Dr. Faustus by Khue Tran


Christopher Marlowe was born in 1564, a year that also happens to correspond with the birth of William Shakespeare. Raised in Canterbury, Marlowe was the oldest son of his family and graduated in 1571 from Corpus Christi College while on a scholarship, and also attended Cambridge. Marlowe himself stirred up as much controversy as his plays later would - he was incarcerated as a suspect in another bar brawl where his opponent died, though later released on the ruling that it had been in self-defense. A colorful character, he could be seen frequenting the bars with flamboyant costumes and an equally loud personality.

Inconsistencies in his lifestyle at the time, however, have also led later scholars to speculate that Marlowe was a spy for the government. Expenses exceeding that of what he received from his scholarship, and Cambridge's initial resistance to awarding him his MA due to a trip to France all contribute to the hypothesis. The intervention of the Privy Council, the Queen's advisors, allowed him to be awarded his degree with the official report being that the trip was for the benefit of Her Majesty. After moving to London, he became the playwright for a theater troupe known as The Admiral’s Men, led by the notable Edward Alleyn.

He had a great success with several of his plays, but was often ostracized by some others for either his writing or his religious slant – Marlowe was a well-known suspected atheist in these times. However, he was also the close friend of characters such as Sir Walter Raleigh, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite suitors, as well as the roommate of another influential writer of the times, Thomas Kyd. Unfortunately, a manuscript attributed to Kyd would lead to Marlowe’s own tragic end. Littered with atheism, Kyd would be arrested because of it and tortured to the point where he would point the finger at Marlowe as the script’s original writer. Just after the orders for his arrest were issued, though, Marlowe would be killed in what was seemingly a bar brawl, stabbed in a tavern. The details here, however, are sketchy at best; some suspect that perhaps his death was deliberate, either to prevent him from meeting his end in the prisons, or as retaliation for the opinions expressed in his works.

One of the plays that propelled him to fame is Doctor Faustus, one of the first plays to make full use of blank verse. The play is perhaps influenced by Francis Kett while he was at college. Kett was a heretic who taught at Corpus Christi, and later burned for his outspoken ways. [more] It is the oldest known dramatization of a much older German legend of Faust, a scholar who gives his soul to the Devil in exchange for unrestricted power and knowledge; distributed throughout Europe as The English Faust Book, it was likely the inspiration for Marlowe to write the play later on - little else is known about his motivation to write the play.


The play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, opens with the Chorus' narration of Faustus' life to the present day. He was born to parents who were lowly in society, with a deep-seated longing for knowledge. Unsure of what branch of learning to pursue, he considers the merits of each out loud, wondering if perhaps he might be a physician, to be remembered for a cure, before settling upon magic as his final course - when he makes his decision, the famed magicians of old, Cornelius Agrippa and Valdes, appear to him, pledging their aid to assist him. The scholars at Faustus' college fear his descent into the dark arts, but there is little they can do.

Meanwhile, Faustus has drawn a circle upon the floor, calling forth the devil Mephistophilis. As soon as the devil is conjured, he demands of him knowledge about Hell and its inhabitants, and how the realm came about in the first place. However, Mephistophilis first has one condition - Faustus must sign away his soul to Lucifer, and in return he will receive twenty-four years of unlimited knowledge and Mephistophilis' service. When he moves to sign it, however, his blood congeals, as though his body wishes to prevent him from going through with the contract. Eventually, he signs it without regret.

Faustus' inner angels appear, however, one evil, one good, each with their own agenda to persuade Faustus to their side. The good angel begs Faustus to give up his contract with the devil, to find redemption before he heads too far down this path, but the evil angel claims the good angel lies - there is no hope left for him, so there is no point in turning back now, not when such wonders lie ahead of him. Faustus shows some regret, but despite the urgings of the good angel, heeds the evil angel instead.

He now requests of Mephistophilis the secrets of the heavens, wishing to know their true nature; before him parades the Seven Deadly Sins, in their true natures. One of Faustus' uses of his newfound powers is to amuse himself with the Pope, becoming invisible to pull pranks upon him such as disturbing the dishes at the table and boxing the Pope about the ears. He later entertains the Emperor, using his powers to fulfill requests. However, throughout this, Faustus is lonely - he longs for a companion, a woman. He pulls one of his last tricks on a man by selling him a horse that must never be ridden in water; however, the man discovers that when he does just that, the horse is a false apparition, and Faustus' offer was a hoax. As he nears the end, he begins to despair and his colleagues wish to save him, but there is nothing more they can do. He reaffirms his vow one last time, and upon the final night, Lucifer comes to claim his soul.


