes, as it proves to be downfall of Faustus. Everything that Faustus does in the play flows from his excessive pride.

Faustus is a man who possesses extreme intelligence. Faustus has learned everything there is to know about logic, law, science, and theology, and finds the continued pursuit of each of these disciplines unfulfilling and a waste of his time. None of these disciplines sufficiently challenges his intelligence, and he believes that only the dark arts, necromancy and magic, can satisfy his overwhelming desire for knowledge, power, fame, and money.

Faustus engages the services of Valdes and Cornelius to teach him the dark arts, but their knowledge is far too limited to suit Faustus's needs. Faustus believes that he must go beyond earthly knowledge to learn what he wants to know, and he's willing to sell his soul to Lucifer to acquire the knowledge, fame, and fortune that his pride drives him to pursue.

Faustus arrogantly rejects any consequence of his actions, including selling his soul to Lucifer. Speaking of himself, Faustus declares, "This word, 'damnation,' terrifies not him."

Even near the end of the play, when Faustus can still save his soul simply by asking God for forgiveness, his pride won't allow him to save himself from eternal damnation.

Faustus isn't a particularly deep or complex character. Most tragic characters go on a journey of self-discovery, but Faustus simply goes on a journey of debauchery. Whatever noble, redeeming character traits that Faustus possessed when he made the pact with Lucifer simply deteriorate, while his cruelty and cowardice increase. He degrades himself and those around him, conjures up historical figures for his own amusement, and plays practical jokes on the Pope. Faustus travels the world and the cosmos supposedly to acquire knowledge that he can ultimately use for the good of mankind, but he does all of these things for no reason other than to assuage his own immense ego.

Faustus learns very little about himself, the world around him, or the universe in the twenty-four years of his life that he essentially wasted. His seeming regret and despair when he realizes that there is no escape from eternal damnation appears more like self-pity than true repentance or remorse. Faustus lack any sense of self-awareness, and finds it hard to believe or accept that he caused his own downfall.

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What are the characteristics of Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's play?

This format doesn't allow for a complete discussion of Doctor Faustus' character traits, but I can explain the two most important and competing ones, that of arrogance and that of despair. In the beginning of the tragedy, the Chorus makes it clear that Faustus is highly gifted, intelligent and talented. He excels in his studies and quickly earns his doctoral degree in theology. Not stopping there, he continues to study--and master--other fields like medicine and law and logic. In fact, there is nothing left for him to study and he is satiated with it all. As a result, in his growing arrogance and conceit at his own powers and accomplishments, he turns to the one unmastered and most enticing field--necromancy, or magic.

These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly;
A sound magician is a mighty god:
Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity.

He arrogantly dreams of being the supreme magician, able to command even the wind and oceans. Thus he calls on the devil Mephistophilis. In his arrogance, he believes he can command Mephistophilis and have from him anything he wants. This is the first painful lesson his arrogance and conceit bring him to: Mephistophilis takes orders from Lucifer, and Lucifer won't tell everything he knows. For example, after asking for knowledge of the cosmos, Lucifer offers him an entertainment by the Seven Deadly Sins and a book about how to change his shape. This adequately sketches and explains Faustus' character trait of arrogance.

In meantime take this book; peruse it throughly,
And thou shalt turn thyself into what shape thou wilt.
Farewell, Faustus, and think on the devil.

The contrasting and competing trait of despair enters most strongly into Faustus' characterization in Act IV when his days are dwindling, although his despair begins to effect him after his revealing encounter with Lucifer. As Faustus feels his designated years coming to an end and the time when he will serve Mephistophilis in hell for eternity fast approaching, his yearnings for repentance and redemption begin to overwhelm him. He is visited by an Old Man who tries to teach him how to repent and accept redemption, then by his friends the Scholars who are aghast at Faustus' misfortune and importune with him to seek Christ's mercy and seek to have his soul yet saved.

Yet, Faustus, look up to heaven; remember God's
mercies are infinite.
Yet, Faustus, call on God.

It is this despair that Faustus feels--coupled with an ironic new-found awareness of ignorance--that prevents him from acting and seeking redemptive forgiveness. His despair, which competes with and overcomes his arrogance, leads him to his ultimate doom, doom stemming from the one point on which he is ignorant and doom hemmed in by crippling despair. This adequately sketches and explains Faustus' character trait of despair.

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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What are the characteristics of Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's play?

In Christopher Marlowe's work, Dr. John Faustus is a scholar from the university town of Wittenberg that makes the decision to sell his soul to the devil in return for twenty-four years of power and influence. In particular, Faustus is interested in gaining an understanding of the forbidden knowlege of magic, which he decides to pursue instead of more legitimate scholarly avenues like philosophy and theology. Faustus is particularly dismissive of theology, because he views the concept of divine justice and mercy as inherently unjust:

"The reward of sin is death." That's hard. [Reads.] "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. Aye, we must die an everlasting death. What doctrine call you this, che sera sera, "What will be will be?" Divinity, adieu, These metaphysics of magicians and necromantic books are heavenly...

Faustus achieves great power, but is ultimately consumed by it. He is literally torn apart by Lucifer and Mephistopheles. His initial decision, combined with his stubborn and arrogant refusal to repent, is his undoing.

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Discuss the character of Doctor Faustus.

