Doctor Faustus Themes

The main themes in Doctor Faustus are the folly of ambition, true versus illusive power, and good versus evil.

  • The folly of ambition: Faustus's initially grand aims quickly give way to pranks and entertainments, showing the folly of his desire to reach for power beyond human limitations.
  • True versus illusive power: Faustus's power is not truly his own but rather that of Mephistophilis, who is subservient to Lucifer, who is in turn constrained by God.
  • Good versus evil: Faustus at first chooses the side of evil in his attainment of ungodly magic, but he later decides to repent, only to be easily swayed towards evil again.

Themes

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Last Reviewed on May 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1189

The Folly of Ambition

From the very outset, Faustus is unsatisfied with traditional areas of study, believing that he is destined for far greater accomplishments than the mastery of normal subjects can prepare him for. It is for this reason that he is attracted to the magical arts, which he knows can grant him powers far beyond those of even kings. But as Faustus’s true motivations become clearer, it is evident that he desires powers far beyond the limits of human life. As the action of the play builds, Faustus’s ambition clashes rather pointedly against his actual behavior, and this leads him to failure.

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By setting Faustus’s goals as high as he does (diverting the Rhine, redefining the political borders of Europe, commanding the secret knowledge of the cosmos, etc.), Marlowe effectively predetermines the trajectory of Faustus’s arc. With such lofty ambitions, there is only one way for Faustus to go: downward. This also relegates Faustus’s highest ambitions to the purely theoretical realm. These ambitions prompt Faustus to go through with his deal with Lucifer. From the moment his wielding of infernal power becomes real and not theoretical, his actions seem mediocre.

It is a very human failing to be paralyzed in the face of an utterly inexhaustible set of options. In this way the true potential of Mephistophilis’s power, in the hands of Faustus, is never even remotely realized. Instead, Faustus exhausts his more impressive feats off-stage and in the space of a few lines of exposition and then sets his sights almost humorously low.

It is not hard to imagine Faustus experiencing a certain amount of fraudulence in the performance of his feats. This may be one reason for his altercation with the Knight. His reputation, his abilities, and his actions, are almost completely accomplished at the hand of Mephistophilis. Indeed, by seeking powers beyond that which humans can attain, Faustus gets precisely what he asks for: powers he cannot actually claim as his own. This is part of the lesson of his tragedy. Like Icarus, Faustus reaches for powers beyond his grasp and ultimately falls. Faced with the certainty of torment and death, Faustus finds himself precisely where he began but with his ambitions now reversed. Having gained little for the sale of his soul, he is ironically willing to give it all up again, merely for a chance at a bit more life.

True Versus Illusive Power 

Although Faustus does influence most of the action in the play through his desires and choices, almost none of his actual deeds are performed by him. From the first, Faustus’s summoning of Mephistophilis is undercut as an achievement when Mephistophilis admits that he only appeared because he had a good chance of collecting Faustus’s soul. From this point on, Faustus wields virtually no power of his own. 

It is not only Faustus, however, who has the mere illusion of power. Mephistophilis himself admits that he can do nothing without the consent of Lucifer. His power, like Faustus’s, really stems from another source. Furthermore, the limits of Mephistophilis’s abilites are shown early on when he proves incapable of fulfilling certain basic requests of Faustus’s, such as for a wife or for information about who created the universe. Furthermore, the summoning of heroic and mythological characters as specters suggests that the power Mephistophilis controls is but a convincing illusion.

The same is true for Lucifer himself. While often considered a counterpoint to God, Lucifer is subordinate to God’s will and incapable of rising to the greatness of creation. Having only come into control of infernal powers for a short time, Faustus complains that the true splendor of the heavens is inaccessible—and this is because these divine things are off-limits to Lucifer. Even hell itself exists only in God’s absence, and this absence causes tremendous suffering even in Lucifer. It is arguable, then, that Lucifer’s power is lesser than that afforded to a human who is in God’s good graces. This is why, for example, Mephistophilis could harm the Old Man’s flesh but not his soul. Furthermore, the power of Mephistophilis seems to be summonable by anyone (literate or not) who can pick up the appropriate book. The “powers” of hell, in this regard, are no greater than those wielded by drunks, clowns, and servants. All of these facts suggest that, in the world of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the only true power wielded by anyone in the play is that of God.

Good Versus Evil

Faustus’s damnation occurs because of his choice to favor his potential for evil over his potential for good. This is the basis on which Marlowe employs the Good Angel and the Evil Angel, as they both represent dual and oppositional aspects of Faustus’s own personality. But Marlowe takes pains to present this fundamental duality in a number of more subtle ways throughout the play. 

The next most obvious example is perhaps that of Lucifer. Through descriptions of Lucifer, as well as from the one interaction between him and Faustus, we see that Lucifer’s evil is human in its nature. While it is true that Lucifer is the lord of sin, Mephistophilis suggests that Lucifer’s primary motivation for collecting souls is to gain company and therefore comfort from torment. As a former angel, he is also a force with the potential to do good and who is now pained and furious for want of the love of God. If we consider Lucifer as a tragic hero in the same vein as Faustus, then we may see Marlowe taking a somewhat sympathetic view towards the devil.

Another clever method by which Marlowe presents this fundamental duality is through the employment of Comedy within the context of Tragedy. Godliness, ostensibly the most benevolent force in existence, is barely portrayed in the play, and is shown perhaps most strongly by the courageous way in which the Old Man meets his tragic end. Conversely, the most vile and terrible forces—those of hell—are the source of nearly every humorous moment in the play. From an absurd floorshow of sin, put on by Lucifer himself just to distract a human from prayer, to the vulgar and low-brow behavior of the various secondary characters (Robin, Rafe, Wagner, the Clown, the Horse Courser, etc.), Marlowe spares no effort in creating humor from evil. And this depiction of sin, hell, demons, and Lucifer as primarily funny bears significant thematic weight. In particular, it is Faustus’s failure to take seriously the nature of sin and hell that causes the tension of the play. This is also the means by which Marlowe builds to Faustus’s tragic end, which is particularly powerful and grim. Marlowe continually defies expectation, crafting scenes in which the audience actually delights in the devils and sinners on the stage. Like Faustus, the audience is influenced to perceive the gravity of sin less seriously. The play’s prevalence of humor amid torment is precisely what makes the sudden absence of humor in Faustus’s final moments so compelling.

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