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Doctor Faustus: Theme Analysis

One of the most important and prominent themes in Doctor Faustus is by far the conflict
between good and evil in the world and the human soul. Marlowe's play set the precedent for
religious works that were concerned with morals and suffering. In the play, Doctor Faustus is
frequently accompanied by two angels, one good and one evil. Both spirits try to advise him on
a course of action, with the evil one usually being more influential over his mind. These two
angels embody the internal battle that is raging inside of Faustus. On one hand, he has an
insatiable thirst for knowledge and supreme power; on the other hand, Faustus realizes that it is
folly to relinquish heavenly pleasures for fleeting mortal happiness.

Although society is accustomed to believing that good will always prevail, evil gains the upper
hand in Marlowe's play. Innocent and often devout men are tortured at Faustus's delight and
command. He partakes in many pleasures with devils and is even shown the seven deadly sins in
person. Thus, Faustus is depicted as doomed from the very beginning. Although he has
moments of contrition, he quickly shoves aside thoughts of God and turns to evil. Marlowe
attempted to express to his audience that while prayer and repentance are the paths to heaven, sin
and mortal pleasure are very hard temptations to pass over.

Lucifer's acquisition of Faustus's soul is especially delightful for him because Faustus was once a
good and devout soul. Even during his last moments on earth, Faustus curses himself for
willingly burning the scriptures and denouncing God. In Doctor Faustus, Marlowe shows the
reader that everything in the mortal world is a double-edged sword. In his never-ending quest for
knowledge, Faustus exemplifies how even scholarly life can have evil undertones when studies
are used for unholy purposes. Doctor Faustus's miserable defeat against the forces of evil within
and without enlighten the reader to beware a surfeit of anything.

A second theme in Doctor Faustus is that of greed. Like many of Marlowe's heroes, Faustus
was self-driven by greed and ambition. In this case, the Doctor tries to satiate his appetite for
knowledge and power. These heroes forget their responsibilities to God and their fellow
creatures. Instead, they attempt to hide their weak characters with a megalomaniacal insanity.
While Faustus is amused by the seven deadly sins, he does not realize that he is guilty of every
single one, namely avarice and jealousy. In effect, Marlowe presents to the reader a good soul
gone bad-a brilliant scholar who squanders his time with necromancy and is later courted by the
devil himself. Although he is frequently surrounded by powerful heads of state, beautiful women
and servile devils, Faustus is never truly happy. He tries to bury his unrest with luxury and
debauchery, to no avail. What Faustus does not realize is that he craves happiness and salvation,
not wealth and damnation. Instead, in a tragic cycle of greed and despair, Faustus sadly wallows
in riches up to the time of his miserable death.

A third important motif in the play is that of salvation through prayer. While Doctor
Faustus is an example of what happens to a wayward soul, the old man represents the devout
Christian soul. The old man begs Faustus to repent, regardless of the tortures that the devils
inflict on him for this. He clings to his faith to the very end and even Mephostophilis is wary of
harming him because of his good soul. Thus, the old man serves as a foil to Faustus's misery and

A fourth theme in Doctor Faustus is that of the tragic hero. Despite his unholy soul, Faustus
is often viewed by audiences with pity and compassion. A tragic hero is a character that the
audience sympathizes with despite his/her actions that would indicate the contrary. Faustus is
not the mere shell of a man in the play, existing only to represent the evil in the world. He is a
veritable human being with a range of emotions and thoughts. He displays pride, joy, contrition
and self-doubt quite frequently. At many times, Faustus alternately displays his cowardice and
foolish strength against the devils. Thus, Faustus's one saving grace with the audience is his
identifiable character. Although the Doctor himself does not care for humanity, many find
themselves identifying with his all too human dreams of power, knowledge and lechery.
Unfortunately, Faustus's humanity was not enough in the play to make him repent and save him
from the depths of hell.

Analysis: Writing Style

Blank Verse and Free Verse, Allegory and Soliloquy

The Verse! It's Blank!

The main plot of Doctor Faustus is written in blank verse, which is a lot less blank than it
sounds. Blank verse is the fancy pants term for unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is the fancy
pants term for… well something that's fancy in and of itself.

Iambic pentameter is a line that's made up of ten syllables in which each unstressed syllable is
followed by a stressed one. Each set of these two syllables is called a foot, and there are five of
them in each line (making for a total of ten syllables per line).

But you know what? It's easier to understand if you can see it in action, so take a look at the start
of Doctor Faustus:

Not marching now in fields of Trasimene,

Where Mars did mate the Carthaginians,

See how the unstressed and stressed syllables alternate? When you read it aloud, it sounds a little
like this: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. Got it?

The dudes in tweed talk about iambic pentameter in terms of how regular it is. Do the feet all
sound the same, or are there little variations here and there, like extra or out-of-order syllables?
Well, lucky for you Shmoopers, the iambic pentameter in Doctor Faustus is highly regular, which
makes for a nice, easy read. The words just flow.