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Doctor Faustus has a number of themes running through it, mostly found in religion as well as the clashes when science and religion come head to head. For one, there is the overall duality of human nature, echoing that found in The Mysterious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. While less direct, the good and bad angels are the classic image of what we know today as the angel and devil upon your shoulders; each whispers in your ear, but which is the voice that you will listen to? Despite Faustus’ decision, he finds himself combating both angels, sometimes tempted to redemption by the good angel, while the evil angel claims that there is no going back from here on.

This theme of duality also traces further back to a much simpler theme of literature, the concept of good versus evil. These are often relative to religion, as they are here; good is represented by Heaven and God's presence, as well as the good angel. It is redemption, and encompasses compassion and mercy - virtues dictated by the Church and the Bible. The beauty of the heavens, of the stars, almost causes him to revoke his contract to Satan. The good angel's presence represents the capacity of all to do good.

Evil, on the other hand, is alluring, tempting with knowledge and power that comes at a price - one's soul. The Devil Mephistophilis, Satan, and the fallen angel Lucifer all serve to represent the darker side. The Seven Deadly Sins also make an appearance, representing the intrinsic flaws of human nature as the ever looming blades of the guillotine, should a human give in to any singular sin. Just as there is good within everyone, there is also evil within all.Lucifer is more than a symbol of the evil that Faustus yields to, however - he is the very parallel and doppelganger of Faustus. The most perfect of any creature formed by God's hands, he is also initially the most favored of his angels, endowed with wisdom and beauty beyond compare. Despite all of this, he falls from grace with his desire to have his own kingdom, and carry out his own will, just as Faustus gives up heaven to control his own destiny and gain his own knowledge.

While in the end Faustus falls prey to evil at the end of his contract with Satan, the possibility of redemption is never out of his reach. The good angel is a constant presence, and not only that, Faustus himself is human and therefore in possession of deep regret and a longing to make good on his mistakes. Dr. Faustus is somewhat contradictory in several natures in this case; while Marlowe's skepticism regarding the religion of Christianity is clear, he also leaves the possibility of Faustus' redemption as an option up until the very end. Faustus is left to decide his own fate: along the way there are checkpoints where Faustus is urged to take the right path, the path that all men of good heart should take. Faustus does waver; the sight of the night sky causes him to falter in his decision, cursing himself for going down the thorny path to pursue twenty-four years of Satan's power and Mephistophilis' servitude. In the end, despite the dismay and despair of his colleagues for his welfare, he must pay the price with his soul, never to be in the good graces of Heaven again. The decision is ultimately that of humans to make, and not the decision of God.However, he chooses not to, and this is another theme known as the Faustian Concept. This is the scholar's search for the power of hidden knowledge, for the answers to questions such as those befitting the omniscience of God or other higher beings. Faustus wishes to have that same information, to make use of it for his own ends and to satisfy his own curiosity. For all scientists, this is true to at least some extent; however, Faustus pushes that thin line between what science should or should not do to alter the course of nature as it is. There are certain moral limitations to science, but that line varies from person to person. Perhaps in some cases this is perfectly fine and acceptable, but that line crosses and refracts with every generational gap, every cultural rift. And in some cases, that line is painted by nature itself, slowly returning to create equilibrium once more in its own subtle way, such as when Faustus' blood congeals - a forewarning that the contract he is about to sign may not be all the glory it appears to be.


Doctor Faustus is deeply tied to the central theme of science and profit as well, where Faustus' entire journey is based around this concept. Faustus is of low birth in society, something that may lend itself to his desire for fame and fortune. In fact, he specifically cites pursuing science and chemistry as a means to a sort of immortality in the annals of history, with a cure credited to his name. More than just that, Faustus chooses not the branch of medicine that he considered, but he instead heads down the path of higher knowledge - he is purely out to satisfy himself in this case.

These are darker arts - arts specifically tied with gaining knowledge and power beyond belief, and beyond what nature had originally intended. In addition to all this, Faustus does indeed agree to sign his soul away with little preamble - the only hesitance comes from within his own body, as the blood ceases to flow for him to sign a contract to Satan. While Faustus does consider the path of redemption along the way, he also only considers it because it might be a benefit to himself - if heaven were made for man, then it was made for Faustus as well, he reasons, and this is a key point that displays just how deep Faustus' greed runs. Towards the end of his contract he does begin to despair and fear, but that is only before the arrival of the finale; prior to that, he enjoys all the benefits that come with being a part of that contract as well. In Doctor Faustus, profit is portrayed in the role of the villain, and is inexorably linked with science throughout the play.


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