Teaching Approaches

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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?

Theme Revealed Through Character Development: In line with the form of the tragedy, Doctor Faustus focuses on the downfall of its protagonist and tragic hero, Doctor Faustus. Aside from perhaps Mephistophilis, Doctor Faustus is the play’s only complex character, and his traits, experiences, and interactions reveal some of the text’s major themes.

  • For discussion: How does Doctor Faustus’s character develop over the course of the text? What are some major turning points for him? What does he learn, and what does he fail to learn? How does he change? What themes are developed through Faustus’s choices?
  • For discussion: The Old Man who appears towards the end of the play can be read as a foil for Doctor Faustus. Compare and contrast the Old Man and Faustus in terms of physical appearance and moral fortitude. What do the contrasts between these two characters reveal about Doctor Faustus? What do they reveal about the text’s themes? 
  • For discussion: How does Mephistophilis function in the play? What information does he convey to the audience, and how does he relate to Doctor Faustus? How does Mephistophilis appeal to Faustus’s desires? To what extent is he responsible for Faustus’s downfall? 

A Study of Tragedy: Doctor Faustus is an excellent introduction to the form of the Elizabethan tragedy. The play features a tragic hero, supernatural elements, a perpetual conflict between good and evil, and a destructive conclusion. Throughout the play’s tragic arc, Marlowe intersperses comedic episodes, another feature of Elizabethan tragedies.

  • For discussion: A key characteristic of a tragic hero is the tragic flaw, or hamartia, which causes his or her downfall. What is Doctor Faustus’s tragic flaw? Why does it trigger his catastrophic fall from grace? 
  • For discussion: Tragic heroes in Elizabethan tragedies are often sympathetic, if greatly flawed, characters. Is Doctor Faustus someone to be pitied? Why or why not? Are his actions understandable? Why or why not?
  • For discussion: How does the play depict the ongoing conflict between good and evil? In the world of the play, what qualifies as good, and what qualifies as evil? Does either one prevail in the end? Why or why not?
  • For discussion: How does humor function in the play? Which scenes are humorous? What purpose(s) do such scenes serve in a tragic drama? To what extent does humor counterbalance the gravity of the play?

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • Is Doctor Faustus’s fate tragic or justified or both? Explain your reasoning.
  • What does Marlowe’s portrayal of the Pope suggest about the play’s arguments about the Roman Catholic Church? Why are these arguments relevant to the play as a whole?
  • Why does Lucifer summon personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins after Doctor Faustus agrees to turn away from God?

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching Doctor Faustus

The Play Is Written in Elizabethan Language: While the language in Doctor Faustus would have been familiar to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century audiences, students may struggle to comprehend certain words, phrases, and allusions. As a result, your class may need to unpack difficult sections in order to understand what is happening in the plot.

  • What to do: Before teaching the text, encourage students to keep a record of difficult words that arise in the text. Define and discuss these words as a class.
  • What to do: Give students a list of the major historical, philosophical, and mythological allusions that Marlowe makes in the text. Briefly explain the meaning of each allusion as it arises in the text and discuss its significance in the story.
  • What to do: Instruct students to keep an outline of plot events and characters that emerge throughout the play. Before beginning each lesson, have students review what has happened in the play so far to ensure that everyone understands what is happening.

There Are Multiple Adaptations of Doctor Faustus: Doctor Faustus was written more than four hundred years ago and is a fixture of the English literary canon. As a result, many adaptations of the play have been created in various formats, including multiple films and a movie made for television. Students may be tempted to watch a screen adaptation in lieu of reading the play.

  • What to do: Remind students that film, television, and even live theater are all different experiences from reading the play. Even if a screen adaptation recounts Doctor Faustus faithfully, reading the text will be an inherently different experience from watching it and thus cannot be replaced.
  • What to do: Point out that any adaptation of a text is built on subjective interpretations of it and cannot be a perfect reconstruction. Films and television productions are not substitutes for reading the play.

Alternative Approaches to Teaching Doctor Faustus

While the main ideas and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving Doctor Faustus, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the play.

  • Focus on women in the play. How and when do women appear in Doctor Faustus? As was common in Marlowe’s time, women were prohibited from acting onstage and were often represented in idealized or derogatory ways. Who are the women that interact with Faustus? How does he treat them? What do they seem to symbolize? What does their representation reveal about the text’s overall themes? 
  • Focus on good versus evil. The conflict between good and evil, or innocence and corruption, is continually taking place in Doctor Faustus. However, the concepts of good and evil are abstract and open to interpretation. According to the play, what qualifies as good or innocent? What qualifies as evil or corrupt? Which characters are good, and which are evil? Is there redemption from evil? Why or why not? 
  • Focus on an adaptation of the Faustian legend. Have students compare and contrast Doctor Faustus with another adaptation of the Faustian legend, which originates in Germany. Consider choosing an art form different from drama, such as music, visual art, or fiction. Consider how different aesthetic forms result in different renditions of the Faust story. 
  • Focus on the A-Text and the B-Text. The first written edition of Doctor Faustus appeared in 1604, when the A-Text was published. Almost a decade later, the B-Text edition was published with many alterations. Have students compare and contrast the A-Text and the B-Text in terms of plot development and themes.

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