Most of the main plot, the one featuring Faustus and Mephistopheles, is written in blank verse.
But sometimes Marlowe switches it up a bit by having characters talk in free verse, which is just
good old fashioned prose. All of the scenes with the town peasants are written in free verse.
Hmm. We wonder why that is.

Well, blank verse is often reserved by poets and playwrights for serious stuff. Prose, on the
other hand, was seen as less high falutin', and therefore it's a more fitting form for scenes
involving peasants and comedy. So Marlowe's switching back and forth between the two is
probably just his way of signaling to his audience the distinction between the important scenes
and the comedic subplot.

Alligator… Oops We Mean Allegory

Yep, we just threw another fancy term at you. But allow us to explain: an allegory is a literary
device in which abstract concepts are given concrete form as people or objects.

Still stumped? Let's take a closer look at Doctor Faustus in particular.

Doctor Faustus uses a type of allegory that was super common in medieval drama. In this type of
allegory, sins and virtues are represented by actual people. And in Doctor Faustus those people
are the Seven Deadly Sins, the Old Man, and the Good and Bad Angels, which personify
Faustus's internal debate about whether or not he's truly damned.

Stop Talking to Yourself, Dr. F


Before you say bless you and hand us a tissue, we'll give you the lowdown.

A soliloquy is just a long speech in which the character talks to himself (and the audience) about
what's going on in his head. Remember Act 1, Scene 1, when Faustus goes through all the
academic disciplines and explains his reasons for rejecting them? Yeah, that's a soliloquy.

What's interesting about this is that a soliloquy is totally a Renaissance convention. So in Doctor
Faustus, Marlowe is combining two unique techniques from two separate time periods—all in
one play. You've got the medieval allegory right next to the Renaissance soliloquy, proving that
Marlowe was quite the theatrical innovator.

Analysis What's Up With the Title?

Although we know it today by its short name—Doctor Faustus—the full title of the play when it
was first printed in 1604 was The Tragicall Historie of Doctor Faustus. Now consider the title of
the chapbook (as in, the Renaissance version of a paperback) that was Marlowe's probable source
for his play: "The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death, of Doctor Iohn Faustus."
It's a mouthful, right? It seems that the name of this story in England just kept getting shorter and
shorter as time passed, and boy are we grateful.

In any case, The Tragicall Historie of Doctor Faustus would have signaled the genre of this
play—tragedy—to its audience right off the bat. But anyone who came into the playhouse
expecting a typical Renaissance tragedy—you know, a story about the rise and fall of a king or
some other VIP, usually incorporating lots of battle scenes and a dash of romance—would have
been sorely disappointed.

No sooner has the Chorus opened its mouth than it warns us this isn't going to be that kind of
tragedy. Nope, this is the story of a lowborn man (a commoner, you might say) who became a
powerful scholar. This is a story about knowledge and learning, and how far one scholar was
willing to go for it. In fact, most of it takes place not on a battlefield or in a royal court, but in a
study. A study! Snooze.
At this point, the audience (and you, for that matter) may be feeling like they've been had. Where
are the swords? Where's the romance?

But as the play progresses, we like to think that Marlowe called this one a tragedy because
faithful viewers might reflect on how the lives of everyone—not just kings and queens, knights
and maidens—can contain elements of tragedy and high drama. Just because Faustus wasn't a
VIP doesn't mean his story isn't worth hearing.

Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus": Themes and Style

John Faustus, born in Wittenberg, was a doctor of divinity. He was born in Rhode in Germany.
His urge for power, honour and knowledge remains unsatisfied until he decides to embrace the
study of magic and necromancy. The good angel urges him not to go into this, but the bad angel
urges him on. Thus entering, he begins to command the presence of Mephistopheles - a great
servant of Lucifer. This is sealed to Lucifer through a blood compact and an invisible
Mephistopheles is to obey whatever he desires, and this will last for the next twenty - four years,
after which his (Faustus') soul will be forfeited to Lucifer.

Good and Bad Angels...

Themes Portrayed

Revival of Ancient Learning -

This is otherwise called renaissance or rebirth of knowledge and attitude, and it is characterized
by the search for knowledge. It also seeks proof of known theories and ideas. Faustus in the play
probes almost all areas of knowledge, building up on the previous attainments. Knowing that he
has already acquired knowledge, he searches for more, since knowledge is inexhaustible. Having
weighed his current ranking as a doctor of divinities, he chooses metaphysics, magic,
necromancy, circles, signs, letters, and others. As a typical renaissance man, he (Faustus) seeks to
probe the unknown God, hell and their likes, although he fails in the process.

Boundaries of Human Knowledge -

In the epilogue to the play, the chorus indicates that there are permissible limits to the search for
knowledge, especially, withing the Christian worldview. It is common knowledge that
Christianity abhors necromancy and magic, but urges men to trust God absolutely. Definitely,
Faustus does the opposite: he blasphemes God. Not satisfied with knowledge so far acquired in
divinity, he goes for more. By embracing necromancy and magic, he has surely overstepped
limits of knowledge in Christendom.

