Topics for Further Study
Characters who sell their souls to the devil are a common plot device in stories such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," novels like William Faulkner's "The Hamlet," and movies from Rosemary's Baby to Angel Heart. Compare and contrast the themes raised by these works with themes from Marlowe's play. Despite similar plot element, the significance of these stories differs. What do those different stories say about the societies which produced them?
Anyone who has spent time with children knows one reason they get into mischief is because of what might be called their natural curiosity. Some thinkers believe curiosity forms the basis of our humanity. What is it that makes people wonder and want to know more? In Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the desire for knowledge fails to produce happiness. Do you believe that limits should be placed on the pursuit of knowledge? Are there some things people were not meant to know? The Angels and Chorus in Marlowe's play seem to think so—do you? You might study the issues surrounding free speech and censorship, or controversial scientific research, exploring what kinds of things society believes should and should not be thought and communicated.
Most readers of Marlowe's play feel that Doctor Faustus wastes a wonderful opportunity. We condemn his selling his soul to the devil, of course, but we also condemn the fact that he fails to make significant use of his infinite power. If you had Faustus's power, what would you do?
Ethicists examine the rights and wrongs of human behavior. One question that comes up relates to goals (ends) and the actions necessary to accomplish them (means). For example, stealing is wrong, but do we condemn stealing from the rich to feed the poor, as Robin Hood did? Wounding someone is wrong, but surgeons "wound" people every day in efforts to heal them. In both these cases, we might be tempted to say the ends justify the means. If you could do infinite good for all the world, would you sell your soul to the devil? Before you answer, read the works of several ethical philosophers. They may help you answer, or they may make your answer even more difficult.