Theme Revealed Through Symbols and Motifs: Many objects and figures in Doctor Faustus carry deeper symbolic resonances. The Good Angel and the Evil Angel, blood, and books all function as symbols that develop important themes over the course of the play. The prevalence of symbolism and motifs invites readers to consider both the literal and connotative importance of a given object and how it relates to the play’s themes.
- For discussion: Locate physical objects in the play that you find significant. What deeper meanings do these objects represent? Why do you think so? What themes do these objects develop or reveal?
- For discussion: Identify motifs that reappear throughout the text. Why do they recur? What are the figurative associations of these motifs, and which themes do they develop?
- For discussion: Mephistophilis insists that Doctor Faustus sign his deal with Lucifer using his own blood. Why? What does Doctor Faustus’s blood represent, and how does it change the significance of his arrangement with the devil? Where else in the play does blood appear?
- For discussion: Ask students to consider the symbolic significance of objects in their own lives. How are those objects symbolic? Compare and contrast the objects that carry deeper meaning in your own life with those that are significant in Doctor Faustus.
The Danger of Knowledge: Marlowe critiques the social changes brought about by the English Renaissance in part by focusing on knowledge—specifically, how pursuing and acquiring certain types of knowledge can be dangerous. Faustus’s fate can be read in part as a cautionary tale. His desire for knowledge culminates in the sale of his soul to the devil in exchange for twenty-four years of pleasure, power, and unlimited knowledge. Marlowe depicts both Faustus’s pleasure in his powers and his agony upon their relinquishment, raising the question of whether his dangerous but delightful deal was worth the grave cost.
- For discussion: Which types of knowledge are depicted as dangerous in the play? Why are they transgressive? Which types of knowledge are good or safe?
- For discussion: At the end of the play, Doctor Faustus unsuccessfully tries to avoid damnation by crying, “I’ll burn my books!” Why does he think that this is enough to avoid going to hell? What does he seem to think is his greatest sin?
- For discussion: Where else in the canon of literature and mythology can one find stories about the dangers of knowledge? How does Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus resemble those stories? How does it differ?
- For discussion: How does the theme of dangerous knowledge address the changes brought about during the Renaissance? Does this theme particularly apply to other periods of history? The present day?
The Importance of Free Will Versus Predestination: Some readers interpret Doctor Faustus as a critique of Calvinism’s predestination theology, which argues that humans are predestined for salvation or damnation and thus cannot avoid their fates. Fate and free will are always in question throughout the play as Doctor Faustus vacillates between desiring repentance—which, according to Calvinism, is outside of his control—and reaffirming his allegiance to Lucifer. Discussing the tension between free will and fate sheds light on one of the most timeless themes in literature.
- For discussion: Doctor Faustus seems to have plenty of opportunities to repent throughout the play. Why does he refuse to commit to repentance? What might Faustus’s mutability in the hands of Lucifer suggest about his capacity for free will?
- For discussion: Is Doctor Faustus responsible for his fall from grace? Why do you think so? What could he have done to avoid going to hell?
- For discussion: What do the devils of the play, all of whom were cast out of heaven, reveal about the theme of predestination versus free will?
(The entire section is 1,695 words.)