Conflict -

The play is full of conflicts, revolving around power and influence. There is conflict between
good and evil: Pope and anti - Pope and then, forces of evil and good contending on winning
Faustus' soul.

What Constitutes Standard for Good and Evil?

As earlier stated, the play is essentially the conflict of good and evil, but then, who sets the
standard with which to determine what constitutes good and evil?. Or is it just based on
imagination?. This is a moral question. The idea of being good may be seen from the point of
view of heavenly conduct, while being bad may be seen from the point of view of hell - conduct.
That is to say, on its own, nothing is ordinarily good or bad but the purpose to which it tends

The Status of the Soul -

From the birth of Jesus till now, the status of the soul has continued to be incomprehensible to
man. Soul is seen by many as an essence, the consciousness, the thinking part, the mind of a
living human being. At death, the body decays while the soul returns to the maker. The anguish
and anxiety Faustus faces, makes him know that the soul is peculiar to human beings, hence, he
wishes mortality for himself instead of immortality because mortality will spare him the agonies,
torture and torment that awaits him in hell, as he is surely hell - bound.

Reality or Otherwise of Heaven and Hell -

The play impresses on the reader that not much is known, concerning heaven or hell, hence,
there is no proof of their existence or non - existence. It is simply the figment of human
imagination. Others see it as the creation of the priestly class, hence, it was adopted by the
Christian religion in the Middle Ages. However, the idea of heaven or hell encourages morality
and good conduct and deters deviant behaviors, as good conduct guarantees eternal bliss in
heaven while evil conduct will land the practitioner in hell which is synonymous with pains,
pangs and gnashing of teeth.

Who is a Real Christian?

In this play, there are two variants of Christianity. The first one is the Roman catholic
Christianity which bases qualification for heaven on good works; hence, salvation they say is
based on good works. The other variant, equally focusing on salvation, says it is by faith alone,
not works. Faustus exposes these two variants of Christianity, not believing in any of them. He
rather seeks proof through experience, hence, he embraces necromancy and magic. In other
words, he places Christian religion on the scale of time. Against this background, we see that
Pope Adrian is not a true Christian. He is simply in quest of power and materialism as revealed
in his relationship with Bruno - who is a Pope elected by the German Emperor.

When Faustus disturbs the Pope, instead of offering prayers to change him, as Jesus would have
done, he rains curses on him, which is akin to the Mosaic Law of an eye for an eye. Faustus,
though an ally to Lucifer, is still a Christian. At least, when Lucifer torments him, he calls on
Christ. Now, between Pope Adrian and Faustus, who is a real Christian? None. Whereas, Pope
Adrian uses his tools of office to curse, Faustus uses his books for magic and necromancy.

The only true Christian in the play is the Old Man who continuously persuades Faustus to
discard his books of magic and necromancy and repent. Even Mephistopheles acknowledges that
the Old Man is a true Christian, after trying in vain to torment him the instance of Faustus.

Inordinate Ambition -

It is inordinate ambition that ruins Faustus and it is the same tendency that makes the forces of
good and evil to contend on winning his soul. He is, by all standards, a very learned man, and is
even so acclaimed, being a doctor of divinities. Then, why is he in this restless quest for
knowledge, even at the expense of his soul? Food for thought you may say.

Necromancy and Magic


The style of writing used by Christopher Marlowe in this play is seen in some of the literary
devices explained as follows:
Moral Teaching -

A morality play is a type of Medieval drama using allegorical characters. The theme of a
morality play is good conduct. They are also didactic - there must be a lesson to learn based on
morality or ethical conduct. In the case of Doctor Faustus, among the numerous lessons it
teaches, is that there is danger in greed or over - ambition.

Satire -

So many of the characters in the play, even Pope Adrian, with all his holiness, are held to
ridicule. Faustus, with all his learning is driven to perdition by ambition to know beyond what he
should. Thus, the play satirizes both the church, with Pope Adrian as the arrow - head, as well as
the individual, symbolized by Faustus.

Contrast -

The author uses contrast by pairing characters of contrasting dispositions: The good and bad
angel. Other pairings noticed are the descent and ascent of the thrown of heaven and the
discovery of hell; tone of approval and disapproval (whereas the Old Man receives approval.
Pope Adrian receives disapproval).

Sombre Atmosphere -

The mood or atmosphere in the play is sombre - dark and gloomy, occasioned by the activities of
weird spirits as well as the adoption of necromancy and magic with the attendant conjuring and

Other Devices Used

Other literary devices used in the play include prologue and epilogue; chorus; classical; biblical,
contemporary allusions; comic belief; simile and metaphor; euphemism; metonymy; flashback;
imagery; assonance and alliteration; blank verse; personification; soliloquy; hyperbole;
pantomime; etc.