Faustus in the world of Marlowe

First, you need to observe Faustus in his element to be able to decipher him. He lived in 16th century (Renaissance) Europe. These were times when academia began to rebel against the accepted Medieval notion that everything, especially knowledge, is centered around God. Therefore, Marlowe wrote Faustus in times of philosophical and religious debate, and when people for the first time began to openly explore the supernatural as a way to think outside the parameters of the previous Medieval times. You will find that, as we discuss Faustus, he might very well be a product of his times, and a victim of his weaknesses.

Doctor Faustus himself

Doctor Faustus is a complex, confused, and tragic protagonist whose extreme intelligence brought on to him both glory and doom. It brought him glory because his wit and brilliance made him famous and respected among his peers and in academia, even in the circle of magicians that he wanted to enter. But it brought him doom because his ego got too big for his own good,and led him to a stubborn battle against the conventions of the time under his own premise he was way ahead of everyone else.

Ultimately, his ego, stubborness, ambition, and greed for more intelligence and power led him to make a pact with the devil for 24 years of service. The resultof this was a waste of everything: his so-called intelligence, his life, and his soul. This clearly shows that Faustus was indeed intelligent, but blinded by ego: The ultimate example of the typical genius who is brilliant enough to do amazing things, but who cannot tap on common sense for the most basic. In the end, he wasted it all.

Faustus' Tragedy

He wasted his intelligence because, once he began to receive the powers and gifts of Lucifer, we can clearly see that he does not use them wisely, nor can think of productive ways to make use of them. Instead, he wastes them in silly and unneccesary feats such as poking tricks at the Pope, and summoning characters from history for no important reason.

He wasted his life because, throughout his adventures, we still cannot see a genuine, or ultimate purpose to his actions. We  unveil a man who has a thick crust made of brains and wit, but inside this crust, he is ultimately empty. When his 24- year pact comes to an end, he had had more than plenty opportunities to repent and turn everything around. Yet, his personality was too egotistical, stubborn and nonsense to even come do that for his own good. In the end, he asks to burn his books in an ultimate demonstration of a life utterly wasted.

Faustus and his reality

Like in the beginning, Faustus is a representation of the mind wondering outside the box and tapping onto sources for which it is not prepared, and guided exclusively by the same weakess that was, ironically, his strength:  An intelligence he was not ready to absorb in full.

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Discuss the character of Doctor Faustus.

Faustus is a seeker of knowledge, he sees himself as a scholar who wishes to discover the meaning of everything, and will deal with the devil to gain what he wishes. He has no real fear of hell "this word damnation terrifies not me," and as a consequence will sign away his soul in his own blood. When he has the ability to have what he wishes he doesn't really do anything with that power, Mephistopheles is able to manipulate him without too much effort. Faustus therefore is brought down at the end by his own search for knowledge that was not his to have. But he is not without friends and the scholars who wait for him are still able to feel sad for the state of his soul.

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How is pride depicted in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus?

During Christopher Marlowe’s time and for centuries before then, “pride,” or self-centeredness, was considered one of the “seven deadly sins.” It was in fact considered the root of all other sins. In other words, every other sin was believed to result from a kind of selfishness that prevented a proper and worthy focus on God. Pride actually appears as a character in Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus not only as one of the seven deadly sins but as the first of the sins presented. This order of presentation is not an accident but was in fact entirely typical of the way the sins were usually presented when they appeared as characters in medieval and Renaissance literature. Standard Christian theology taught that all sin resulted, ultimately, from self-centeredness.          

Doctor Faustus’s own pride appears throughout the drama. Consider, for instance, the scene in which he first summons a demon to be his servant. When Mephastophilis does appear, the first thing that Faustus tells him is that he should improve his appearance, since “Thy art too ugly to attend on me.” This statement reflects not only Faustus’s pride but also his tendency to make very superficial judgments. Faustus should know that Mephastophilis will remain spiritually ugly no matter how acceptable his external appearance may be.

While Mephastophilis is off-stage, improving his appearance, Faustus displays his pride once more, this time by congratulating himself on the efficacy of his magical powers. He praises Mephastophilis for his “obedience and humility” (two traits that Faustus himself sorely lacks) and then proceeds to praise himself some more:

Now Faustus, thou art conjurer laureate

That canst command great Mephastophilis.

He reveals his pride again when he tells Mephastophilis that the latter’s job will be to do anything Faustus tells him to do, and he is a bit surprised when Mephastophilis reveals that he came to earth not because of Faustus’s magical spells but simply because he had heard Faustus “rack the name of God.” However, instead of responding to this revelation as a reason to feel humble, Faustus essentially ignores Mephastophilis’s comment as well as the implied warnings the demon now gives him.

Although Mephastophilis makes it clear that hell is hardly an appealing place, Faustus boastfully (and stupidly) declares (speaking of himself in the third person), “This word damnation terrifies not him.” Later, he also arrogantly refers to “these vain trifles of men’s souls.” When Mephastophilis explicitly reveals that Satan fell because of “aspiring pride and insolence,” Faustus fails to see the obvious relevance of this remark to his own attitudes and behavior. Later, when Mephastophilis himself expresses regret that he followed Satan and was thus condemned to hell, Faustus accuses him of being weak and cowardly. Faustus arrogantly advises the demon to “Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude.” But Faustus’s supposed strength is actually a reflection of his pride and spiritual weakness.

In short, practically every statement Faustus makes in the play reveals his pride in one way or another, just as his statements usually also reveal his foolishness.

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